Combat Support

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Combat Support. Land warfare is the mission of the U.S. Army, and army forces are divided into three categories according to their function on the battlefield: combat, combat support, and combat service support. Combat forces engage in direct confrontation with enemy forces to kill or capture them, to break their will to continue the fight, and to seize and hold terrain or to deny it to the enemy. Combat support forces provide direct support of the forces on the battlefield by providing intelligence, communications, engineering, and chemical warfare services of immediate impact on the course of the battle. Combat service support forces provide administrative and technical (logistical) services to ensure that the combat and combat support forces are adequately manned, armed, fed, fueled, maintained, and moved as required. This division of forces into three functional groups applies specifically to the army, but navy, Marine Corps, and air force units and personnel fall into the same general categories.

With the exception of general officers, every officer, soldier, and unit of the army is assigned to one of the army's twenty‐five basic and special branches. The basic branches are: Armor, Artillery, Air Defense Artillery, Aviation, Infantry, Military Intelligence, and Special Forces; the Corps of Engineers; and the Adjutant General's, Chemical, Finance, Military Police, Ordnance, Quartermaster, Signal, and Transportation Corps. The special branches include the Chaplain's and Judge Advocate General's Corps and the six branches of the Army Medical Service (the Medical, Dental, Veterinary, Army Nurse, Army Medical Service, and Medical Specialist Corps). The Adjutant General's, Chaplain's, Finance, Judge Advocate General's, and Military Police Corps are considered administrative services. Technical services include the Corps of Engineers, Army Medical Service, and the Chemical, Ordnance, Quartermaster, Signal, and Transportation Corps. One additional special branch, Civil Affairs, is found only in the reserve components. The General Staff Corps and the Inspector General's Corps are not in fact separate branches at all, even though they have distinctive insignia. Rather, officers and enlisted personnel are detailed to the General Staff Corps or Inspector General's Corps for limited periods and then return to their basic branch.

The basic and special branches of the army are aligned with the three functional categories. The combat arms (branches) are Infantry, Armor, Artillery, Air Defense Artillery, Aviation, and Special Forces. The combat support branches include the Corps of Engineers, the Military Intelligence Corps, the Chemical Corps, and the Signal Corps. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is considered both a combat arm and a combat support branch in that engineers perform direct combat missions as well as support functions. In many respects, the Signal Corps and the Chemical Corps also perform both functions. Finally, the combat service support branches include the Adjutant General's Corps, the Chaplain's Corps, the Finance Corps, the Judge Advocate General's Corps, the Military Police Corps, the Ordnance Corps, the Quartermaster Corps, the Transportation Corps, and the six branches of the Army Medical Service.

The Combat Service Support Mission.

According to the official armed forces definition, combat service support covers “the essential logistic functions, activities, and tasks necessary to sustain all elements of operating forces in an area of operations. At the tactical level of war, it includes but is not limited to that support rendered by service troops in ensuring the operational and tactical aspects of supply, maintenance, transportation, health services, and other services required by aviation and ground combat troops to permit those units to accomplish their missions in combat.” Thus, combat service support incorporates those functions necessary to man, arm, feed, fuel, maintain, and move the fighting forces and their equipment in the field. Its forces provide immediate support as organic elements of the forward combat units (battalions, brigades, divisions, and corps), as well as administrative and technical services in rear areas and at the highest national level. Members of the combat service support branches, like their comrades in the other branches, prepare plans, estimates, and orders; participate in the development of doctrine and materiel; and conduct training in their respective specialties.

The combat service support forces form the “tail” in the often‐cited “tooth‐to‐tail” ratio. In fact, the analogy is a poor one. A somewhat better characterization of a field army as a living organism would be to consider the staff the brain; the combat arms, the arms and legs; the com‐bat support branches, the eyes, ears, and nervous system; and the combat service support forces as the heart and circulatory system, which provide nourishment to the other elements.

Although the bulk of combat service support is provided out of direct contact with the enemy, these troops on the modern battlefield often become engaged in direct combat with the enemy. Soldiers receive basic combat training, and with the exception of army medical personnel and chaplains, are armed. No small percentage of the Medals of Honor and other decorations awarded for gallantry on the battlefield have been given to combat service support soldiers.

Evolution of Combat Service Support Forces.

The process by which our armed forces create combat service support forces reacts to the same stimuli that influence the structuring of the combat forces themselves (namely, changing organization, doctrine, and technology). The process is especially sensitive to new developments in technology and to the ever‐increasing scope and scale of modern war. Over the past two centuries, the evolution of the army's support structure has followed general trends in warfare. Four main factors have emerged: increasing complexity and scale; increasing specialization; an increasing proportion of manpower required for combat service support functions; and an increasing proportion of civilians.

Combat service support forces have been an integral and important part of the army since its creation in 1775. As the size and technological sophistication of the forces have grown, so too have the size and technological sophistication of the combat service support elements of the army. Most of the present‐day support branches were established in 1818 in the aftermath of the War of 1812, and evolved alongside the combat arms and combat support branches through the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish‐American War, and the two world wars. Until 1912, the army had a separate Commissary of Subsistence Department, which handled the procurement and distribution of rations. However, in 1912 the Subsistence Department was merged with the Quartermaster Department. In 1950, the secretary of the army received authority to determine the number and strength of the various combat arms and services. The Infantry was retained as the premier combat arm; Armor replaced Cavalry; the Field Artillery, Coast Artillery, and Antiaircraft Artillery were consolidated in one artillery branch; the Transportation Corps and Military Police Corps were made permanent; and the six medical branches were consolidated in the Army Medical Service. A Military Intelligence branch was created in 1962, and in 1971 the Artillery was redivided into separate Artillery and Air Defense Artillery branches. The Women's Army Corps (WAC), made a permanent part of the army establishment by the Women's Armed Services Integration Act of 12 June 1948, was discontinued in October 1978, and all women in the army were assigned to one of the twenty‐five basic or special branches. The Army Air Corps, which had become the independent U.S. Air Force in 1947, was revived in 1983 as the Aviation branch. The Special Forces branch was created in 1987 by the transfer of officers and soldiers from several other basic and special branches.

Since the end of the Vietnam War, two important developments in the organization and employment of combat service support forces have taken place. First, the proportion of female soldiers assigned to service support units of all types has increased dramatically. Second, in the Total Force concept since the 1980s, most of the army's combat service support force structure has been taken out of the active (regular) army and assigned to the reserve components. Thus, in the Persian Gulf War (1991), over 70 percent of the army's combat service support forces deployed to the region came from the Army Reserve and National Guard.

Traditionally, the combat service support forces have occupied a status seen as somewhat inferior to those of the other two categories. Even today, many army leaders give lip service to the importance of combat service support on the modern battlefield but still fail correctly to assess its contribution to the overall equation of victory. In modern warfare such a faulty appreciation can no longer be sustained in view of the ample evidence of the importance of administrative and logistical matters.
[See also Army Combat Branches; Communications; Engineering, Military; Intelligence, Military and Political; Logistics; Maintenance; Transportation.]


Headquarters, Department of the Army , The Department of the Army, 1977.
Robert H. Scales, Jr. , Certain Victory: The U.S. Army in the Gulf War, 1994.
Charles R. Shrader, ed., Reference Guide to United States Military History, Vol. 5: 1945 to the Present, 1994.
United States, Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff , Joint Pub 1–02: Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, 1994.

Charles R. Shrader

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