A case for a future infantry arms trend

I made the case that infantry fighting against a great power's land forces needs to be highly elusive. In fact, I wrote about this repeatedly.
We can see this most easily from the Taliban's perspective; a Taliban group that's being pinned down can  sooner or later be taken out by support fires of some kind or another. Ready and very competent infantry battalions could have lethal mortar fires on target within two or three minutes.
It is under such circumstances unacceptable to be in contact for long, much less pinned down in one place.

A desirable tactic would be to stay in contact only for a very short time with individual elements, and to break contact (withdraw or at least make one's exact location uncertain) within at most two minutes after the small team exposed itself. Multiple teams (small or half squads) could be in alternating contact to keep the opposing forces busy - and fixed behind cover - for more than a mere two minutes.
Suppressive fires would be applied occasionally to support a withdrawal, but their value would be questionable. It would be rather unreasonable to trust suppressive fires with both parties trying to be elusive in face of support fires. It's too likely that troops rushing forward with support of 'suppressive fires' are being hit by a previously undetected hostile element.
Even 'long' engagements would offer little opportunity for suppressive fires because some alternating fire team may already be ready to shoot, but not exposed yet. So basically you may apply suppressive fires, but would likely do so against an already withdrawing team and not the really threatening fire team. The dominant face of modern infantry combat - suppressive fires - could lose quite a lot of its relevance in such tactics.
There's an antidote to elusiveness, and that's surprise.
Propeller fighters were most lethal against other fighters with surprise, as most fighter models had decent enough characteristics to avoid being hit with defensive manoeuvres. Fighters being shot down in an aerobatic dogfight was always rather the exception than the rule. The rule was that an estimated 80% of pilots didn't see the pilot/aircraft who shot them down before it was too late (many historical pilot memoirs and interviews yielded approximately this picture).

Surprise is also powerful in dismounted ground combat: It's easiest to shoot someone unaware, and very inefficient and difficult to do so after a firefight has developed already. The Americans are working hard on driving up the cartridges expended : kills ratio with their way of war (with much suppressive fires), but even beginners would be more efficient killers if killing someone in an already developed firefight wasn't so hard.

The more successful fighter aircraft designs were well-suited for surprise attacks with a high speed and powerful armament. Likewise, it's possible that the more successful infantry arms for conflicts between very capable ground forces would rather emphasize the effect of the first few seconds than being well-suited for a large volume (suppressive) fires.

This may take several shapes:
(1) Single shot explosive munition capability for the opening salvo, probably even rifle grenades or light Bazooka/Panzerfaust/RPG type weapons (which can individually be much more powerful than an underbarrel grenade weapon)
(2) Very high rate of fire for initial salvo (sustained by the necessary magazine size/belt length)
(3) More powerful munitions (with individual munitions too heavy for much use in suppressive fires)

Some more words about suppression: Suppressive fires are not only (sometimes) good for protecting movement or even the non-moving shooter himself, but also for pinning down ("fixing") unprotected hostiles.
The pinning down - while likely much less valuable than surprise - was previously mentioned as an important mechanic for bringing support fires into full effect. This has been true for generations, but inadequate supply and performance of radios and rather imperfect land navigation made full use of the 'suppression+indirect fires' combo rather rare. It was most feasible during deliberate attacks or positional defence. Now it's more easily feasible. You fix hostile troops without exposing yourself too much to direct fires, call in fire support and wait till air power, mortars or artillery take effect. That's in a nutshell the status quo of Western infantry against ragtag militias which cannot reply in kind.

There's a reason why I emphasise the importance of being able to break contact at will and quickly (link). And the assumption that competent adversaries would both emphasise the ability to break contact and be able to call in their own fire support is why I assume that the Muslim militia-bashing infantry mode is irrelevant for combat between peer infantry forces. And that's where the importance of suppressive fires is lost mostly.


The focus on elusiveness and alternating contact by small teams may add a new face to suppression: Sheer horror.* The uncertainty (and fear) about the appearance of yet another small team firing from a previously unoccupied position may lead to suppression even after all hostiles withdrew. Suppression rather by fear than by actually applied fires could be reinforced by greater uncertainty than we know it from conventional engagements during which hostiles preferred cover over elusiveness.
A bit repetition to make this point more clear: There's no doubt that many World War infantrymen were horrified and suppressed without some near misses only seconds ago. What I'm writing about here is that this - rather than the high volume of fire during some leap of a few infantrymen - might become the desired mechanism for fixing/suppression. To fix/suppress by inducing some rather general horror (instead of by revisiting a believed firing position with burst over and over again) saves a lot of ammunition. It wouldn't be reliable enough to protect much exposed movement, but I doubt that this reliability is achievable on a consistent basis (if the hostiles emphasize elusiveness) anyway . And they will be forced into elusiveness by the lethality of firepower just as First World War infantrymen were forced to dig in by the different nature of firepower encountered by them.

