Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The disappearnce of the bridging company and the reappearance of infantry.

Yesterday a spokesman for the Wyoming Army National Guard announced that the 1041st Multi-Role Bridge Company will soon cease to exist.

The units is, rather obviously, just of company size, but it was somewhat unique for the Wyoming Army National Guard. The unit was created, if I recall correctly, back in the 1980s.  I can't recall if it existed or not while I was in the Guard, but I don't think it did.  I recall it existing at the time of the First Gulf War, however, but by that time the two battalions of the 49th Field Artillery here in Wyoming had been consolidated into a single battalion, which in turn meant that they had significantly fewer men than they had just a few years earlier. That reflected the downsizing in the military that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.  When that occurred, some armories were closed and in some regions of the states there were no more positions for artillerymen.  That was the case in southwestern Wyoming, which is where the bridging company was put in.  A friend of mine who was a career Guardsmen was in it for a time. The unit was activated for the First Gulf War, and the Second Gulf War, which the newly consolidated artillery was not, but because the wars did not develop as planned they were not deployed into combat.  If I recall correctly, during the second war the unit was held up due to problems with its anticipated deployment (i.e, it might have been anticipated that it would be sent to Turkey).  By all accounts it was a good unit.

"Engineers from the South Carolina Army National Guard’s 125th Multi-Role Bridge Company (MRBC), train to slingload the unit’s Bridge Erection Boats (BEB) with a U.S. Army CH-47 Chinook on Strom Thurmond Lake at the Clarks Hill Training Site in Plum Branch, S.C., June 18, 2014. The airlift operations were part of the unit’s annual training where platoons trained to transport their boats by air in response to a natural disaster when transportation by road was not possible. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Brian Calhoun/Released)".  The Wyoming Army National Guard's MRBC unit had boats of this type and indeed was this type of unit.

It was announced that soldiers in the unit would be folded into a new Wyoming Army National Guard infantry company.

All this is really interesting in regards to what now calls itself "the Cowboy Guard" (when they were bigger, when I was in it, they didn't use that nickname).  

To start of with, this is an interesting example of the further contraction of the Army, even while we are fighting a war, which is fairly amazing. Granted, we aren't engaged in heavy combat to the same extent we were just a few years ago, but we are still fighting and yet we're still shrinking the military.  No doubt it's not anticipated that we'll need to deploy bridging units against ISIL, but none the less, this is fairly surprising.

On the other hand, the folding of the unit into infantry is perhaps telling.  In our recent wars the fighting has been done by infantry.  Indeed, we've gone from the situation of World War Two and Korea, in which infantry were heavily used and always in short supply, but where the majority of casualties inflicted in combat by the U.S. Army were inflicted by artillery, to a series of wars starting with Vietnam were infantry, and indeed small unit actions, have become increasingly important.  In terms of a long cycle, we've actually seen the reemergence of infantry, and indeed infantry squads, as perhaps the most significant element of our current wars.

"U.S. Army Soldiers wait to be picked up by UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters south of Balad Ruz, Iraq, March 22, 2009. The Soldiers are assigned to the 25th Infantry Division's 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team. DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Walter J. Pels."  Modern U.S. Army infantry.

It's also interesting as it is the first time that the Wyoming Army National Guard will have infantry in over 100 years.

I'm not exactly sure when the last Wyoming Army National Guard infantry unit was disbanded, but I suspect it was just prior to World War One.  The state's Guard was mostly infantry from statehood up until some point just prior to the Great War.  Artillery entered the Wyoming Guard nearly from the onset, and there were artillery units in the Guard here at least as early as the Spanish American War, but there were infantry units as well.  Oddly, the existence of the infantry units is hardly ever noted and even the State's Guard today doesn't list them in its official on line histories, but they were there.  Photographs of infantry units mustered for the Spanish American War and just prior to World War One are available at the State Archives and I've seen them.  I suspect that there were some infantry units right up through the mobilization for the border crisis with Mexico, but the one source I've seen that mentioned them is one that I don't own.  During World War One, however, the Wyoming Guard served as heavy artillery.  Infantry did not reappear here again until just now.

One of the things about infantry is that it's always needed, and while it isn't cheap, any longer, to train and equip infantry, it's cheaper to do so than other units, and a bit easier to train as well.  All of that is probably why infantry shows up in a state like Wyoming, which you would otherwise suspect to have been cavalry, early on, and the Wyoming Army National Guard was horse cavalry, and then horse mechanized cavalry, from the early 1920s up into World War Two, when it became mechanized cavalry.  Artillery came and stayed after that.  Now, with the  Guards continuing to shrink, infantry has returned, although only as a company.

In that took, however, the Guard sort of oddly recalls the Guard prior to World War One.  After World War One, the Guard existed in fairly large, statewide units.  Following the Cold War, it seems, the Guard here started to see the reemergence of small single purpose units, although some always existed. The reappearance of infantry in this fashion strongly resembles this old form.  Of course, the return to a small American military also recalls the historic norm. So in terms of trends, the past is sort of repeating, or rather perhaps echoing, the past here.

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