The 4th Platoon—New Infantry NCOs for the Army
Article by: Tom Rozman
The Modified Table of Organization and Equipment (MTO&E) authorized three rifle platoons for the mechanized infantry company. The mechanized rifle platoon was assigned 47 men and four M113 Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs), each APC with a pintle mounted M-2 .50 caliber machinegun. The tables had recently been modified to reorganize the mortar platoon into a weapons platoon with the addition to the three 81mm mortar squads of an anti-tank section two squads each equipped with the first in a series of TOW (Tube-launched, optically tracked, Wire-guided) missile armed derivatives of the M113—in this case the M113A1 TOW CAP vehicle.
The company was authorized 189 soldiers but was over strength at 192 soldiers. It had been experiencing an exceptionally busy program since its change of command several months earlier. It deployed from its base in Georgia across the country to a massive desert training area in New Mexico to conduct desert maneuver operations and gunnery for its weapons. On return it immediately ramped up for four months of force on force maneuver as part of instrumented force on force battle. The mock battles were designed to develop data to support assessment in an Army test of the prototype infantry combat vehicle that would ultimately replace the mechanized infantry’s M113s. In the offing the company would be dedicating several weeks to supporting a sister National Guard company during its two weeks of annual active training, working through a week long Inspector General’s inspection and a tactical concept validation maneuver deployment of several weeks to name several projected operations.
And then, as the company prepared itself for the force on force test regime for the new infantry fighting vehicle, a major operation as the company was reconfiguring and training as a Soviet force, another mission was assigned. Separate from this late breaking development, the reconfiguration was a significant effort. To illustrate, as part of the effort, the company would receive three tank sections under operational control for the preparatory period and four months of the test, seven tanks, from the brigade’s tank battalion. It would train in Soviet tactical deployment that with its expanded organization was designed to replicate a Soviet motorized rifle battalion (MRB) in attack and defense.
The additional new mission layered on top of the MRB mission developed from an Army wide initiative to retrain mid to senior level non-commissioned officers (NCOs) in oversubscribed military occupational specialties (MOSs) to infantry NCOs. These soldiers came from administrative, artillery and other fields that had developed excess numbers of NCOs as a result of the Army’s reorganization to form expanded light force infantry units. The Army was in the process of organizing several new light infantry divisions. These new forming units created an Army wide shortage of infantry sergeants that had to be made good.
As part of the Army wide initiative to increase the corps of infantry sergeants, some 22 NCOs were assigned to the company for retraining bringing the company’s assigned strength over 210 soldiers and with the tank sections, another 20-28 soldiers. The company was operating at some 250 or more men with its medical team attached from battalion headquarters.
At first blush the NCO retraining mission seemed a bridge too far but the company commander chose to treat it as an opportunity. With a program of instruction (POI) developed for the NCOs to be retrained a concept formed in the commander’s mind to enhance the MRB footprint by forming the NCOs into a 4th platoon that would temporarily be assigned the mortar sections fire direction center track, the company communications track and the maintenance sections M113, three M113s.
The operative concept was that during non-operational periods in the four months of testing of the prototype infantry combat vehicle, the transitioning NCO platoon would conduct the designated POI training. During test operations they would become expert at employment of the M113 and skilled in its use and maintenance. They would also develop great tactical employment skills with the vehicle as a separate element and as a part of a platoon.
For training and learning in the platoon, the company commander took a page from the Ranger School–there was a designated chain of command and organization based on NCO seniority. But tactically, roles would change with other NCOs being assigned as platoon sergeant, squad and team leaders for aspects of the operation.
The approach scratched another itch. The company executive officer (XO) was an outstanding officer. An Airborne Ranger Infantry officer, his initial assignment pattern had denied him an infantry platoon leader opportunity. On assignment to the brigade he had been assigned as the Redeye platoon leader (the Redeye was a new at the time tactical air defense missile). Given his seniority as a lieutenant he was rapidly losing the opportunity to obtain infantry specific qualification experience. When the company’s executive officer at the time the company commander took command was reassigned as the battalion assistant S-4 (supply/logistics officer) the then brigade Redeye platoon leader requested an interview with the company commander. The company commander was greatly impressed and immediately moved to have the Redeye platoon leader reassigned as the new company XO. The officer had performed in an extraordinary manner.
The activation of the 4th Platoon, a provisional organization, offered the possibility of making an opportunity for the XO to command an infantry platoon. This strategy was reviewed with the battalion personnel officer and the battalion commander and the concept was worked out within existing policy and acted on.
The platoon was formed and began its dual missions. Because of the circumstances of the NCO’s developing career transition, the company commander made a concerted effort to welcome these soldiers and orient them to the company and the joint endeavor they and the company were embarking on. To the assembled sergeants he stated the objective of the program as being to successfully bring each sergeant to infantry MOS classification, initiate their infantry careers and allow them to be available to other units of the Army as badly needed infantry leaders.
The company commander emphasized that the program would be demanding and that the company would do all possible to support the sergeants in working through the program. But he emphasized that the program’s success would depend on the dedication and commitment of each sergeant to achieving the noble status of an infantry non-commissioned officer.
In the event, the results were better that anticipated. The company mission regarding the fighting vehicle test was greatly enhanced by the platoon and its men. Most importantly, every NCO completed the MOS Transition POI and tested out successfully as an infantry NCO in grade held, the most senior sergeants being sergeants first class. Because of the operational platoon format and applying the Ranger School concept of rotating positions for operations, morale in the platoon had been high throughout its existence.
When the NCOs graduated from the program at the end of the fighting vehicle test, many of them expressed appreciation and satisfaction with the platoon, its performance and their success in it. One ex-finance NCO was representative. He stated, “I only had the worst idea of what becoming an infantry sergeant would be like—I now believe transitioning is the best career move I could have made. The platoon and its operations and the operations of the company have convinced me that the infantry is a great career field.”
The 4th platoon was “inspired desperation” by an overtaxed mechanized infantry company. Company leadership, rather than perceive “overload” chose instead to see opportunity. Inspired leadership by men like the XO, and hard work and engagement by all hands produced a very successful mission achievement. Perhaps 4th Platoon’s greatest contribution to the Army and its soldiers was providing the Army with 22 additional able and competent infantry NCOs.