Then again: Suppressing and fixing the enemy only matters if you can exploit it - and the assumption of a competent adversary degrades your ability to do so because they may rather slip away in time. Hence the emphasis on exploiting the first seconds.

Summarized; suppression with large quantities of small calibre bullets may - if a set of assumptions plays out this way - cease to be the dominant face of outdoor infantry combat or may already be obsolete between two competent adversary infantry forces. 
The tactics between competent, well-supported infantry may emphasize elusiveness and as a result drive up uncertainty and fear among the opponents. The real lethality would come from surprise contacts (ambushes) - aside from support fires (mortar, missile and howitzer fires mostly).
A consequence may be that the optimal infantry arms would be much more optimised for few seconds of maximum lethality rather than for lengthy suppressive fires.


related: 2011-08 On infantry (breaking contact):
Finally, the greatest ability to break contact at the micro level doesn't help much if you don't prepare to exploit the short moment of contact (less than two minutes) fully. Weapons and tactics that achieve effect slowly are much less important than weapons and tactics that exploit surprise very well and achieve a great effect in short time, even if that cannot be sustained for long.
(I merely elaborated on this old remark this time.)
P.S:: Ask yourself; how many milblogs do you know whose authors would write at this length about small arms without mentioning any specific gun or calibre, thus skipping the whole hardware fascination aspect? And why is this so?

*: I understand suppression itself works by triggering fear, but this is about another level; a dominant fear even while there hasn't been suppressive fires for a while.

Edit: Clarification

Case 1: Blue surprises red
Blue calls for fire support, then doesn't reveal itself at all or reveals itself only shortly before the fire support takes effect. It may also open direct fire to entice red to take a desired action, such as taking cover behind a wall or in a building where indirect fire support will take effect. Direct fires would last less than a minute and the first few seconds would matter most. Blue slips away at the latest within 2 minutes after revealing itself.

Case 2: Red surprises blue
The dispersed blue small unit employs smoke and slips away because red may have called indirect fire support in already, giving them a decisive advantage in a more protracted (>1 minute) engagement.

Case 3: Meeting engagement; both (small) units stumble into each other
Both prepare escape routes with smoke, both call in support fires, both are ignorant about the other's size and thus should not dare an assault. The timing of slipping away depends on the small unit leader(s).

All three cases allow for engaging the reds again soon thereafter, from different positions and possibly with different (small) units. A protracted battle would be a series of hit and run actions. The density of blue forces would be kept low enough to make a red large area fire effort unlikely. "Hugging" (protecting oneself against red indirect fires by staying close to the reds) is unlikely to work because of the good accuracy ad low dispersion of modern howitzers (even "dumb" HE).


  1. I wonder if in such as scenario indirect fire elements will be enhanced at low levels to make response and support that much faster. This could be light mortars, or newer computer aided grenade types. It doesn't seem a technological stretch that each squad in a platoon could have an indirect fire option, and when one squad locates a target, it sends coordinates to each friendly squad, with a message like "fire on X,Y coordinates at time Z", each indirect fire weapon has a simple fire control computer built-in that directs timing and aiming of the weapon. At time Z, the platoon does a small scale Time-on-Target bombardment of the enemy position. If advantageous, the spotting squad moves in to attack, but might just leave, and never needs to reveal itself.

    1. Both sides will strive to hit hard with support fires, but this doesn't affect the topic; the design trade-offs in small arms.

  2. If everyone has to quickly slip away from the danger zone it will pay off to reduce overall load to a minimum.
    Reduce the overall tool kit weight to the necessities for communication of targets(far better than direct fire) and fire of bursts with high lethality - grenade launchers on precision rifles with high energy rounds (per article).
    I wonder what amount of bodyarmour is suitable and whether to have a carrying device for the heavy backpacks that seem an ageless standard.

    How do you counter such a threat? One idea that comes to my mind are fast unmanned systems capable of target acquisition and launching grenades. They need the ability to quickly deploy behind enemy positions, send back target information for indirect fire and themselves engage with direct fired grenades.

    So maybe direct fire is the second best choice after direct observation with indirect fire?

