Cavalry: the Mounted Arm of Maneuver

With the demise of the horse as a primary instrument of war, there has been a great deal of confusion regarding the proper role of cavalry in the post-horse era. Unlike the Germans, who discarded the term entirely except to denote organizations actually mounted on horses, the U.S. Army chose to retain it as a designation for units dedicated to what were considered as “traditional” cavalry missions. While the intentions behind this decision were laudable – perpetuating the traditions and lineage of the cavalry – in a practical sense, there was no sound conceptual basis provided for its retention.

This is not to say one doesn’t exist. In fact, over the past 74 years, wartime experience indicates that “cavalry” rather than “armor” provides a more accurate characterization of the scope and functions of the mounted-maneuver arm of service. Unfortunately, with the creation of the armored force in 1940 and the assumption of “armor” and “armored (mechanized) infantry” as the primary instruments of mounted maneuver, cavalry has been marginalized as a reconnaissance-centric asset. The result has been a bifurcation of mounted-warfare development that has muddied the doctrinal waters for more than seven decades. Even the adoption of the armored cavalry regiment (ACR) – which represents the Army’s closest approach to recognizing the true legacy and purpose of modern cavalry – failed to resolve the issue.

It is time to bring clarity to the discussion of what constitutes “cavalry” in the U.S. Army to introduce coherency into our doctrine, training, force structure and operational philosophy. This article will attempt to resolve this confusion by making the following observations/recommendations:

  • View cavalry units as mounted general-purpose combat formations; organize and train cavalry units to execute the full spectrum of mounted operations.
  • Recognize the fundamental differences between mounted and dismounted maneuver by refocusing the training, organization and operational philosophy of infantry and armor/cavalry toward their respective operational functions (i.e., dismounted and mounted combat).
  • Reverse the precedence of branch designation between armor and cavalry and flag all mounted-maneuver formations as cavalry.

These recommendations provide a commonsense approach and long-overdue rationalization of the mounted-warfare branch while allowing the Infantry Branch to focus on its core function: dismounted maneuver.

Cavalry’s true legacy

It could be argued that horse cavalry reached the apogee of its development during the American Civil War. The Union and Confederate armies, unfettered by the traditions of Old World militaries, adopted a pragmatic approach to mounted operations that resulted in the flexible and utilitarian use of mounted units. Neither side saw the need to separate cavalry into light, medium and heavy arms, or to assign doctrinal tasks based on these classifications. Instead, each forged general-purpose combat organizations capable of functioning across the full spectrum of military operations.

For example, during the first year of its service in Kentucky and Tennessee, 7th Pennsylvania Cavalry executed a range of missions, including convoy escort, route security, provost-marshal duty, counterinsurgency (COIN) operations and the suppression of non-governmental actors (bandits and outlaws). Later, it transitioned to high-intensity operations, including operational reconnaissance and several successful mounted charges against deployed Confederate formations.1 This level of adaptability is further underscored by the successful dismounted assaults made by Union cavalry against Confederate entrenchments during the battles of Nashville, TN (Dec. 15-16, 1864), and Selma, AL (April 2, 1865).

The evolution of mounted units into general-purpose combat formations represents the true legacy and proper function of modern cavalry. Unfortunately, this continuity of growth and development was brought to a halt with the creation of the armored force and the assumption of “armor” and “armored infantry” as the primary instruments of mounted maneuver. Subsequently, the only apparent option for retaining cavalry as an operational arm was to pigeonhole it as a reconnaissance-centric asset. This led to the common perception that its primary – if not sole – function was information collection. Wartime experience has invariably proven this approach faulty.

Fallacy of reconnaissance-centric cavalry

Reconnaissance is neither a branch-specific nor a doctrinally isolated task. Every unit in the Army is responsible for information collection, and both reconnaissance and security are closely related in purpose and function. As pointed out in pre-World War II German army regulations, “Good ground reconnaissance also contributes to good security. Conversely, the actions of a security unit provide a certain amount of reconnaissance.”2

A similar assertion was expressed on Page 39 of Field Manual 17-1, Armor Operations (1963): “Reconnaissance and security complement each other and cannot be readily separated.”3

Sustainment units conducting logistical packages provide intelligence regarding route conditions, enemy activity and atmospherics along main supply routes / alternate supply routes. Infantry-manned observation posts / listening posts and dismounted patrols are methods for both collecting information and providing security. Even the M1A2 Abrams tank is capable of conducting passive surveillance using its enhanced optics.

