Rifle vs Support Company: How Cultural Bias is Damaging the Infantry’s Specialists
By Carl Brindley
There are two thousand years of experience to tell us that the only thing harder than getting a new idea into the military is getting an old idea out.B.H. Liddell-Hart
As someone currently serving as the Officer Commanding (OC) of an Infantry Support Company, this issue is something close to my heart; both from a personal career perspective and with the best intentions for the soldiers under my command. The issues surrounding Support Company are broad, but it is clear that a bias exists across the infantry when talking about the differences between Rifle Companies and anything external to that. Colonel Infantry made specific mention of Support Companies at this year’s Infantry Forum, which led me to the conclusion that the bias is not only within my own cap badge and division, but across the infantry. This article will seek to discuss some of these trends and make recommendations on how we could move forward.
Specifically, this article will explore the bias towards Rifle Companies for promotional opportunities and how the promotional ceiling, for both soldiers and officers who serve in Support Company, appears to be lower. It will also explore how there is greater training investment in the Rifle Company despite clear evidence from Battle Group level validation exercises that the Support Company elements play a vital role in enabling success at Battle Group level. The answer is that there is a cultural bias towards the Rifle Company, and this is causing soldiers and officers to avoid leadership positions within Support Company. It is also damaging the operational capability of the infantry’s only organic find, fix, strike and exploit capability through a lack of training investment and opportunity.
There are numerous aspects to this cultural bias that could be explored in this article but I have deliberately focused on two. Those I have not covered but merit further consideration are: nomenclature; why commanders of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Companies in Light Mechanised Infantry Battalions don’t seem to have the same negative career profile; the reality of ‘dual qualification’ and why it is unachievable with only 10 Section Commanders Battle Course and six Platoon Sergeants Battle Course places available per year, per battalion; the way infantry equipment appears to be developed around the Rifle Company with very few comparative enhancements to Specialist Weapons Platoons; why some regiments (anecdotally the Royal Welsh and Royal Regiment of Fusiliers) do it differently, placing their highest scoring OCs into Support Company?
Instead, I have focused on what I believe to be the key cultural issues; rewarding soldiers based on performance rather than role, and how the lack of training opportunities is detrimental to the infantry specialist.
Clear comparisons can be drawn between Support Company and HQ Companies of the Infantry. Whilst this article deliberately focuses on Support Company, it is acknowledged that there are many Regimental Signals Officers who are frustrated with the lack of investment in them institutionally, and this article should be read with that in mind; it is one aspect of a broader issue.
Baselining infantry culture
Baselining the culture of the infantry is important. Generically speaking, the infantry is a testosterone fuelled, aggressively competitive corps that loves nothing more than to look down any other arm or corps within the British Army and Defence. There is an element of esprit de corps this attitude develops which generates unit cohesion. However, the Infantry treads a fine line, possibly undermining those that they need in support to close with and defeat the enemy through close combat. The Army now sits precariously; only capable of conventional mediocrity with limited long-range precision fires, inadequate air defence, degraded logistic capabilities and a critical lack in command-and-control infrastructure and workforce.
The deduction is not that the infantry needs to play better with others, but that it needs to rely on the organic protection, movement, sustainment, fires and Intelligence Surveillance Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) it is designed with. As scarce external resources are allocated elsewhere on a priority basis, organic assets will increasingly become the only reliable force multipliers that Commanding Officers have as some units have found (MOD only link) whilst being validated at Collective Training Level FOXTROT (Battle Group). This is the crux of what this paper seeks to address; how a culture of Rifle Company primacy is degrading the ability of the infantry’s organic specialists to grow and fight, enabling infantry independence when required.
Defining culture and how it affects Infantry Support Companies
The word culture needs definition, but an explanation of why culture is important is also required. Culture, as outlined in Mansour and Murray’s The Culture of Military Organizations, has enormous influence on military organisations and institutions, and their success on operations. The culture that surrounds the Royal Marines and Parachute Regiment generates a high level of ‘in-group’ collectivism (organisations where individuals within express pride, loyalty and rejoice in being a part of it).
