Precision-guided weapons have revolutionized American airpower, enabling the kind of devastating strikes first seen in the 1991 Gulf War. To date, however, this revolution has largely happened outside the realm of ground combat. Especially for the infantry soldier, combat has changed little since World War II. With a brief introduction to the M4 carbine’s operation and night vision goggles, a D-Day soldier could be ready to fight in today’s infantry squads. Soon, that may no longer be the case. Precision-guided weapons are beginning to filter down to the squad level — a trend that could usher in the most dramatic changes in infantry tactics since the invention of the machine gun. Like the machine gun, this technology is likely to increase lethality on the battlefield dramatically. The United States must begin to prepare for these changes now.
On the morning of July 1, 1916, 11 divisions of British troops marched forth, hoping to break the German lines entrenched north of the Somme in France. By the day’s end, 20,000 British soldiers lay dead, their largest single-day loss in the war. Sixty percent of all British officers in the advance were killed. Their deaths resulted from a mismatch in tactics and technology. The British were still employing infantry tactics from a previous era, but the invention of the machine gun had changed the rules of the game. While the British had used an early version of the machine gun, the Maxim gun, to great effect in colonial wars around the world, they had not yet faced an adversary similarly equipped. This single day mirrored the larger pattern of the Battle of the Somme and World War I. New technologies such as machine guns and railroads changed the rules of the game in surprising ways, and the result was a protracted, bloody stalemate.
Today, early signs of a new revolution in infantry combat are apparent. Improvements in computer processors and sensors are enabling smaller, lower-cost, and more ruggedized electronics. These, in turn, are putting the same game-changing advances in precision-guided munitions that revolutionized American airpower into the hands of the infantry soldier. The beginnings of this revolution can be seen across a range of first-generation precision-guided infantry weapons. While these weapons have limitations in their current form, such as weight and cost, they hint at the potential of what is to come. Just as early arquebus matchlock guns had limitations, but signaled the firearms revolution that followed, these first-generation weapons similarly show the nascent potential of precision-guided weapons in ground combat.