Thus, doctrinally orienting and equipping units for the purpose of information collection is a fallacy and only serves to create one-dimensional units unable to fulfill multiple tactical functions. As pointed out by the commander of 6th Cavalry Group during the campaign in northwest Europe (1944-45), “Efforts and doctrine directed toward making the cavalry squadron exclusively a reconnaissance unit ... is faulty. It is evident that there is no occasion, no opportunity and justification for the maintenance ... of such an extremely costly, highly-trained organization simply for the purpose of executing reconnaissance.”4

Post-war analysis of 4th Cavalry Group operations indicated that pure reconnaissance missions constituted only 3 percent its employment, with security, defense and special operations (i.e., rear-area security, mobile reserve and information service) constituting the bulk of its mission set.5

Combat experience since World War II not only underscores the fallacy of reconnaissance-centric cavalry, it has expanded the arm’s sphere of activity even farther. In Southeast Asia, 11th ACR and various divisional cavalry squadrons were effectively used as conventional maneuver formations. During the liberation of Kuwait, although ostensibly operating in a doctrinal role as corps-level reconnaissance/security elements, 2nd and 3rd ACRs proved to be extremely lethal instruments of mounted combat against Iraqi armored and mechanized units. Thus, cavalry has consistently and effectively operated beyond the narrow scope of its perceived doctrinal functions.

The designation of cavalry as the Army’s primary reconnaissance asset made sense before the introduction of wireless technology and the internal-combustion engine since mounted units alone possessed the capability to rapidly acquire and, just as critically, convey information to higher headquarters. However, specifically aligning cavalry with reconnaissance in the post-horse era should cease since its functionality extends well beyond the collection of information. What truly differentiates cavalry is its flexible utility as a mounted-maneuver force – a general-purpose combat formation – not its perceived association with particular types of missions. Cavalry is not merely a component of the combined-arms team; it is, in and of itself, a combined-arms organization capable of functioning across the full spectrum of military operations.

Objective force

The universal adoption of the internal-combustion engine across all branches of the U.S. Army narrowed the mobility gap between the arms of service, particularly between cavalry/armor and the infantry. As a result, it has also seemingly eliminated functional differences between the maneuver branches and led many theorists to advocate the wholesale transformation of the combat arms into an “objective” force. This view essentially envisions the fusion of “light” (dismounted) and “heavy” (mounted) maneuver units into a single “medium weight” organization equipped with a common vehicular platform.

Theoretically, it would be extremely convenient if the Army could develop such “one-size-fits-all” units. The Army would no longer have to engage in any in-depth analysis over troops-to-tasking or worry whether equipment and organization matched specific mission requirements. Administratively, it would add both predictability and flexibility into deployment cycles since the Army could schedule rotations and ship units off in sequence, or rapidly exchange them, also without regard to specific mission requirements. This convenience would extend to the area of supply and maintenance, since sustaining a single-type of modified table of organization and equipment with common vehicular platforms is obviously easier than supporting a multitude of organizations and equipment.

The medium-weight concept also conforms to the perception that the U.S. Army will function in the future primarily as an international constabulary/security force – rarely, if ever, engaging in sustained ground combat. In this environment, a medium-weight unit would be more than adequate to deal with COIN or other low-intensity threats while, in the unlikely event that high-intensity warfare does occur, network-centric technology will more than compensate for the absence of “heavy” maneuver organizations. Unfortunately, not only is this vision of future conflict unrealistic, it ignores conceptual differences between infantry and armor/cavalry that cannot be bridged by an “objective” force.

Dismounted vs. mounted maneuver

The motorization/mechanization of infantry and its incorporation into mounted formations has led to misconceptions regarding the nature of both dismounted and mounted combat. Exemplifying this confusion is the assignment of deployment missions to units that contravene their operational purpose; light infantry has been sent to Iraq and motorized, while armor units have gone to Afghanistan and operated as light infantry. While rebalancing the Army’s force structure between dismounted and mounted formations based on the contemporary operating environment is understandable, assigning missions outside their respective functional areas is not.

Although dismounted and mounted maneuver may share common tactical principles, each arm of service fulfills a specific function: “The distinction between infantry and cavalry was that the former fights on foot and the latter fights mounted. This distinction is basic and fundamental.”6

However, this assertion should not be confused with advocating a “death before dismount” mentality: “The distinction does not, nor did it ever, imply that cavalry could not (or should not) often fight dismounted.”7

Elements of mounted units will be called upon to engage in dismounted maneuver, and the need for both reconnaissance and security will require tank crewmen to regularly “unhorse” their Abrams. It is also not intended to deny the infantry the benefits of the internal-combustion engine. However, mounted units use dismounted maneuver for fundamentally different reasons than the infantry, and the purpose of equipping infantry units with vehicles is distinct from that of mounted formations.

