Not Just Infantry with Tanks: Who We Should Be and Why the Army Needs Us to Be It

Slide 1
Figure 1. Defining the branch as “just like the infantry, but tanks” is not only unsatisfying, but it is inaccurate. If we are just like the infantry other than our association with the tank, what happens when the tank is obsolete? By accepting this definition by association, we consent to, and indeed endorse, a role as a secondary branch.

Our branch has a problem. Twelve years of primarily low-intensity war has led us down a path where we have forgotten who we are and why the Army needs us to be ourselves. We have completed the mission we were required to do and filled the role the Army required of us, but is that the role the Army needs us to fill in the future? Ask 10 armor/cavalry leaders to define our branch and you’ll get 10 different answers. How can we, and why should we, remain a viable part of the force if we cannot even describe who we are?

I found this out firsthand at U.S. Military Academy (USMA) two years ago. I was sent there for Branch Week to inform cadets about our branch and assist in their branching decision. To me, regardless of the stated intent, these events are sales pitches. Each cohort is vying for attention and trying to get cadets to choose their branch. With an Abrams, a Stryker and TV blaring Corb Lund’s “I Want to Be in the Cavalry,” we had no problem getting the cadets’ attention, but once they were there, what were we supposed to tell them? I heard a lot of – and probably said myself – “we’re just like the infantry, but with tanks” or “we are the recon guys.” These statements, while not wholly untrue, do not define who we are.

The first definition, “just like the infantry, but with tanks,” is completely unsatisfying. If we are just like the infantry other than our association with the tank, what happens when the tank is obsolete? By accepting this definition by association, we consent to, and indeed endorse, a role as a secondary branch. If you want to be infantry but don’t make it, go armor/cavalry. Also, if this is all we are, why not simply make a maneuver branch by combining armor/cavalry and infantry?

The second definition, “the recon guys,” is simply illogical. While we can and should be the proponent for these types of operations, defining ourselves by them is as illogical as being “the security guys” or “the urban operations guys.” Doctrinally, reconnaissance is a tactical enabling task, just like security and urban operations; it is a vital part of any operation conducted by any force. We may be the proponent because we are the best at it, but we cannot exist to do only that.

As military professionals, we inherently understand the value of a mission statement. It guides our operations and the maintenance of unity of effort. A strong definition of our branch will serve as a mission statement, giving us that same direction and unity. It is important to ensure we have a clear vision of who we are and how we fit into the Army to ensure we can guide all our efforts to support that vision.

Since the definitions described above, and many others that are regularly thrown around, are inadequate, we need to establish a definition that truly describes who we are as a branch, what we value and what we bring to the Army team that is different from every other branch. Adopting a refined definition that can be widely accepted will ensure our relevance and help us continue to be an integral part of the force for many years to come.

Proposed definition

We are mounted maneuverists, specializing in maneuver operations defined by big spaces, long distances and overwhelming firepower. We use a variety of platforms and weapons systems to fight for information, find the enemy, engage and destroy him, exploit our success – and the success of others – and protect friendly formations from the same. We value flexible leaders who can think quickly, understand large swaths of the battlefield without directly observing it and lead in a highly decentralized fashion.

This definition is imperfect, but most would agree with the basic tenants of it if it were used to define “tanker,” “heavy cavalry,” “Stryker cavalry” or “light cavalry.” The key is that it defines us as a branch by our culture, values and capabilities, not by our equipment or how we differ from the infantry. Words have meaning, so the next few paragraphs will break down the proposed definition and explain what it really means and what its limitations are.

The term mounted maneuverists is probably not the right one, but I have been unable to find a better alternative. Not only is maneuverist not actually a word, but mounted implies a devaluation of dismounted operations. The purpose is to include all maneuver operations that have specific characteristics and all leaders who hold certain standards under the cavalry umbrella, so we probably need to find a better term.

We start to hone in on our branch’s way of thinking by specializing in maneuver operations defined by big spaces, long distances and overwhelming firepower. We frame our problems with mapsheets instead of grid squares. While we absolutely must train and structure ourselves to conduct all forms of maneuver operations across the entire spectrum of conflict, we look at these problems in a novel way, focused on rapid maneuver over large areas using devastating firepower.

We use a variety of platforms and weapons systems. Cavalry leaders must be flexible and agile enough to not only handle the huge areas of operation (AOs) and firepower they are likely to be assigned, but to do so using any platform the Army may offer. Our leaders will be assigned to units organized around tanks, Bradleys, Strykers, humvees and dismounted teams. The key is that we are always expected to take on large AOs and operate in a decentralized fashion. It does not matter what organization we lead, we will plan and conduct similar operations in a similar fashion.

Cavalry organizations fight for information, find the enemy, engage and destroy him, exploit our success – and the success of others – and protect friendly formations from the same. While this list is certainly not all-inclusive, it covers the basic tasks a force described by the proposed definition is best suited to accomplish as part of a combined-arms team. These tasks are also non-doctrinal because they focus on themes in warfare that have existed for a long time and are likely to retain their relevance long after the current doctrinal words go out of vogue.