In World War Two, the Falklands and more contemporary conflicts like those in Iraq, this collectivism generated an esprit de corps that made these units exceptional; not through a desire to ‘do good’ in an idealistic way, but through a desire not to let the team down. It is in-group collectivism that makes forces with clear identities good in a fight. However, this kind of culture needs to be tightly monitored to avoid situations like the Canadian Airborne Regiment found on a UN humanitarian mission in Somalia 1992-93 which ended with some appalling behaviours and the disbanding of the whole regiment. Culture is a critical determinant to effectiveness, and whilst the examples above talk about whole unit collectivism, it demonstrates clearly that culture (a sense of belonging across the unit) generates a will to fight that increases operational effectiveness.
This explains why culture is important, but not what culture is. This is not as simple as providing a dictionary definition. Raymond Williams outlines in Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society that “culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language”. Culture “involves so many external factors that impinge, warp, and distort its formation and continuities” that it becomes difficult to place until doing so with specificity. Culture is inherently contextual; every nation, sport, musical genre and fanbase has its own culture, which is often defined within that context. Every service within Defence has its own specific culture and there are subsets of culture within each.
For the purposes of this argument the following definition, developed by Isabel Hull in Absolute Destruction, will be used: Culture is the “habitual practices, default programmes, hidden assumptions, and un-reflected cognitive frames” that underpin how an organisation functions.
Developing and analytical framework
Using a framework to identify cultural assumptions will be fundamental to the academic grounding of this article and the most relevant is that developed by the Global Leadership and Organizational Behaviour Effectiveness (GLOBE) research programme. Their work, described in the Culture of Military Organizations, identifies nine “dimensions of culture that form the foundation of an organisation’s belief and values”. For the purposes of this discussion only two will be used, although all nine have relevance. First, is Performance Orientation, whereby “the degree to which a military encourages and rewards improvement and excellence”. Secondly is, Future Orientation, which is “the extent to which a military engages in future-orientated behaviours such as delaying gratification, planning, and investing in the future”.
Organisations with high levels of Performance Orientation place great emphasis upon education, learning and exercising initiative. Comparatively, organisations with low levels value social relations, loyalty, tradition and seniority. In the infantry we place a significant amount of stock in loyalty, tradition and indeed seniority. However, if our rewards system is simplified to being ‘promotion based on performance’ then we are stifling our rank structure through encouraging single pathway excellence.
For example, the most senior soldier within a regular infantry battalion, the Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM), will have been Brecon trained and have been an instructor at either the Infantry Battle School Brecon (IBS) or the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (RMAS). In 14 years of service, I have seen seven RSMs and, less one who’s background is unknown, every single one has served as an instructor at RMAS or Brecon. Moving down one rank to Warrant Officer Class 2 (WO2), where there are a total of 10 infantry cap badged within a Light Role Infantry Battalion, the current crop within my own Battalion have (bar three who are predominantly Mortar Platoon and Signals Platoon SMEs) been instructors at RMAS or Brecon. What does this demonstrate?
The infantry rewards Brecon qualified soldiers more highly than those who move down different pathways. This limits the opportunities of those soldiers who step out of the Rifle Company mainstream and generates false promotional ceilings. I have no doubt that there are instructors at the Specialist Weapons School (SWS), MTMC and other establishments who are capable, but the evidence demonstrates that without Brecon or RMAS instructional credentials, the ceiling is lower or at least less likely. This changes the perception of what is achievable, and individuals will self-select away from coming to Support Company as it limits their promotion prospects. Leaving the highest quality soldiers avoiding service in Support Company and, in some cases, turning down returning to the Company as CSM. Whilst this example is only at the senior soldier level the implications are across all ranks, with stark evidence of inequality across the Brecon and Support promotion pathways, despite relative parity across traditional first tour WO2 posts (three Rifle Companies versus four non-Rifle Company roles: Support Company, HQ Company, RSWO and Mortar Platoon 2IC).
For officers the same argument can be applied. Of eight Support Company OCs who have held the position since I joined the Battalion, four have been acting Majors and none have risen to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Comparatively, across the Rifle Companies, only one has been an acting Major, and of the 16 other Majors who have commanded Rifle Companies 11 have made it to Lieutenant Colonel or above.
