Contrast: Starship Troopers, Airmobility, and Light Infantry

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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.

7 comments

  • Heh, I heard about that one on Danger Room.

    I don’t think the program went anywhere. As Pike pointed out in his quote there’s little 13 lightly armed soldiers alone could really do of importance to justify the immense cost involved in operationalizing such a capability.

  • I think that the failure of air-mobility to live up to some of its expectations is based on an misunderstanding of that actual physical limitations of these operations itself. Unlike a vehicle mounted, or mechanized force, an airmobile force does not have a constant mobility capability, but more of a surge capability. As has been practiced, an airmobile force usually makes a single “jump” to an LZ, and then its actual mobility is limited to the foot pace of its infantry. The preferred technique seems to be massing an airmobile operation (such as the Marines recently in Helmand) which places multiple forces along multiple avenues in a single pulse. Problem is that once emplaced, without very good logistics planning, the ability to quickly reposition in to any significant degree is very difficult.

    The option to such a surge capability is to spread the capability out over time. Only moving part of your combat power with part of your helicopter force, keeping the rest in reserve to quickly act/react to the situation as it develops. One aspect of Vietnam airmobile operations that always struck me was the propensity to reinforce a given LZ when under pressure, rather than landing elsewhere to maneuver on the enemy from a different direction.

    You make good points about the potential power in dismounted infantry. As your examples demonstrate, they are best in broken terrain where they can offensively come to close grips with an enemy (such as infiltration), or they can dig in and similarly survive enemy fires and force a close fight at their advantage. Air-mobile operations then need to take into account these advantages of dismounted infantry when considering the placement (LZ area) of the air-mobile force and the mission expected of them. If the force is placed somewhere where it can’t readily come to grips with the enemy in advantageous terrain, then the movement probably isn’t worthwhile and is inviting disaster.

  • Phil,

    The first point you’ve made is absolutely correct and comes across very well in histories of the period. As with anything else, the proper usage of reserves are important.

    Also, regarding light infantry it’s interesting that the usage of LI in Iraq-Iraq war never really was a data point during the US defense reform battles of the 1980s.

  • If I remember correctly, the opening sequence of Starship Troopers (the novel) was a terror mission against a civilian population specifically to shake up the skinnies (a vassal race of aliens), rather than capture and hold or to overcome the friction of terrain. In addition, the power armor held tactical nukes that *had* to be expended. It was closer to a calvary raid than a movement of massed troops.

  • Adam,

    Air assault operations (a/k/a airmobile operations if you like that better) are excellent as an operational (brigade or division level air assaults a la DESERT STORM) or macro-tactical option (platoon to battalion) but have always struggled with protection (body-armored infantry are much more prone to fatigue and move SLOW–no personal protective equipment makes you very vulnerable to small arms fire and explosions plus don’t forget NBC environs and just pure environmental considerations (cold)), firepower (even if you can bring a few big bullet launchers (e.g., Javelins, mortars, TOW, Mk-19s) to the fight, you can’t bring much ammo), and probably most importantly, micro-tactical mobility, i.e. they are foot mobile once they get off the aircraft, with limited to no vehicle support, at least initially.

    Heinlein (and his various acolytes like Steakley) by equipping his infantry with powered armor gave the concept of vertical envelopment credible micro-tactical capability: real protection akin to operating from a modern AFV, destructive firepower in both capability and volume, and micro-terrain mobility to include limited jump ability. IIRC, a Mobile Infantry Division, where everyone drops, everyone fights, was only a few hundred (maybe a thousandish) folks at most, but that was all that was needed because each Cap Trooper brought a modern platoon or more worth of combat power to the fight.

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