Fighting face-to-face

Infantryman in action (photo: French Army)

A dog of war / diplomat / experienced technician / built like an athlete / well-bred and polite in all circumstances.” This description of today’s French infantryman was given on 16 March by Lt-General Eric Margail, army inspector, in a speech at the symposium organized in Paris by the Draguignan Infantry College. He regretted, however, that this infantryman was recruited for a pay of just “the SMIC” (France’s minimum wage level), a remark that gave rise to a murmur of approval in the auditorium.

Lt-General Eric Margail (Photo Credit: Armée de terre/SLT Cindy Vuillemen

Margail told of the “huge changes” that have taken place in the infantry since he first joined 36 years ago, even if the heart of the mission: “to fight an adversary unattainable other than by a face-to-face confrontation and accepting to put oneself in danger,” has not changed, as Brigadier Pierre Gillet, commander of the Military Schools of Draguignan, put it.

Margail explained that four decades ago infantry regiments were very numerous; there were tank, armoured vehicle and foot regiments making the infantry  less homogeneous than today; it was mainly composed of young men doing their military service who were sent to Lebanon and Bosnia with less than one year’s experience; and it was equipped fairly simply, the VAB (armoured personnel carrier), FAMAS (infantry rifle) and AMX10 (wheeled armoured vehicle) having just arrived on the scene. The missions were those of the Cold War and not the 3E2M of today.

3E2M? Three enemies, two manoeuvres.

The three levels of enemy, from armed groups in the red square to state power in the orange square (Photo credit: Christina Mackenzie)

The three enemies are: armed groups, such as those found in the Sahelo-Saharan region; self-declared-state organisations such as Daesh or Hezbollah; and state powers such as, for example, Russia. The two manoeuvres are: conventional (missile – artillery – intelligence), and soft-power or the means to influence perceptions (cyber – information – strategy of influence).

Brigadier General Pierre Gillet (Photo credit : Armée de terre/SLT Cindy Vuillemin)

Margail pointed out that even if today we can use images taken by satellite, by airplane or by drone to see what is over the hill in the enemy sector, nothing replaces the “ability to feel one’s enemy, take the population’s pulse, check how motivated one’s opponents really are. You have to get up close to do so and the drone or satellite don’t do that.

Major General Bernard Barrera, who commanded the land force of Operation Serval in Mali and is now deputy chief of staff, ‘plans and programmes’ at Army HQ, agreed with his colleague Margail on the need not to be caught up in an upward technological spiral. “You must not be techno-dependent,” he said, pointing out that “the foot soldier must be able to read a map, use a compass and find his way.” While stressing that “we must not refuse progress,” Barrera begged: “Make us weapons that are easy to use.

Some of the things to keep in mind when designing weapons for the infantry. The first point is that equipment must not become an obstacle in combat. The second point is that equipment must be autonomous (in energy notably). The third point is that training should not make the infantryman dependent on technology (sat-nav versus a map). The fourth point is that sufficient information must be supplied to enable initiatives to be taken by lower ranks. And the last point is that the soldier must never be isolated (Photo credit: Christina Mackenzie)