Saturday, August 14, 2010
Introducing: The Malaysian Army Infantry Section
Geared up for action, a Malaysian Army infantry section shows off its tools of the trade.
You won't want to get within 300 metres of this section because these soldiers can do a lot of hurt.
From left, we see a Sergeant with a six-shot Milkor MGL (multiple grenade launcher); rifleman with a 5.56mm AUG assault rifle, a section machine gunner with a M249 Minimi Squad Automatic Weapon with 200-round box magazine, two riflemen with AUGs (ammo carriers for the RPGs), two RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenade gunners and a section signaller with an AUG.
Contrast the Malaysian Army's choice of a reloadable anti-armour weapon with that of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) which arms its infantry sections with two single-shot Matador LAWs.
One should not be too clinical when it comes to defence science and harp endlessly on the accuracy and penetrative power of the SAF's Matadors. There's good reason why RPGs have captured the attention of armies in combat. True, these rocket-propelled grenades are inaccurate in a crosswind and cannot penetrate bird cage armour. But when fired en masse and against targets other than armoured vehicles, these shoulder-launched rockets have collected blood debts in battlefields around the globe from Chechenya to Lebanon.
During firefights in plantation areas or urban battlespace, the RPGs give Malaysian soldiers a hefty punch. The reloadable RPGs represent the infantry's own artillery. They can be fired against enemy armour, soft skin vehicles as well as troop concentrations and come into their own during urban shootouts.
With two RPG gunners per section supported by suppressive fire from the SAW and indirect fire from grenades lobbed by the MGL, a Malaysian infantry section will prove hard to dislodge. The weight of fire the section can deliver is intense, though the sustainability of such firepower is worth looking into (see below).
I hope the day never comes when Singaporean defence engineers will have to explain to SAF infantry why they have been outgunned after their Matadors have been spent and a RPG-armed enemy continues hammering them with rocket-propelled fire.
Malaysian infantry platoon commanders are trained to think through and deploy their sections with a mutually supportive fire plan that maximises home ground terrain advantage.
The addition of RPGs at section level must be seen as part of a wider plan to beef up the Malaysian Army's anti-armour firepower. The unguided, shoulder-launched RPG munitions are back-stopped by battalion-level ATGMs such as the Russian-made Metis-M and Baktar Shikan from Pakistan.
It is noteworthy that a similar menu of anti-armour weapons was used by Hezbollah fire teams with decisive effect against Israeli armour during the summer 2006 war in southern Lebanon.["Decisive" is arguably a matter of opinion. I belong to the school of thought that Hezbollah won the engagement because the IDF failed to achieve mission success.]
The battalion-sized Malaysian Contingent (MALCON) that served United Nations peace-keeping missions is likely to have reconnoitered recent battlefields for nuggets of information on how ATGWs defeated Israeli heavy armour such as the Merkavas. (Wouldn't you do the same if you were on duty there?)
The shock effect that main battle tanks such as Merkavas may have on Malaysian troops during a battle may be diluted, in view of the Malaysian Army's investments in anti-armour munitions, tactics and battle indoctrination.
The value of MBTs in rolling up a front held by Malaysian infantry may thus be more imagined than real, and the shock effect could be turned against the aggressor by determined Malaysian Army troops once enemy units come within the concentric range rings of their anti-armour weapons. Think Agincourt.
Coming back to the image of the Malaysian infantry section, it will be clear that while the Malaysian section's firepower-on-call is hefty, so is the ammunition expenditure.
Every soldier in the picture stands without his full pack. Questions might be asked about the sustainability of Malaysian infantry operations, day and night. With packs on in full battle order, the mobility of a Malaysian infantry section will drop appreciably.
This isn't an issue during defensive operations against armour-heavy incursions, particularly on home ground as Malaysian Army troops can forage among the Rakyat (Malaysian populace).
But if hostile forces can shrug off the initial reply from the Malaysian infantry, then the issue of ammunition resupply comes to the fore because the MGL, Minimi and RPGs consume prodigious quantities of munitions. There is a limited amount of ammunition the section can carry into battle.
The distance any infantry battalion can travel on foot before hitting exhaustion levels is inversely proportional to the weight carried per soldier. You only have to read accounts of Wehrmacht operations on the Eastern Front during WW2 to realise that there comes a point when well-trained and battle-conditioned infantry cannot move any further once exhaustion kicks in.
Anyone who has seen troops on a forced march will realise that fatigued units are more of a liability when mental alertness and the adroitness of individual troops is compromised by sheer physical exhaustion.
The Malaysian Army's teeth arms will find it needs to rely on a combat service support arm that can keep frontline battalions adequately stocked once the firefight gets underway. If motorised transport is used, this vulnerable tail would subject itself to interdiction from the air or by an enemy with overwhelming superiority in artillery which has zeroed in key transport nodes like bridges and road junctions and will not hesitate to fire for effect.
Fighting from prepared positions which are properly camouflaged and hardened against enemy fire goes some way in addressing the ammunition resupply question. This is because the prepared hides can be pre-stocked with extra munitions during the period before hostilities.
As the Lebanon 2006 battle showed, individual firing positions - particularly those inside buildings - are difficult to detect until troops open fire and the weapon signature (noise, smoke, blast effects) betray the position. Shrewd commanders would use deception as part of their fire plan by deliberately attracting enemy sensors to certain positions (smoke, remotely-triggered weapons, fake missile launches with Smokey SAMS) and drawing fire.
Remember that the ammunition resupply issue cuts both ways - it hits Malaysian units as well as aggressor forces because aerial bombs, artillery shells and other instruments of war are not unlimited.
On point about the signaller: the signal set represents the only electronic link to PCs and above. The signaller helps higher command maintain some semblance of tactical control once the battalion is dispersed for combat.
In my opinion, the Malaysian soldier has some way to go before its battlefield communications allow individual units to mark out hostile targets, call for fire or indicate its position to friendly forces using some blue force tracking device.
This in itself isn't a disadvantage particularly when the Malaysian soldier is defending home territory. The downside comes when Malaysian commanders need to secure an open flank, say against air mobile enemy forces, or quickly wheel a battalion around when fighting on reversed fronts.
In summary, the Malaysian soldier has come a long way from the Emergency period when he was pitted against Communist forces fighting in the jungle.
The anti-armour emphasis of the Malaysian Army section is a nod to the type and intensity of threat it may have to face and it would be unwise to discount their staying power in a hot war scenario.
Acknowledgements: I'm grateful to Khoo Jin Kiat for the image and to ATM units who hosted me on study tours.
Posted by David Boey at 10:00 PM