Elite Mechanized Formations in an Age of Expeditionary Operations

As recent events in Syria and elsewhere demonstrate, the need for a military ready to respond to contingencies on short notice will not subside in the near future. While the particulars of a given conflict are subject to change and uncertainty, what will not change is the solemn obligation of the military to fight and win the nation’s wars. In a future conflict, America may not have the luxury of fighting from afar with missiles and drones, and may be instead required to put “boots on the ground.” The Army and the Armor Branch in particular have a critical role to play in preparing for this future.

This article will discuss a prospective organizational scheme for such a formation. I will also cover how the formation would expand the portfolio of capabilities available to policy-makers in contingency operations; the role of such a formation in conventional conflicts; the potential for the unit to serve as a laboratory for advanced armor and cavalry tactics; and the unit’s ability to act as platform on which to develop an Armor Branch-specific leadership course and morale-building flagship formation for the branch.

Elite formation

To provide a meaningful contribution to the joint team’s ability to win the nation’s wars in an uncertain future, Armor Branch must focus on developing capabilities and formations that increase the force’s flexibility and adaptability. Capabilities and formations must support a broad set of missions in a variety of environments. Because of this uncertain future operational environment, the Army and Armor Branch should seriously consider the creation of an elite armor/cavalry regiment, patterned on and taking inspiration from the Ranger Regiment, as a highly flexible formation with the ability to function as an important force-multiplier in future conflicts.

Concerning an organizational scheme for an elite armor/cavalry regiment, this article only proposes a general outline to provide a basis for further discussion. With an eye toward providing as broad an array of capabilities as possible, an elite armor/cavalry formation should be composed of battalions/squadrons that reflect the Armor Branch’s diversity. A regiment comprised of an armor battalion, mechanized cavalry squadron and light cavalry squadron would provide the regiment with the full spectrum of tactical capabilities available in the Armor Branch.

The Armor battalion would serve as the principle offensive implement of the regiment. The mechanized reconnaissance element would provide the regiment with an element capable of fighting for intelligence and provide security in a high-threat environment or, when the situation calls for it, would act as a combat formation in its own right. The light cavalry squadron would provide a stealthier means of intelligence-gathering and would be optimized for situations in which speed of deployment and reducing support requirements are paramount concerns.

Additional units such as organic fires, transportation, engineers and perhaps even organic aviation and dedicated strategic lift assets would serve to further round out the formation’s capabilities. While other organizational schemes are certainly worth considering (dropping the armor battalion or organizing the regiment along the lines of the late armored cavalry regiments come to mind), the general outline provided here serves the purpose of grounding the rest of the discussion.

While the central role armor plays in combat operations in locales such as Fallujah and Sadr City demonstrates that armor can be a critical contributor in select counterinsurgency operations, the impression gained in examining these examples is that only in the context of a much larger operation can armor be brought to bear. This clearly cannot serve as the model for a formation aiming to expand the capabilities and flexibility of the Army in the future. A more enlightening example can be found in Operation Serval, the recent French deployment to Mali to combat Islamist militants associated with al-Qaida.

While newscasts of the conflict were dominated by the exploits of the French Foreign Legion and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) aircraft, the 1er Régiment d’Infanterie de Marine and the Régiment d’Infanterie Chars de Marine provided much of the muscle necessary to liberate northern Mali from extremist control. Each of the regiments, part of mechanized brigades designed to deploy on short notice, deployed a squadron of AMX-10 RCs (a wheeled, amphibious light reconnaissance vehicle) in support of Operation Serval. These vehicles, mounting 105mm cannon, gave French commanders the ability to strike with a high level of firepower, survivability and tactical mobility. These capabilities proved critical as they provided French forces with an asymmetric advantage over their opponents and allowed them to rapidly shift overwhelming combat power across Mali’s vast plains. The successful conclusion of Operation Serval in five months of combat validates the concept that rapidly deployable armored and mechanized forces can play a key role in limited contingency operations.

An elite armor/cavalry regiment, trained to partner with other “first responders” – such as the units of Special Operations Command or the global response force – and given priority for strategic lift assets would provide American policy-makers with a broader menu of landpower options when faced with the need to mount a contingency operation. Infantry-centric formations from units such as 82nd Airborne could be supplemented by detachments from an elite armor/cavalry regiment and provide an intervention force with a much higher level of lethality and survivability.