We value flexible leaders who can think quickly, understand large swaths of the battlefield without directly observing it and lead in a highly decentralized fashion. This statement is a natural outgrowth of the way of conducting operations described in the previous paragraphs. If our formations are focused on operating in large areas using a variety of platforms to conduct a diversity of tasks, our leaders will be required to display these characteristics. Our leaders must have tactical and operational vision so they can understand situations they cannot personally see, based solely on their subordinates’ reports; can direct tactical actions based on that understanding; and can report the situation clearly to their higher headquarters. Operating in this fashion requires decentralized leadership. Our sergeants will have primary responsibility for tanks or teams widely separated from their leadership. We must trust these young leaders and empower them through intent-based guidance, or our operations will fail. This is not intended to devalue other leadership attributes, but we must differentiate what our leaders need to be able to do that may not be as valuable in other branches.

Even if this definition is unsatisfying, incomplete or even incorrect, the key is to positively and clearly define ourselves. Who are we? What do we do? What do we value as a group? These questions must be addressed, and they cannot be answered by why we are different from other branches, what platforms we use or at which doctrinal tasks we excel.

Impacts of adopting this definition

When we formally adopt a definition of who the branch is, there will be impacts. If there are not, we probably haven’t done it correctly. So let us assume that the definition proposed above is adopted wholeheartedly by the entire cavalry community and is instantly translated into doctrine, mission statements, etc. – what impacts could happen within the force?

Our recruiting and officer-accessions efforts may not increase quantitatively (the numbers we accept are controlled by factors largely outside our control and are completely independent from our internal culture) but should increase qualitatively. The people, both officer and enlisted, choosing our branch should have a clearer understanding of what culture they are joining. Those cadets at USMA, to whom I struggled to explain our branch, will receive a clear and concise picture of what our branch is and what type of leader they will be expected to be. That does not mean they will be able to practically relate to it (almost all their training and exposure is, by necessity, light-infantry based), but they should be able to perceive if our culture is a good fit for them personally.

Our retention and evaluations criteria should change to reflect the attributes we value as an organization. If a smart, fit and generally good officer or noncommissioned officer (NCO) has not displayed the ability to lead and operate in a manner consistent with our values and methods of operation – and does not show the ability to adapt – that officer or NCO should be encouraged, through retention and evaluation efforts, to find another place where his talents are better suited. This is a harsh stance in our current environment, as levers to change the military-occupational specialties or branch of an individual are not plentiful, and poor evaluations could be career-ending. But if someone does not have what it takes to be a cavalry leader, it is irresponsible to let him continue as one.

Our schoolhouses have, as they should, led the charge in refining our definition of ourselves, but without community-wide recognition and acceptance of the definition, they can only do so much. The adoption of a refined definition will affect training and schooling processes and focuses in more ways than can possibly be listed here, but the general focus of our courses and our training pipelines may need adjustment (minor in some cases and major in others) to be in line with a refined definition.

For example, our officer-training pipeline up to the captain level may need some refinement. The Armor Basic Officer Leadership Course (ABOLC) seems pretty well in line with the proposed definition already, as do certain specialty schools such as Army Reconnaissance Course and Cavalry Leader’s Course. The proposed definition also does not devalue skills courses – such as airborne, air assault, Pathfinder and Ranger schools – as long as they are used to develop beneficial tactical and leadership skills and are not requirements to create strong cavalry leaders. However, the combination of the armor and infantry captain’s career course into the Maneuver Captain’s Career Course (MCCC) may need to be re-examined. If we define our way of thinking as fundamentally different from the way an infantry officer needs to think, the junior-captain level may be too early to start training our officers in the same fashion.

Finally, we need to rename ourselves. The very name armor/cavalry shows everyone that we do not know who we are. You may note that throughout this article, I used armor/cavalry to describe our confusion or highlight our faults, and I used the term cavalry when describing who we should be. That was an intentional way of highlighting the difference between a concise and clear definition and a confusing and convoluted one. Whole articles can be, and hopefully will be, dedicated to this topic (such as “Cavalry Branch: a Redesignation for the 21st Century,” ARMOR, January-February 2014), but the proposed definition best describes the role of cavalry throughout history. Just because we do not use horses anymore doesn’t mean our role in the current force is really different from the cavalry of Alexander the Great at Gaugamela or Wellington at Waterloo. The platforms and tactics may have changed, but the values, culture and tenets have not.

Does the Army still need us to be this way?

As we strive to define ourselves, the question of relevance should always be asked. If we define ourselves in this way, are we relevant to the current and future Army? If the answer is no or maybe, we should probably keep working. If the answer is yes, we should ask if the definition truly works. Once we come up with a definition of ourselves that provides the Army with a relevant actor on the current battlefield and on potential future battlefields – and accurately reflects our culture, values and history – we should work to implement it.

We’ve already discussed how the proposed definition accurately reflects who we are, and it meets the relevancy requirement through one main point. It promotes diversity in thinking tactically through problems. If we look at maneuver and tactics through a different lens than our infantry counterparts, there will always be at least two different approaches to solving problems. The infantry way may be more appropriate in certain circumstances and will likely dominate the current battlefield. However, there are certainly circumstances in which the cavalry tactical approach – focusing on flexible solutions, covering large geographic spaces and using overwhelming firepower – will be more suitable.