  3. What do mean by more powerful munitions as opposed to individual munitions being to heavy for suppression?


    1. 5.56x45 weighs little per shot, and suppression so far is about repeating shots often to keep the enemy intimidated. A light a, weak cartridge requires little weight per time suppressed.

      A more powerful cartridge meant to deliver explosive effect or to penetrate hard body armour on the other hand has its strength in the phase of combat during which hitting is fairly easy.

  4. I just read it again with your explanation - I figured that is what you were getting at, but wanted to make sure. Maybe a squads/platoons replacing IWs and ammo weight with PDWs, MMGs, CDTEs, Gustavs, LAAWS, AT-4s. Maybe fire teams become weapons teams with a MP7 type PDW.

    What are you thinking?


    1. PDW are only for troops who are not supposed to shoot unless in self-defence: Medics, officers, tank crews.

      And I have never before read "CDTE".

    2. CDTE = counter defilade target engagement, the XM-25s buzzword.

      Speaking of PDWs, there are lots of promising designs on the market, many of which can be fitted into a hip holster. The PLR-16 and 9A-91 are very compact and fire the 5.56x45mm or 9x39mm rounds, which have better range and power than most other PDWs. If you've got a 9 man infantry squad (with a squad leader, grenadier, machine gunner & assistant, and rifle element), then only 5 of them need to be carrying a full length assault rifle. You can save weight by giving the other 4 PDWs.

    3. The Russian 9x39 mm has intolerable weight per cartridge.

      I think the best PDW approach would entail
      1) a confidence-building enhanced pistol for medics, officers, pilots etc.
      2) a very compact assault rifle capable of iring standard infantry rounds, but preferably using a cartridge of the same dimensions with a propellant charge (and bullet) tailored to a short barrel (to avoid excessive muzzle fire and noise). Rifling twist should be optimised for the latter.

  5. 1) Locating the enemy precisely is already a serious challenge even in relatively open terrain, and far worse in triple canopy jungle; increasing urbanization as noted by David Kilcullen will make this problem even more difficult.

    2) Breaking contact is logical, but as in most situations hard to do. Foot mobile infantry really cannot get out range of modern infantry arms in a timely manner, let alone with the inevitable casualties that will occur. Vehicles can speed the departure, but is very obvious and higher value making pursuit more likely.

    3) An infantry formation will not be able to break contact if facing enemy armor or motorized formations. Even the local presence of mechanized forces may make breaking contact even more difficult.

    3) The defender, particularly a western democracy, will be under heavy pressure to maintain defenses as far forward as possible and not to ceed land to an attacker. This will make breaking contact difficult to do.

    4) Those “muslim militias” in the “ghan” have proven to be quite capable small unit infantry fighters. Not particularly good shots, but they understand ambushes, crew served weapons, and can move very quickly. They cannot match western artillery, armor, and have no airforce.

    5) Improvised, or purpose made, an explosive ambush is by far the most effective means of destroying small units, and you do not need to add more RPGs/MGs/special weapons – you just need explosives and training!


    1. "to break contact" against mechanised forces is quite easy for infantry, and it's not about speed of movement. It's all about lines of sight. A squad which moved to the 6th floor of a building and stays away from windows has broken contact with a mechanized battalion battlegroup around it if that one is not tasked to hunt squads down, but to proceed to some objective.
      Infantry commonly hides in buildings from tanks; tanks can destroy buildings, but their shell supply is scarce and expenditure only warranted if the probability of hitting troops is good enough or if slow progress is acceptable.

  6. This is a case of 'if X, then Y.' X is the need for elusiveness in response to mortar fires, and Y is the need to retire suppressive fires because of that elusiveness. But in this scenario, are suppressive fires truly made obsolete? No, because the fundamental nature of a firefight has not really changed: Infantry still need to gain fire superiority and maintain it until the mortars can weigh in, although the methods they use to do this would change.

    Companys and platoons could be divided along the lines of a fire team and an assault team, with the former utilising crew served weapons to pin the enemy down from a distance, and the latter using speed to move in close to the OPFOR and establish a cordon. If armys are able to make this transition, then your articles premise (that suppressive fires are obsolete) is invalid.

    1. A separate fire team and assault team organisation is foolish theory. Warfare isn't predictable enough; quite often the assault team will be poorly sited and forced to serve as support team for the assaulting support team. There's a good reason why universal fire teams have been developed.
      Any notion of a "cordon" requires a vast numerical and mobility superiority.