Infantry formations are provided vehicles to facilitate the rapid movement of personnel and equipment to the fight, but not into or through the fight itself. Vehicles are ancillary to the infantry’s mission of dismounted combat. Analogous to this is the relationship between air-assault infantry and the helicopter. While these platforms need to provide a certain level of mobility and protection to their occupants, they do not require the level of sophistication – and by implication, the expense – of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle or Stryker. Vehicle platforms equipping mounted units, on the other hand, represent the essential element of their fighting power since these units fight mounted. Dismounted action by mounted units primarily serves to facilitate freedom of maneuver and provide security; it is not the central tenet of their purpose.

This explains why the incorporation of infantry into mounted formations has had unfortunate consequences. Rather than associating armored/mechanized formations with the mobility and flexible utility of their horsed progenitors, this relationship has encouraged their use as alternate instruments for the meticulous and deliberate execution of combat operations that has characterized U.S. Army methods since 1918. During World War II, armored divisions were often broken up to provide tank support to infantry divisions or were themselves used to conduct setpiece, limited-objective attacks. The scheme of maneuver for Operation Desert Storm had more in common with the steamrolling methods of the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne offensives than with the slashing operational maneuver traditionally associated with mounted units. Finally, while the drive on Baghdad by 3rd Infantry Division and the reconnaissance-in-force conducted by its 2nd Brigade upon reaching the city was the embodiment of mounted warfare, in retrospect these events now appear anomalous. Operating out of forward-operating bases rather than using continuous maneuver “outside the wire” represents the COIN equivalent of trench warfare. Although the incorporation of tanks and infantry into a single formation may conform to a combined-arms organization, it doesn’t mean their use will conform to the dynamics of mounted combined-arms warfare.

While some may argue that the distinction between dismounted and mounted maneuver has been invalidated by modern technology and the nature of 21st Century conflict, enough separation exists to justify maintaining the unique emphasis of each branch. Yet rather than appreciating the functional differences between dismounted (infantry) and mounted (armor/cavalry) formations, as well as their respective strengths and weaknesses, the Army has chosen to view maneuver organizations as a homogenous pool of units to be assigned deployment missions based on administrative expediency rather than operational suitability. This approach not only impedes the effective prosecution of operations, it degrades the long-term technical and tactical proficiency of units in their respective functional areas.

Mounted Warfare Branch

While the establishment of the Armor Branch in 1950 – along with its absorption of cavalry – seems to have achieved the consolidation of mounted-warfare development into a single agency, it is, in fact, an unsatisfactory solution. The term armor is an inadequate, if not inaccurate, expression of the true extent and purpose of a branch that should be responsible for mounted-warfare development as a whole. While use of the term was almost inevitable – given the word’s close association with the tank and the latter’s status as the primary symbol of mounted warfare in the modern era – heavy armor represents only a single, albeit extremely critical, instrument of mounted combined-arms maneuver.

The primary excuse for removing mounted-warfare development as a whole from the Cavalry Branch was its perceived conservatism at the time the decision was made, a perception held by many within the mechanized cavalry itself: “Beset by serious opposition to the conversion of horse units by horsemen of his own branch and even by congressmen, … [MG Guy] Henry made relatively slow progress in mechanizing the Cavalry Branch. The slow pace of mechanization within the Cavalry Branch tended to confirm the belief of both [COL Daniel] Van Voorhis and [BG] Adna Chaffee that mechanization could not succeed under cavalry sponsorship and that it develop as a separate agency or arm under the War Department.”8

It could be argued, however, that these views were as much the product of internal branch politics and professional rancor as an evolutionary necessity.

The 7th Cavalry Brigade (Mechanized) made considerable progress in formulating a comprehensive philosophy of mounted combined-arms warfare during the late 1930s. In fact, its efforts rivaled that of the Germans and placed it on the cutting edge of armored/mechanized theory and development, including advances in wireless communication, mission-command philosophy, maintenance/recovery and ground-air coordination.9 Quite clearly, the U.S. Army possessed a sound theoretical basis and practical foundation for armored/mechanized operations within the Cavalry Branch. Residual resistance by the “horse lobby” could have been overcome had the War Department and Army ground forces simply exercised the same level of effort and decisiveness in ordering the wholesale mechanization of cavalry as it did in creating an entirely new agency (i.e., the armored force).