Differentiating two ways of thinking about maneuver also creates senior leaders who look at operations and strategy differently. Our mental framework for considering problems is formed during our earliest exposure and is typically only adjusted in a slow and incremental fashion thereafter. A young leader indoctrinated into the cavalry way of thinking about maneuver as a young lieutenant, captain, sergeant or staff sergeant will likely carry that thought process into his brigade or division command or command sergeant major position. This ensures the Army has formations that look at and solve problems through novel methods instead of through the narrow range of possibilities caused by canalizing thought processes into a single culture.


If we can agree that there is an identity problem within the branch, that the current definitions are inadequate and that the one presented above is both precise and relevant, what next? How do we implement this culture shift and make it stick?

First, accept the definition and widely propagate it. Both the officer and NCO leadership within the armor/cavalry community must come together and distill an accurate and relevant definition of what our branch should be. Perhaps it is the one proposed here. Maybe it is one of the two dismissed in the introduction. Whatever is selected, the definition must be provided to the force and included in our doctrine, publications, briefings and anyplace where cavalry operations are discussed.

Recruiting and accessions were discussed earlier as an impact of the change, but to institutionalize the new definition, we must alter our recruiting and accessions efforts. These efforts must target people who think like cavalry leaders early on and get them to join our ranks. This is not easy and will never be perfect, but wherever a contribution to the system can be made, focus should be placed on getting individuals with the right mindset into our branch.

As an example, the USMA “talent-based cadet-branching model” allows branches to input their targeted attributes. How closely a cadet mirrors those qualities is part of the formula for which branch the cadet should join. When I went to USMA for Branch Week, I was given a PowerPoint slide that said what cadet traits Armor/Cavalry Branch valued. Physical fitness topped the list. While physical fitness is certainly important, one could make an argument that other attributes (flexibility, adaptability, ability to work in ambiguous situations, tactical and operational vision, ability to delegate and lead through intent and guidance, etc.) would be more applicable to the definition proposed.

Another key to implementation is to ensure the appropriate people are retained and evaluated properly. This was also covered earlier, but the key to implementation is to ensure that all leaders who are evaluating cavalrymen understand what values and qualities they should be espousing. For example, there is a widespread belief that some leaders will evaluate officers differently based on Ranger qualification. If cavalry does not place heavy emphasis on that type of qualification, it should not dramatically change how those officers are evaluated, regardless of the formation in which they may be serving. As a branch, we must protect and promote leaders who are leading and succeeding in a manner consistent with our standards and censure those who unfairly evaluate and retain based on values, characteristics and qualifications that are not as important in our culture.

Full implementation will require changes to our schooling and training pipelines, but as the key points were covered effectively in a previous section, they will not be restated here.

To remain a relevant part of the force, we must ensure that our leaders, fully indoctrinated into the cavalry way of thinking, are given opportunities to lead at every level. We are numerically about one third of the maneuver force (Armor Branch and Infantry Branch), so we should have about one-third of all battalion commanders and command sergeants major and about one-third of all brigade commanders and command sergeants major. While we seem to be doing well here, the “immaterial” nature of these positions has the potential to – and there are some indications it already is – slide toward an infantry majority. There are many ways to address this problem, and some would argue that it is not really a problem, but it merits study and consideration.

Finally, the key to all these implementation efforts will be a clear and widely distributed understanding of what cavalry leaders and formations can and should be doing. In the current operating environment, our cavalry squadrons are more often used as small rifle battalions than for the missions they were designed for and intended to accomplish. Those squadrons get the job done and do what they are required to do, but along the way, parts of their identity, role and purpose are being lost. As we move away from Afghanistan and Iraq, it is time to re-educate leaders of all branches on cavalry roles and responsibilities. Continuing to treat cavalry squadrons like small rifle battalions is just as incorrect as continuing to use the fires battalions in that fashion.


After a dozen years of war that often required us to think and act in a manner not directly in line with our culture and role in the Army, we have a reduced understanding of who we are and what we should be doing. It is critical that our leadership refine the definition of our force to ensure it is both correct and relevant and clearly distinguishes us, in a positive manner, from other branches. The definition proposed here is but one of many possibilities, but we need to pick a side and run with it or face the slow and continual loss of our identity.

There are many among us who agree we have an identity problem but address it in a completely different light. The authors of “Ideas on Cavalry” (ARMOR, October-December 2013) and “Keeping the Sabers Sharp: Maintaining Relevance in the Modern Era” (ARMOR, November-December 2012) are good examples of this. Their articles provide telling counterpoints to the ones given here, and all points of view should be taken into consideration. The key is to define ourselves.

We are fundamentally different from the infantry. We were conceived and designed in a fashion, consistent with history, which provides the Army with a different view on maneuver and tactics. The very nature of our operations causes us to think, act and lead in a broad and decentralized manner.

We are cavalrymen. Our history is as long as that of warfare itself. Just because we do not ride horses anymore, and we have done our part during the last 12 years of war, doesn’t mean the essence of who we are as a force and why we are relevant to the future has changed.