Such an enhancement to the nation’s rapid-intervention capabilities is warranted by recent developments. As the conflicts in Libya and Syria illustrate, contingency operations against state actors or non-state actors with access to advanced weaponry is becoming a distinct possibility. In such an operation, the unique capabilities of armored and mechanized forces would provide a twofold advantage. The superior speed and firepower associated with these formations enables combatant commanders to achieve decisive results in shorter timeframes while maintaining a level of contact on the human plane not provided by precision airpower. The enhanced protection offered by armored platforms within these formations would lead to lower casualty rates than would be expected in purely light formations.

In short, an elite armor/cavalry regiment would provide the ideal landpower option for contingencies in which minimizing casualties and the duration of combat operations were leading concerns.

The contributions of an elite armor/cavalry regiment would be just as profound in a conventional conflict. Elite armor and cavalry formations have long histories in foreign armies. In the Soviet Union, shock and guards tank armies were expected to spearhead formations at the front of major offensives or to serve as a counterattacking reserve to be committed as an enemy offensive reached its culminating point. Named armored divisions in Heer and Waffen SS served a similar role for German forces in World War II. Such formations also served to increase the morale of standard units in their area by virtue of their reputation as crack units.

A unit along the lines discussed here would be suitable to fulfill these roles in any conventional conflict U.S. ground forces might find themselves engaged in. Also, the units’ focus on high readiness and rapid deployability would avoid repeats of the situation faced in Desert Shield where U.S. Army light-infantry formations stood opposite the Saudi border from the heavily mechanized Iraqi Republican Guard for weeks without meaningful mechanized capabilities.

Tactics lab

The utility of an elite formation such as the one discussed in this article goes well beyond its effects on the battlefield. The U.S. Army Ranger Regiment serves as a laboratory for advanced infantry tactics, provides the Army with its premier leadership school and increases the capability of the Infantry Branch as a whole through the diffusion throughout the force of Ranger-qualified personnel and former members of the regiment. Also, there is the difficult-to-quantify-but-impossible-to-ignore effect on the Infantry Branch’s esprit that the Ranger Regiment has. Slots at Ranger School are coveted training opportunities and are highly sought after by junior infantry Soldiers.

An elite armor/cavalry regiment can, over time, provide all these benefits to the Armor Branch. The prestige attached to slots at the school and service in regiment would serve as a performance motivator and matter of pride within the branch.

Realistic training simulating combat conditions is expensive. When armored vehicles are thrown into the mix, the bill for training escalates rapidly. The elite armor/cavalry regiment’s own training, insulated from budget pressures in much the way the Ranger Regiment is, would ensure that tactics and best practices do not stagnate when training funds in the larger force are scarce. Through publication of training manuals similar to the Ranger Handbook, and the eventual dispersion of the new regiment’s personnel across Army formations, the regiment would disseminate the experience of more demanding training and more frequent deployments to the Armor Branch as a whole. In this way, the elite armor/cavalry regiment would repay the investment in its preparedness by keeping alive the development of best practices for the branch, even in times of strict budgetary constraints across the larger force.

While Ranger School has become increasingly open to the Army as a whole, it is no doubt an infantry-centric school. From the instructors to the course material to its culture, Ranger School portrays its infantry roots. This is as it should be. Ranger School’s most important function is to provide Ranger-qualified personnel to the Army. The elite armor/cavalry regiment would have a similar requirement. A leadership school providing armor/cavalry qualification would become necessary to provide a steady stream of personnel.

Armor Branch could leverage existing schools such as the Army Reconnaissance Course, Tank Commander’s Course and Mechanized Leader’s Course to provide the required training and develop the new school while minimizing costs. As an added benefit, armor and cavalry officers and enlisted Soldiers would have access to a leadership school more in line with Armor Branch’s requirements. The branch would benefit from receiving graduates of the school across all armor/cavalry units. In a few short years after the school and elite armor/cavalry regiment had stood up, the branch would again benefit as former members received follow-on assignments throughout the Army. The prestige attached to slots at the school and service in regiment would serve as a performance motivator and matter of pride within the branch.

For the Army and the Armor Branch, the future holds uncertainty. Budgetary concerns and evolving security requirements ensure that the road forward is full of challenges. What will not change is the obligation for the U.S. Army to provide adaptable, flexible and decisive landpower to fight and win the nation’s wars when necessary. As the Armor Branch finds it must make do with less, an elite armor/cavalry regiment along the lines discussed here would serve as a force multiplier and ensure that the Armor Branch continues to make a dynamic contribution to the nation’s warfighting abilities.

Author’s note: Since this article was written, events in Ukraine have served to show how a force like the one discussed here can provide policy-makers with a broadened array of options. An elite mechanized formation could have been deployed to Eastern European states as a show of solidarity with our NATO partners. The unit’s enhanced combat power and elite status would have provided strategic messaging opportunities not inherent in the units stationed in Europe or in the Army at large.