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Contrast: Starship Troopers, Airmobility, and Light Infantry


I am something of a science fiction fan. I love things having to do with giant robots, artificial intelligence, aliens, etc. And as I’ve written with Crispin Burke, science fiction can be an interesting lens to look at present defense debates. One of the more interesting contemporary examples of this is Robert Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers.
      Starship Troopers featured highly mobile infantry in powered armor that vastly increased their tactical range. The opening scene of the novel features an drop over an alien city. It was a very glamorous image, and it’s been ripped off many times in science fiction. As a vision of the future, it ignored the the very mixed results of World War II airborne forces (the German disaster at Crete and the “Bridge Too Far” being prominent examples). Around the same time, the concept of airmobility took hold in the Army. As Tolson notes in his history of airmobility, the concept originated during the days of the Pentomic era, when the nuclear battlefield was thought to make extreme dispersion a necessity. Airmobility offered the opportunity to rapidly disperse and mass forces as well as overcome the tactical mobility problems of roads and difficult terrain. Some more enthusiastic proponents thought it would banish geography altogether. In Vietnam, airmobility offered a means of overcoming many of the logistical difficulties of the jungle conflict as well as moving fast enough to attack more nimble NVA and Vietcong.
      In practice, however, airmobility proved to have flaws as well. J.W. Barton observes that once out of the helicopter, the troops became tied to the landing zones, leaving the initiative to the opponent. Because the troops were often traveling too lightly to survive without an aerial line of communication, the insertion zones had to be guarded. Paddy Griffith noted in his book on tactical history that prepatory fire alerted NVA, and the problem of finding safe LZs led US troops to land far from the point of contact–thus defeating the point of airmobility as lightly armed soldiers slogged far on foot. This is not to say that the concept was not useful–Tolson has ample documentation of successes in his monograph. But it was not the revolutionary tactical method that some proponents claimed. Chaim Herzog’s history of the 1973 war also underscores the high losses of Egyptian commandos attempting airmobile tactics against the IDF.
      The relative success of old-fashioned, Iranian dismounted light infantry in the Iran-Iraq war provides an interesting contrast. Although the Iranian ground forces suffered immense logistical and command and control (C2) difficulties and fought with outdated equipment and an almost complete lack of air support and small amounts of armor, they eventually became a fearsome adversary for the better-equipped and more professionalized Iraqi ground forces. In an Infantry article on dismounted Iranian ground forces, Sgt. Ben Wilson recounts instance after instance of Iranians successfully employing a combination of human wave tactics and infiltration to defeat less mobile and tactically unimaginative Iraqi units. One vignette is telling:

“While launching a diversionary attack north of Basra, Iran launched a commando raid using Basij frogmen, boats and pontoon bridges to cross the Shatt Al Arab and take the Al Faw peninsula. Their attack took advantage of darkness and rain and totally surprised the Iraqi defenders, many of whom fled their posts. The Iranians quickly established a bridge head and reinforced the peninsula. They dispersed their defenses and dug in quickly. They made all troop and supply movements at night to prevent the Iraqis from acquiring artillery targets. This attack provided one of the greatest demonstrations of the Iranians’ potential in light infantry attacks in difficult terrain.”

      Of course, Iranians also suffered some major blunders. Their human wave tactics were often horribly uncoordinated, and whenever they fought in open ground on Iraqi territory they suffered tremendously. Not to mention the fact that their overall strategy was based on a revolutionary fervor often divorced from reality, and their operational art proved extremely lackluster. But the Iranian employment of light infantry was one of the bright spots in a conflict that was mostly a spectacle of needless slaughter.
       These two vignettes are not intended to be scientific–Vietnam and the Iran-Iraq War are two drastically different conflicts with very little in common. Nor did Starship Troopers have anything to do with the planning of the airmobility concept. But the glamor of the powered armor in Heinlein’s novel, the reality of airmobile employment in Vietnam, and the resilience of light infantry in the Iran-Iraq war is part and parcel of one of the recurring themes here–the difficulty of prediction and the uneven development of technological, doctrinal, and strategic trends. Plus, now you have an excuse to go back and watch the hilariously bad 1997 movie version of Starship Troopers. Now, if I can only think of an idea for a post on Pitch Black.

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