The power of confidence
A strategic advantage and greater fire power are handy to have in any combat situation. But never underestimate the difference that confident soldiers can make in defeating the enemy – even against extraordinary odds.
Imagine for a second that you are part of a ground combat unit that is fighting the enemy in a forest not too far from where you are now. You’re concealed behind a small embankment when an enemy main battle tank rolls into view. In a split second you have to decide whether to open fire with the powerful anti-tank weapon you’re carrying or to keep your head down and do nothing.
What do you do?
It’s a situation that in one form or another has faced soldiers since the dawn of warfare. Should they risk emerging from the relative safety of their hiding place to engage and destroy the enemy? Or should they hunker down and let the opportunity pass by out of fear of failure and personal peril?
Whether it’s a single soldier, a battalion or a brigade, that decision to put oneself on the line and fight assertively often comes down to one key factor: confidence. A confident soldier who has faith in his training, his equipment, his leaders, and his comrades is more likely to take the risk and engage the enemy. They will have greater faith in their combat skills – and trust in their ability to accurately read the situation. And for that reason, they are also more likely to succeed in any given scenario.
The same rule applies for whole armies. Where a nation’s armed forces have confidence in themselves and the organisation supporting then, they can achieve extraordinary results. They may even defy the odds to defeat opponents with superior fire power, a stronger strategic position or greater numbers of troops.
The reverse is also true. Armies where individual soldiers and units, squads and groups don’t feel confident can throw away enormous strategic advantages. While it might at first sound counter-intuitive, trying to avoid the enemy out of fear of getting hurt can also be a fatal strategy for individual soldiers in the battlefield. As they say in American football, if you hold back, you’re just going to get hurt worse.
You don’t have to look too far back into the history of warfare to see the confidence factor in action. The US-led coalition that took on Iraq in the Gulf War in 1991 was significantly outnumbered in terms of troops, tanks and artillery. However, they were far more professional and better trained than their Iraqi opposition. Thanks to a combination of confidence, smart tactics and air dominance, the coalition was able to defeat the Iraqi army and liberate Kuwait.
So, what factors contribute to confident soldiers? How can armed forces ensure they make the most of this decisive factor? And what happens when confidence is lacking?
Training and preparation
There’s no way to overstate the importance of training for building confidence. In the heat of battle, with ordnance exploding, people dying and the pressure on, confident soldiers will instantly revert to the lessons they learned in training.
Well-trained soldiers have a firm understanding of their own role in battle situations and how they need to cooperate and collaborate with their comrades. They understand that they are part of part of a hierarchy and need to take orders and to pass on information and instructions to team members.
Confident solders will have a solid grasp of strategy and will have trained extensively on each of their weapons to the point where assembly, targeting the enemy, and firing comes entirely automatically. This kind of weapons confidence only comes from repetition and repeated practice. As the old boot camp saying goes, you don't just train until you get it right, you train until you can't get it wrong.
Soldiers will also be prepared to engage the enemy in hand to hand combat if needed. Another part of training is physical fitness. The most well-prepared soldiers are physically fit, having undertaken arduous training programs and drills. While combat experience is a bonus before heading into battle, soldiers can also be prepared for the sounds, smells and sights and the pressure of combat zones through realistic simulations. This boosts their self-esteem and belief in their ability to deal with real battle situations.
Truly reliable weapons
A soldier who doesn’t have faith that his weapon will perform reliably will be reluctant to use it. By the same token, a soldier who has had positive experiences with his weapon will be more willing to take risks, to be proactive and to actively engage the enemy.
What kind of attributes create that trust? Good weapons need to be fit for purpose. A recoilless rifle system that is to be carried by ground combat troops, like the Saab’s Carl-Gustaf®, needs to be lightweight, durable and easy to carry through the battlefield. It needs to be accurate and effective, and yet simple enough that the gunner and assistant gunner can operate it in noisy, stressful environments. Another key attribute is robustness and the ability to bounce back from the knocks and scrapes common in combat.
It almost goes without saying that a weapon should operate reliably and be powerful enough to perform the required task. A tank killing armament, like our NLAW system, should be fully able to destroy the kinds of main battle tanks that the user is likely to encounter. The user should never doubt that if he or she uses the weapon correctly it will perform the function that is designed for.
Weapons that inspire confidence typically also have the ability to ‘gracefully degrade’ and continue functioning even if some damage is sustained. For example, if a weapon’s electronic sight is disabled from an impact, there should be a back-up iron sight in place so that the user can keep on firing and engaging the enemy.
John (JC) Knight is a retired USMC Infantry Weapons Officer (Gunner) who now serves as Saab’s business development lead for USMC Ground Combat activities. He understands better than most how confidence in one’s weapons can influence outcomes in the battlefield.
