All-Corps Mounted Combatant Skills: The Search for the Missing Word

This article will seek to argue that historical concepts of mounted forces have framed our contemporary understanding of mounted capability in a way that has left a gap in our language and thoughts. It will further argue that the resulting gap has created a situation where our organisation is unable to reach a common understanding about mounted capability that fits neatly within historical examples. Finally it will argue for a framework to rectify these problems.

All of our concepts of mounted capability are framed by historical concepts. The modern role of Cavalry is derived from historical light and skirmishing cavalry. Our conceptualisation of Armour is similarly derived from heavy and shock cavalry. From the symbology we use to depict cavalry, to the tasks we give armour, to the iconography mounted units adopt (like the mailed fist of School of Armour), our entire contemporary understanding of mounted combat is derived from historical norms. When the word “Cavalry” is used, it is implied that reconnaissance, screening and raiding are functions, when the word “Armour” is used decisive shock action is necessarily implied. Likewise, when the words “Mounted Infantry” are used, seeking out and engaging the enemy in close combat is necessarily implied. Any attempt to find a historical term for a generic mounted combatant that lacks connotations about the tactical tasks they fulfil will fail; witness equites, auxilia, hussars, cuirassiers, dragoons, stradiot, hobelar, cossacks, chevau-legers, jinetes, tucopoles, uhlan, sowars, cataphracts, knights.

Words don’t matter, except when they do. In this case, the gap in language between a person who is mounted and has no ability to defend themselves or participate in combat (“waggoner”, “trucky”, “driver”) and a soldier whose primary role is to conduct mounted combat (“crewman”, “cavalry”, “tanky”) is too large. The result is that participants in conversations that centre on a person who needs to be able to conduct some mounted combat tasks, even though it’s not their primary role, tend to result in people defaulting to either side of the gap. Speak the words “Bushmaster” and “Commander” near each other and there’s a good chance half a room of people will begin to think you’re talking about someone who is trained to be a latter-day Michael Wittmann. Similarly, mention the words “Transport” and “Convoy” and mental images are summoned of administrative road deployments to a large mounting base or perhaps of an incredibly large and non-tactical support battalion on hard standing with white light. Nothing in-between seems to be communicable in any succinct way.

What makes this interesting is that the same “all or nothing” mentality doesn’t exist for dismounted combat skills. I haven’t seen anyone claim that the doctrinal requirement for all combat service support soldiers in the combat brigade to conduct section Infantry Minor Tactics (IMT) requires that they be as proficient as Special Forces. Yet any time mounted combat proficiency in transport soldiers is raised, or Mounted Minor Tactics (MMT) is mentioned, an assumption exists that the Corps of Transport is about to try to become cavalry. In other words, the Army has sufficient common understanding of the levels of dismounted combat skills that no one becomes uncomfortable with formalising basic infantry skills for non-infantry soldiers, but lacks the same nuanced understanding of mounted combat skills. IMT are inherently good and have become enshrined in our training, but MMT appears to be black magic for black hats.

There are lots of reasons this might be; I suspect the main one is that we’ve been an infantry focused army for our whole history; my barracks and lines are named for the Battle of Tobruk and Zeitun Sector where truckies from the divisional train fought as infantry for six months; we conduct our basic soldier and officer training in a dismounted combatant context; our entire conceptualisation of “all-corps” is principally dismounted infantry skills; if I go back to our early corps journals in the 1980’s I find submissions from Vietnam era Service Corps officers talking about their platoon’s routine employment for dismounted patrols and ambushes. Don’t mistake this as an argument that these are bad things; these are explicitly good things that we shouldn’t move away from. What is bad is that we lack similarly nuanced understanding of mounted skills that prevents us from understanding levels of mounted capability that are below that of armour or which are functionally different from historical concepts of cavalry or mounted infantry. The main reasons that this is a problem now, when it wasn’t a few decades ago is that nearly all of the soldiers we field today operate from vehicles nearly all the time and that land forces on the battlefield are becoming so disaggregated that the concept of a FEBA is carrying less and less relevance with every passing month.

Our coalition partners have worked past this linguistic barrier and we might be able to take some queues from them in how to discuss these topics. The training of non-arms corps soldiers to provide more appropriate levels of mounted self protection by the US Army, US Marine Corps and British Army is reasonably well known of in the Australian Army. I further suspect that the reason Australia and New Zealand haven’t kept pace in this area is primarily because our recent operational circumstances have allowed us to minimise the risk to our logistical forces without improving their levels of integral force protection, a luxury not available to Britain and the USA. It is unlikely that such luxuries are going to exist for us in the future – all trends suggest that distribution forces operating in future conflicts are going to be exposed to greater levels of risk than ever before in order for land power to be applied, but discussing these trends isn’t the purpose of this article, and other people in this forum are already doing quite a good job of it.

A solution to this problem is to formalise mounted skills into a continuum that caters to lower skill levels. This would allow us to begin to clearly delineate the skills possessed by armoured forces from those that mounted, but non-armoured, forces need to possess. The answer as to where these lines are already exist in service documentation – it’s mostly a question of us “operationalising” the strategic language of these documents to turn it into a continuum that can link individual training to collective training undertaken by tactical commanders and executed on operations. In time, these formal delineations will become irrelevant as we develop a common understanding and vernacular that affords us the ability to clearly distinguish between bona fide mounted combatants (those who fight vehicles) from military forces who are habitually mounted (those who increasingly need to be able to fight from vehicles to survive), but at the moment, such a formal dichotomy seems necessary.

Paul Rogers is the Commanding Officer of the Army School of Transport. He has commanded Australian and United States distribution force elements on operations in East Timor and Afghanistan and was an instructor at the US Army Transportation School from 2007 – 2009

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government. Further information.