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Squares, Triangles And Task Forces: Army Divisional Organization From 1783-2011


From the beginning of the Army's history until the First World War, divisions were more of an administrative device than a tactical formation. The basic building block of Army forces was a regiment (made up of ten companies) nominally of 1000 men but sometimes numbering no more than 100 men due to combat losses. In wartime, for example during the Civil War regiments would be grouped into brigades, brigades into divisions, and divisions into corps without any kind of standard (except the one on a pole) and in peacetime everything between the company and the division would vanish into a theoretical or purely administrative existence.

World War I

This free-wheeling organizational anarchy vanished as America prepared to intervene in The Great War. Conforming mainly to British examples, the regiments of the American Expeditionary Force were organized into "square" divisions, so called since each division contained two brigades of infantry or cavalry plus an artillery regiment; each brigade in turn had two regiments with three battalions plus artillery and machine gun components. Most support functions (engineers, field hospitals, etc.) were concentrated at the division headquarters. The extra battalion gave the square divisions of the AEF extra punch compared to the etiolated British and French, who had been forced into leaner organizational structures for lack of manpower.
It is during this period that United States divisions develop unique shoulder patches for identification; prior to this the only distinguishing marks on the uniform would be regimental crests or expedient corps badges, but the sheer scale of the Western Front battlefield, to say nothing of its lethality, forced the Army to come up with devices to replace the unit colors that had formerly helped to build morale and unit cohesion.

World War II and Korea

Observation of German Blitzkrieg tactics in Europe and exercises in 1940 indicated to the Army that the day of the square division was past. It was simply too unwieldy for the modern battlefield. General Lesley J. McNair, head of Army Ground Forces under Chief of Staff George Marshall, brought forth the triangular division tables of organization and equipment (TO&E) for armored, infantry, and the remaining cavalry division. This TO&E called for a division headquarters to have three regiments of the appropriate type under its command plus divisional artillery. All other supporting elements (armor, antiaircraft, engineers, tank destroyers, trucks) would be organized into battalions and held in a corps-level pool, to be assigned as needed to each division. Under the stress of actual experience, temporary attachments tended to become permanent so that each infantry division wound up with the support battalions broken down into companies which were then attached to what were now called Regimental Combat Teams.
The armored divisions' experience was even more radical. As a result of the bloody baptism by fire received by American armored units in North Africa, the pure armored regiments along with their medium and light tank battalions disappeared in the 1943 revision. In place of the regiments came three combat command headquarters designated CCA, CCB and CCR (Reserve) and a pool of armored infantry, artillery, and armored battalions, the last having four medium companies with M4 Sherman tanks and one light company with M5 Stuart tanks. These battalions would be assigned to the combat command headquarters with support units as needed, though as with the infantry divisions, what was intended to be temporary often became permanent.
The 1st Cavalry Division lost its horses but not its TO&E; it was converted to an infantry division in 1940 but retained its archaic "square" organization, the only real changes being that the brigade headquarters disappeared and the regiments continued to have two battalions instead of three. The 2nd Cavalry Division, on the other hand, made up as it was of coloured soldiers, was never reorganized at all and spent much of the war being stripped of its more experienced personnel to provide cadre for service units and later, the 92nd and 93rd Infantry Divisions.
These new TO&E persisted through the Korean War and into the Eisenhower Administration, with the Regimental Combat Teams being formalized as combined arms combat teams and equipment changes being made as needed

The Atomic Army and the Pentomic Division

President Eisenhower chose to balance the budget by cutting back the armed forces in his second term; it was felt that the nation's massive nuclear arsenal made conventional forces an obsolescent waste of money, and so the policy of Massive Retaliation was adopted. For the Army, this meant mainly that the advent of tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield (for example, the Honest John rocket and Davy Crockett atomic recoilless rifle) required greater dispersion and faster movement on the battlefield. The triangular divisions and their regimental combat teams/combat commands were replaced by the Pentomic division, which had five combined arms battle groups, each with five larger than normal companies. In exercises, this proved unwieldy and impractical, but change would have to wait until 1961 and the Kennedy Administration.

The ROAD to Vietnam And Beyond

President Kennedy had been elected partially because of the fictional "missile gap" that existed between U.S. and Soviet strategic arsenals, but he and his Defense Secretary Robert MacNamara saw that the Eisenhower-era policy of Massive Retaliation was insufficiently flexible for responding to the many provocations of the PRC and Soviet Union. The "New Look" called for an increase in conventional forces, not only for the romantic Special Forces units the young president was much taken with, but the regular infantry and armored forces as well.
The Army wound up going back to the pre-Pentomic structures, except that under ROAD (Reorganization of the Army Division) the regimental combat teams were gone except for purposes of heraldry, history, and unit lineage. ROAD divisions had three brigade headquarters, a divisional artillery command (Divarty), a divisional support command (Discom) and a pool of combat battalions. The brigade HQs resembled the combat commands of the World War II armored division, which was appropriate since by now most Army divisions were armored or mechanized, and advances in communications meant that "opconning" or "chopping" (transferring temporary control) a battalion from one brigade to another went far more smoothly than in earlier wars.
ROAD divisions and separate brigades worked well in Vietnam, from a TO&E standpoint, and would outlast the Cold War. Airmobile light infantry divisions such as the 1st Cavalry and 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) were also deployed to Vietnam and proved wildly successful, at least in areas where the enemy had little or no air defense assets; the UH-1 Huey, CH-46 Chinook and CH-64 Skycrane helicopter transports gave the airmobile units unparalleled tactical and operational mobility, which was very important in a war largely characterized by counterinsurgency work.

Everything Old Is New Again

The last hurrah of the ROAD divisions would be the Gulf Wars, in which US armored and mechanized units ripped the third largest army in the world into bloody, rusting shreds in brief blitzkriegs through the desert. The occupation of Iraq after the Second Gulf War and the resulting counterinsurgency -along with the ever present budget problems and the invasion of Afghanistan- led to another rethinking of divisions' organization. Once again, as in the Indian Wars and Philippine Insurrection, individual battalions occupied scattered forts in enemy territory and conducted pacification operations largely on their own, with some support from higher headquarters, which came to fill a largely administrative and logistical role. It was with this in mind that the Army of Excellence TO&E concentrated on a redesign of the brigade as the basic operational unit. Brigades would be standardized as mechanized, infantry or Stryker (light mechanized) with organic heavy mortar, artillery, anti-tank and rocket units attached to the brigade headquarters along with two battalions of the requisite type. One wonders how long it will take some future Chief of Staff to suggest reorganizing and re-designating the brigades as Regimental Combat Teams.


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