The night has always played a major role in battle. In ancient times, protracted operations and castle sieges required massive efforts at night as well as during the day. Historically, night attacks have seized the initiative with an audacious attack against a less-prepared foe. This is true both for the United States and the other major belligerents.
Today, most commanders continue to opt for night operations despite their difficulties. In fact, anecdotal experience at combat training centers indicates that commanders overwhelmingly choose to conduct night attacks and often struggle mightily with the same operation a day. As the Army has increasingly relied on night dominance to achieve strategic objectives in recent years, this reliance must be reduced. Rather than relying on the inherent advantages of night tactics, the Army should make a significant effort to codify its night-fighting doctrine and reduce the number of soldiers operating at night.
Furthermore, the Army’s combat training centers must continue to stress that a capable OPFOR enjoys a level playing field in night operations. Hence, rotational units should embrace the reality that their mettle may be tested at night by a well-equipped peer OPFOR with superior knowledge of the terrain. The Army must also prioritize modern night-vision and thermal optics to reinforce this challenge. The Army should also reexamine its overreliance on night fighting at the combat training centers and reconsider the disproportionate distribution of night and day operations at those facilities.
Night Combat in the U.S. Army
The Army’s ability to exploit the night has been essential in winning many conflicts over the last two decades. In addition, thermal and night-vision devices have allowed the Army to develop and field superior tactical capabilities that radically increased the likelihood of battlefield victory. However, this technological advantage has largely been atrophied by the lack of doctrine that would effectively dictate their employment. As peer adversaries and irregular forces continue to field night-vision and thermal optics, the Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) and Family of Weapon Sights – Individual (FWS-I) progress to large-scale testing and operational implementation, it is time to reevaluate this important capability.
Changing the military’s doctrinal framework to account for a peer or near-peer enemy who can operate at night will require dramatic reform. Establishing this new framework will also take years of training and battles. Commanders at all levels must embrace the challenge that a capable, peer OPFOR may be better suited to operate at night than a friendly force. They must not be compelled to select a night operation as the unerringly “correct” choice but should only do so if battlefield circumstances suggest that a night operation will succeed where a day operation may fail.
Infantry units, especially platoons, squads, and companies, must ensure that their training scenarios resolutely and accurately depict an opponent with the ability to operate at night. They must emphasize the importance of laser manipulation and sparing of aiming aids in frequent night qualifications and live-fire scenarios. Moreover, Army rotational units should make sure they are fielding the latest generation of night-vision and thermal optics to OPFOR. This will help reinforce the fact that, at night, the OPFOR enjoys a level playing field and should be prioritized in combat training centers to reinforce the mettle of rotational units to the extent possible.
The Army has been able to leverage night-vision and thermal imagers for nearly two decades of counterinsurgency operations, but these technologies are rapidly diminishing. Unless the Army changes course and adopts a modern night-fighting doctrine, it cannot sustain its technological advantage in any future conflict with a peer or near-peer opponent equipped with a night-vision and thermal optics capability equal to our own. Even though we now have more than two dozen manned and unmanned night-vision platforms to choose from, our reliance on these devices has been the limiting factor in developing effective night-fighting doctrine. We must also rethink how we train and equip our units.
In this regard, the Army must not only embrace the challenge of fielding new technologies to reduce our reliance on night-vision and thermal optics; we must also reexamine our overreliance on night-fighting technology at the combat training centers. Currently, many field-grade observers have observed that most commanders opt for a night operation in rotational and large-scale exercises, even in the bloodless environments of a combat training center.
TRADOC should significantly expand the limited visibility section in Infantry Platoon and Squad to drive home the point that peer adversaries enjoy a level playing field when navigating their way through the dark. Likewise, unit leaders should be encouraged to test their mettle against a peer OPFOR and impose penalties for failure to employ the most effective night-fighting techniques. Finally, the Army should be willing to take its technological advantage to the next level by introducing a new generation of aiming devices and masking a soldier’s thermal signature with new technology.