The Future of Warfare: Light Mechanized Cavalry
World War II saw the retirement of the horse cavalry of the U.S. Army, and its replacement by mechanized cavalry. The mechanization of cavalry began in the early 1930s and was essentially completed during the course of World War II. Mechanization caused a change in doctrine. Unlike horse cavalry, which was an all purpose, mobile combat force, the Army's mechanized cavalry evolved into a specialized force whose doctrinal role was reconnaissance. Unfortunately, the mechanized cavalry's doctrine of reconnaissance did not match the needs of the World War II battlefield.
Combat revealed several short-comings in mechanized cavalry doctrine. At the tactical level doctrine focused exclusively on the reconnaissance mission, and did not recognize the importance of combat power to effective reconnaissance. Combat also demonstrated that in the absence of horse cavalry, mechanized cavalry could not specialize in reconnaissance. Combat revealed that mechanized cavalry must execute the traditional missions of horse cavalry. At the operational level, doctrine did not articulate the role cavalry played as an element of economy of force.
The years just prior to World War II were full of great turmoil, experimentation, improvisation, and expansion in the U.S. Army. The range of issues facing the cavalry arm are illustrative of the type of issues faced by all of the Army's services. Cavalry was attempting to implement mechanization, determine the continued feasibility of the horse, expand ten fold, develop doctrine, and plan new organizational structures. An indication of the rapid transitions going on in the branch is the fact that in 1940 three different types of cavalry regiments existed in the Army: horse regiments; mechanized regiments; and combination horse and mechanized regiments.
Each of the three types of cavalry had a unique niche in the force structure. Horse cavalry regiments were the main-stay of the cavalry force, existing both as separate organizations and as part of cavalry divisions. The combined horse and mechanized regiments were a unique type of separate cavalry regiment designed to provide long range truck mobility to horse units combined with some of the fire power and mobility characteristics of mechanized elements. Finally, the purely mechanized regiments were the forerunners of the armored regiments and battalions that would fight World War II. Each of these unit types had unique doctrine and supporting organization and equipment.
In June of 1940, the mechanized cavalry regiments of the 7th Cavalry Brigade at Fort Knox demonstrated themselves to be so different from the other cavalry organizations that the Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, ordered that they and their infantry counter-part, form the nucleus of a new arm of service: the Armored Force.
The Armored Force came into existence because of a basic belief held by both tank and cavalry advocates; that armor was fundamentally different from cavalry. This difference transcended the obvious difference in equipment and was fundamentally associated with roles and missions. The exact role of cavalry in an age of mechanized war was to vex the branch and the Army through the early years of World War II. One result of the Army's ambiguity regarding the roles and missions of cavalry on the emerging battlefield was no significant commitment of mechanized cavalry units to combat until June, 1944, fully two and half years after the war began.
The most decisive action taken to correct what had become, by early 1942, a confusing mass of different types of cavalry organizations, was the Army reorganization orders of 1942 and 1943. The reorganization of 1942 established the mechanized cavalry squadron and group organizations as the corps separate cavalry. The Army reorganization of 1943 standardized the cavalry reconnaissance squadron (CRS) (mechanized) for all corps and divisional cavalry. The cavalry reconnaissance (mechanized) designation defined mechanized cavalry's role as an arm within the Army. Henceforth, mechanized cavalry and the reconnaissance mission were synonymous.
Although officially designated as cavalry reconnaissance in 1943, mechanized cavalry had long emphasized reconnaissance over other missions in training, organization, and equipment. From the beginning of mechanization to the reorganization of the mechanized squadron in 1943, doctrine emphasized stealth as the primary technique for obtaining reconnaissance information. Reconnaissance units were equipped primarily with armored cars because of their range, speed, armor, and effectiveness as reconnaissance platforms. Tanks were rejected because of their size, noise, and limited operating radius. Doctrine considered the likelihood of the cavalry reconnaissance organization fighting to be low, therefore, authorized only a few light tanks in the squadron organization. Fighting, a traditional cavalry task, was to be the domain of horse cavalry.
The limited applicability of the tactical technique of stealth for reconnaissance became evident in the early campaigns of the World War II, primarily in North Africa. Lessons learned caused the Army Ground Forces (AGF) to reorganize the mechanized cavalry in 1943 to give the squadron and troop the ability of fight for information. However, the limited scope of early Army actions in North Africa and Sicily precluded the recognition of all of the short-falls of mechanized cavalry doctrine.
The latter campaigns of World War II demonstrated more basic doctrinal faults. Combat in Northwest Europe required cavalry reconnaissance units to do much more than reconnaissance. Cavalry performed the traditional roles of horse cavalry: defend and delay, exploit, attack, as well as reconnaissance. They revalidated the early findings that reconnaissance required fighting. Finally, the operation of multiple corps and field armies highlighted the unusual effectiveness of mechanized cavalry, and the critical requirement for corps cavalry to perform economy of force operations as a part of operational maneuver. Thus, the closing battles of World War II saw the cavalry reconnaissance units fighting the traditional missions of cavalry, but hampered by a doctrine, organization, and equipment designed primarily for reconnaissance.
The history of the cavalry arm as it transitioned to mechanization is key to understanding how and why U.S. Army mechanized cavalry doctrine proved inadequate to the battlefield of World War II. Cavalry's key role in development of the Armored Force distracted it from paying serious attention to the development of mechanized cavalry doctrine. A wide variety of factors, most important among them combat experience, forced the Army to reevaluate the role of cavalry on the battlefield. Unfortunately, updating doctrine in the field did not alleviate the problems of organization and equipment.
The legacy of this experience is the U.S. Army's modern armored cavalry. Modern armored cavalry is specifically designed as a robust organization capable of independent combat. The lesson of World War II is that at the tactical level of war armored cavalry must perform all the traditional cavalry missions, including security and reconnaissance. An associated lesson is that combat power is critical to successful accomplishment of all traditional cavalry missions, including reconnaissance. In addition, armored cavalry often attacks or defends in an economy of force role at the operational level of war. The 50 years of American military experience since World War II have demonstrate the validity of these lessons.
The lessons of World War II are of absolute importance as the U.S. Army of the 1990s pursues an ambitious restructuring program. They are relevant when evaluating the organization and roles of the current armored cavalry force. They also provide some unique insights into the structure of the Army's force for the future, Force XXI. Today's Army modernization and reorganization efforts should heed the lessons learned and demonstrated by the mechanized cavalry of World War II, and not repeat the mistakes of the past.