So what? This is actively discouraging officers to come back to Support Company, preferring a Rifle Company outside of their own cap badge or division for better career prospects (although article evidence is from one battalion not the whole infantry). This has a negative impact on the soldiers within Support Company. Acting Majors will routinely be placed under pressure from their substantive colleagues on grading and promotion boards and, as they are likely to only serve one year, the soldiers under their command will not get the consistency of their Rifle Company colleagues.
Perception is everything, and the evidence presented indicates that only those who go down the Rifle Company route receive the rewards. Therefore, the infantry appears to only apply rewards (promotion) based on performance within Rifle Companies. To go one step further, there is a question of whether this is performance-based promotion or is it actually role-based promotion?
Organisations with high levels of Future Orientation have a strategic perspective and tend to be adaptive and flexible, whereas those with low levels focus on immediate survival and short-term accomplishments. They are hesitant to explore new methods as novel ideas might be disrupt current performance. Within the infantry, the last statement is most true; if success breeds success, why change? So how does future orientation identify within the context of a cultural bias towards the Rifle Company? This article will look at this through the way training is designed.
The Field Army Training Directive (MOD only link) contains some valuable and accessible information on how units are to train in 2020/21. It contains lessons from previous training years and detailed information on the ‘Back to Basics’ battle-craft syllabus. However, on very few occasions does it make any reference to Specialist Weapon Platoons, or Support Company. Indeed, the only time Specialist Weapons Platoons could be expected to complete training is as a “fire support element” in support of another company at Training Level ECHO (Combined Arms Sub-Unit). They are also left off the order of battle completely at Training Level FOXTROT (Battle Group).
It would appear within the Field Army Training Directive that Infantry Support Companies are relegated to being providers of crew served weapon systems, instead of providing the organic “find, fix, strike, exploit” capability that is identified as a lesson from training (MOD only link) in 2019/20. The focus on training provided by Field Army is on the Rifle Company, and realistically the first time Support Weapon Platoons will be expected to deliver integrated ‘Find’ and ‘Fix’ effects for the CO will be when they deploy on Training Level FOXTROT exercises. This is a short-sighted view of Support Company and numerous Post Exercise Reports and Training Analysis Reports (MOD only link) from the Field Training Unit corroborate this. The integration of Sniper, Recce and Anti-Tank Platoons, along with Mortars and Machine Guns will significantly enhance any Battle Group’s ISTAR and firepower through the blend of the capabilities that each Platoon offers. At no point is time or resource allocated within training cycles for this; based on what the Field Army is telling the Infantry to train in. It could be assumed that the only training a Support Company needs to deliver for Battle Group success is its Specialist Weapon Cadres (Platoon Training).
Further evidence of this is the way Overseas Training Exercises (OTXs) are designed and allocated. They are centred on Rifle Companies (or Royal Armoured Corps Squadrons operating in this role) with a slice of Support Company (as per Training Level ECHO outlined above). However, the Mission Task List (Land) (MOD only link), from which collective training objectives are to be extrapolated from for OTXs, contains many that are relevant to Support Company force elements operating either independently or whilst integrated.
As I reflected with the outgoing Commanding Officer on what he had learnt during his time in command, he emphasised the importance of collective training for support weapons and ISR as a critical enablers for battlegroup training and operations. He was very clear that, in his mind at least, this was the route to success for light mechanised infantry units being tested at CT4 and on future operations, and this is reflected in his Ex WESSEX STORM Post Exercise Report (MOD only link). Infantry Support Company’s operating as integrated holistic organisations (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Groups for instance) will far enhance the Battle Groups ability to Find and Fix the enemy through a blending of their capabilities. Yet the scarcity of OTXs, and the admitted challenge of re-designing the exercise, make it the default setting that a Rifle Company takes priority.
What might the outcome be without change?
The two examples above directly affect the moral and physical components of fighting power within infantry battalions. Within the moral component there is equality and the valuing of all within an infantry battalion. Performance Orientation, measured against senior soldiers and OCs, highlights how the infantry appears to not reward performance from within Support Company. Reward within the Army is promotion, and those within Support Company would appear to have lower ceilings than their peers in Rifle Companies despite the parity in available jobs at higher rank. Within the physical component there is the detrimental effect on training Support Company to better enable the Battle Groups organic ISTAR and Fires capabilities. Without training, at the right collective level, Support Company will not be able to integrate its capabilities. This will have a detrimental affect both operationally and when battalions are validated as Battle Groups; demonstrating a lack of Future Orientation within infantry culture.