Reversing the precedence of branch designations between armor and cavalry would also eliminate the lingering vestiges of professional parochialism within the mounted arm as observed by LTG Bruce Clark: “I believe that today’s Regular [Army] Armor-officer career structure still suffers from the pre-[World War] II ‘branch clubs’ that characterized Regular officer career structures of that era. There is no place, no requirement, in today’s armor force structure for such career-structure imprudence. The need in today’s armor force is for armor generalists, not armor specialists (armor, cavalry).”10

This applies to the enlisted ranks as well. Soldiers need to look beyond the bounds of their military occupational specialty and see themselves primarily as mounted warriors, not technical specialists.

Regardless of why the decision was made to remove armored/mechanized development from the cavalry, its causes no longer apply. Although mounted-warfare development needs to be united under a single agency, consolidating it under the auspices of armor rather than cavalry perpetuates an artificial separation within the mounted arm. To individuals within and outside the branch, the term armor equals tanks. Using armor to designate the branch aligns its identity with a specific type of vehicle rather than with mounted organizations, equipment and methods as a whole. On the other hand, the term cavalry provides both evolutionary continuity and an accurate characterization of the role and methods of mounted-maneuver organizations as general-purpose combat formations.


The creation of the armored force; the assumption by armor and mechanized infantry as the primary instruments of mounted maneuver; and the absorption of cavalry by the Armor Branch in 1950 has sown confusion within the mounted arm for seven decades. This confusion centers on three distinct issues:

  • Failure to appreciate the true purpose of cavalry organizations as general-purpose combat formations and their subsequent marginalization as reconnaissance-centric assets;
  • Misconceptions involving the functional differences between infantry and armor/cavalry (i.e., dismounted and mounted maneuver);
  • Alignment of the branch with a specific vehicle platform rather than mounted maneuver as a whole.

Since World War II, cavalry formations have operated consistently and effectively beyond the narrow doctrinal scope assigned it in the post-horse era. The inevitability of this trend began during World War II with cavalry units executing a broad range of missions beyond information collection, including security, defense and Special Operations. The subsequent performance of 11th ACR and divisional cavalry squadrons as conventional maneuver formations in Southeast Asia, as well as the proven lethality of 2nd and 3rd ACR in the Gulf War, further demonstrates the absurdity of marginalizing cavalry as a reconnaissance-centric asset.

The association of infantry with mounted units has had adverse implications for both the maneuver branches. Rather than associating armored/mechanized formations with the mobility and flexible utility of the horse cavalry, the integration of infantry has encouraged their use in the meticulous and deliberate (one might add grinding and risk-averse as well) execution of combat operations that has dominated the psyche of the U.S. Army since World War I. It has also distracted the Infantry Branch from focusing on its proper function of dismounted combat by requiring it to support the development of sophisticated and expensive vehicles like the Bradley and Stryker (as opposed to a simple armored carrier) as well as the associated methods for their use.

Finally, reversing the precedence of branch designations between armor and cavalry provides a far more accurate description of an agency responsible for mounted-warfare development as a whole, not just a single vehicular platform. This would maintain the technical, tactical and doctrinal aspects of mounted operations under the auspices of one branch. At the same time, it would end the doctrinal confusion, evolutionary dislocation and professional parochialism that has afflicted the mounted arm for 70 years. Although Clark took for granted the pre-eminence of the term armor in identifying the branch, his vision would be better served by the use of cavalry as the umbrella designation for mounted units.


1 Sipes, William B., The Saber Regiment: History of the 7th Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteer Cavalry, 1861-1865, 2nd edition, Huntington, WV: Blue Acorn Press, 2000.

2 Condell, Bruce, and Zebecki, David, editors, On the German Art of War, Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2001.

3 Cameron, Robert S., To Fight or Not to Fight: Organizational and Doctrinal Trends in Mounted Maneuver Reconnaissance from the Interwar Years to Operation Iraqi Freedom, Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2013.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Grow, Robert, “The Ten Lean Years,” ARMOR, January-February 1987 edition.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 One of the exceptions to such innovation was the cavalry’s refusal to recognize that tanks would inevitably end up having to fight enemy tanks. This inhibited the installation of a high-velocity gun on American tanks and led to their being undergunned when facing late-model German tanks.

10 Clark, Bruce, “An Estimate of the Armor Situation,” ARMOR, November-December 1986.