JC tells the story of how knowing he could rely on his weapons helped turn the tide of a skirmish during active duty. “When I was in Afghanistan, a Taliban force had ambushed a vehicle checkpoint with two special forces guys, a Marine and a couple Afghans. I had 15 or 16 Marines with me to engage about 30 opponents. They had a numerical advantage and also the high ground. So, what I did was roll into an adjacent cornfield with my lights blacked out until we were about 250 metres away. They didn’t hear or see us coming. I didn’t trust the rocket propelled grenades that we had at the time, but I did trust my machine guns. So, we opened up on them with six [M20] and three [M2] machine guns. The firefight lasted for an hour and a half, with us slinging lead at the Taliban. In the end, we won. It shows what you can achieve when you really trust your weapon.”
"On a battlefield somewhere, a 25-year-old lieutenant and a 20-year-old private are responsible for the last hundred yards of diplomacy."
JC adds the right weapons can inspire ordinary people to do extraordinary things. “On a battlefield somewhere, a 25-year-old lieutenant and a 20-year-old private are responsible for the last hundred yards of diplomacy. They need simple, easy-to-use, effective tools to cover that last hundred yards. Dependable, rugged, accurate, and lightweight.”
The right tactics
How important are tactics to confidence? Consider for a second, one of the most successful and emulated military forces of all time – the Roman Army. Roman soldiers were rightfully confident heading into battle thanks to being trained in sophisticated tactics that helped them consistently defeat their opponents
The classic triple line saw Roman soldiers advancing on in a three-tier formation, filling gaps as their comrades fell. Using the testudo or ‘tortoise’ formation, group of Romans would align their shields to create a covered group with shields on the top and front. Meanwhile, the wedge formation allowed the Romans to split enemy ranks in the same way an axe splits a log. These sophisticated strategies filled the hearts of enemies with dread and gave individual Roman soldiers supreme confidence heading into battle.
Today, belonging to an army that understands the importance of strategy carries the same weight. Soldiers who know their superiors are clear tactical thinkers who rely on modern strategic approaches are likely to feel more confident than those who are forced to implement outdated, ineffective strategies.
Trust in your comrades
It’s one thing to trust your own abilities. But knowing you can depend on your brothers at arms in the heat of battle provides a whole new level of confidence. Soldiers who know their peers are competent, well trained on their weapons, and will back them up in a fire fight will operate more collaboratively and be prepared to take more risks to win the day.
"You need belief in yourself, belief in your equipment, and belief in your brothers and sisters to your left and right."
JC Knight explains, “You need belief in yourself, belief in your equipment, and belief in your brothers and sisters to your left and right. When you’re in a situation where you don’t have that foundation of trust and brotherhood, casualties are going to go up. You might lose soldiers because instructions weren't clear or weren’t understood and there wasn't a relationship built on trust. You're going to have to compromise your integrity on the battlefield, you're going to make mistakes and, ultimately, that causes people to get hurt or even worse killed.”
Even with outstanding weapons and cohesive teams, soldiers will lack confidence if they don’t trust their leaders. On the other hand, inspiring leaders who provide role models to those under them and who don’t ask others to do what they wouldn’t do themselves, can boost confidence levels among troops and achieve extraordinary results.
A case in point is General George Patton who commanded the US Seventh Army during World War II. Patton publicly argued that the most important attribute in any soldier was self-confidence and he took actions to boost the morale and self-trust of the men who served under him. A firm believer that ‘no good decision was ever made in a swivel chair’, Patton frequently visited the front putting himself in the enemy crosshairs. He embraced new technologies and strategies and is credited with achieving more results, in less time, with fewer casualties than any other World War II general.
JC Knight comments, “It makes a huge difference when commanders and senior enlisted are willing to share in the suffering. If you have got a private and lieutenant going on patrol, it lifts your spirit to you see the sergeant major in the car going out with them. It shows that they are willing to go out and do the same thing that they are asking their people to do.”
A just cause
A final factor in confidence is belief in a just cause. While recent history has shown how powerful propaganda and false news can be at creating a false narrative, troops who believe in their cause will be more confident. Knowing that you are fighting to free your country from tyranny or to help oppressed people gives soldiers something to cling to when things get tough in the field.
So, what is the key take-away?
It makes sense for modern armed forces to always aim to have greater fire power, to look for the tactical advantage and to employ the most advanced technologies. But the role of confidence and self-belief should never be forgotten. By investing in the right training and weapons and by building strong bonds of trust between troops and leadership, a significant advantage can be gained that could just turn the battle.