How We Can Be Better
Firstly, positive change is underway. Commanding Officer SWS has introduced an integrated final exercise combining the ISR and firepower capabilities of Anti-Tanks, Mortars, Snipers and Machine Guns, with work underway to bring the Light Role Reconnaissance Course into the exercise. However, this is only training the commanders, or those attending the course, not the Platoons themselves and time is still required in the programme. Further consideration should be given to allocating Support Companies OTXs as a morale boosting vehicle to achieving this (or at least the same CT CHARLIE level resource as their Rifle Company colleagues).
Secondly, is to address the culture around the people themselves. Again, there are positive changes in the pipeline; infantry soldiers attending courses at SWS now receive the same Skill at Arms instructional qualification as their Brecon counterparts and this is believed to be opening the door for these individuals to instruct at the Infantry Training Centre Catterick, but policy has yet to confirm this. However, the door to RMAS (MOD only link) remains closed to Support Company soldiers who have not completed the Platoon Sergeants Battle Course, even though other arms and services only need to complete the Section Commanders Battle Course (or the All-Arms Basic Tactics Course) and this should be addressed. The number of Colour Sergeant instructor vacancies at SWS versus those at Brecon are significantly smaller, with IBS holding 38 against 15 at SWS.
I challenge the necessity for infantry Colour Sergeants being ‘required’ to train Lance Corporals at IBS when at SWS it is delivered by Sergeants, albeit from the SASC, but they still instruct in the tactics phase (another notable difference from IBS). This would appear to be aligned to the prestige of the establishment rather than its output. If a Sergeant can train a future Javelin Detachment Commander at SWS, then surely the same is true of training a Section Commander at IBS?
Cultural change is difficult to achieve, and as Liddell-Hart stated, this is especially true of change within military organisations. However, without better career prospects within Support Company, the apparent promotional ceiling will prevent the best soldiers wanting to move into the roles it has available, despite their importance on the battlefield. The selection of those for promotion to WO2 (and subsequent selection for RQMS and promotion to RSM) also only appears to occur if they have gone down a ‘mainstream’ Brecon or RMAS instructional route, despite the roles that are available within a Battalion.
The same is true of OCs. The fact that officers would rather serve in a cap badge different to their own is indicative of the career implications being such that officers sacrifice serving the soldiers of their own regiment in favour of another. This is not a slight on those who make that choice, but if Support Company OCs were at least given parity with their Rifle Company colleagues (and the same training opportunities to increase job satisfaction) perhaps better leaders would generate better results within a key part of the infantry. A lack of training opportunities is a further example of cultural bias against Support Company and has a direct impact on Battle Group performance on CT FOXTROT level exercises; despite evidence on the importance of organic ISTAR and Fires coming from training providers (MOD only link) for these exercises. Giving Support Companies the same CT CHARLIE level training opportunities (albeit framing it differently within a Battle Group level context) would mean that integration of ISR and Fires would be well rehearsed, or at least trained, prior to Battle Groups being validated.
It would also increase the morale of the soldiers within the Company. We often underestimate the perceptiveness of our soldiers and whilst playing enemy for one (or indeed all) of the Rifle Companies CT CHARLIE is extremely valuable, it is not the same as being the training audience, and soldiers understand that, see it for the second tier training it is, and feel undervalued that they are not resourced in the same way. Reading the Field Army Training Directive, I find it difficult to believe that Support Company has become such a degraded and poorly thought of organisation that it is missed off the order of battle completely for Battle Group level validation exercises. This is highly likely just a staff oversight, but the fact that it is one that concerns Support Company is further evidence of a culture that does not value those elements within the infantry.
To close, there are some very positive improvements being made for the soldiers of Support Company, but it has a long way to go. The infantry needs to invest in all its troops, and as stated I am merely using Support Company as a vehicle to demonstrate a wider issue. Without change we run the risk of making our assault forces (the Rifle Companies) exceptional, without having sufficiently developed the force elements that will have set the conditions for their deliberate action.
If you want to know more about the kind of leadership that is needed in the Specialised Infantry, then check out Leadership in The Specialised Infantry