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A platoon is a military unit typically composed of two or more squads/sections/patrols. Platoon organization varies depending on the country and the branch, but typically a platoon consists of around 40 to 50 soldiers. A platoon leader or commander is the officer in command of a platoon. This person is usually a junior officer—a second or first lieutenant or an equivalent rank. The officer is usually assisted by a platoon sergeant. A platoon is the smallest military unit led by a commissioned officer.
Platoons normally consist of three or four sections (Commonwealth) or squads (US). In some armies, platoon is used throughout the branches of the army. In others, such as the British Army and other Commonwealth armies, platoons are associated with the infantry. In a few armies, such as the French Army, a platoon is specifically a cavalry unit, and the infantry use "section" as the equivalent unit. A unit consisting of several platoons is called a company/battery/troop.
According to Merriam-Webster, "The term was first used in the 17th century to refer to a small body of musketeers who fired together in a volley alternately with another platoon." The word came from the 17th-century French peloton, from pelote meaning a small ball. The suffix "-on" can be an augmentative suffix in French, but on the other hand is generally a diminutive suffix in relationship to animals, so the original intention in forming peloton from pelote is not clear. Nonetheless it is documented that it took the meaning of a group of soldiers firing a volley together, while a different platoon reloaded. This implies an augmentative intention in the etymology. Since soldiers were often organized in two or three lines, which were supposed to fire volleys together, this would have normally meant platoons organised with the intention of a half or a third of the company firing at once.
The modern French word peloton, when not meaning platoon, can refer to the main body of riders in a bicycle race (as opposed to any riders ahead or behind the main body).
Use as a firing unit
The platoon was originally a firing unit rather than an organization. The system was said to have been invented by Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden in 1618. In the French Army in the 1670s, a battalion was divided into 18 platoons who were grouped into three "firings"; each platoon in the firing either actually firing or reloading. The system was also used in the British, Austrian, Russian and Dutch armies.
On 1 October 1913, under a scheme by General Sir Ivor Maxse, the regular battalions of the British Army were reorganised from the previous eight companies to a four company structure, with each company having four platoons as separate units each commanded by a lieutenant with a platoon sergeant as his deputy. Each platoon was divided into four sections, each commanded by a corporal. Due to a shortage of officers, a non commissioned officer rank of Platoon Sergeant Major was introduced from 1938 to 1940 for experienced non-commissioned officers who were given command of platoons.
In the Australian Army, an infantry platoon has thirty-six soldiers organized into three eight-man sections and a twelve-man maneuver support section. A lieutenant as platoon commander and a sergeant as platoon sergeant, accompanied by a platoon sig and sometimes a platoon medic (full strength of forty men). A section comprises eight soldiers led by a corporal with a lance corporal as second in command. Each section has two fireteams of four men, one led by the corporal and the other by the lance corporal. Each fireteam (also called a "brick" by Australian soldiers) has one soldier with a 7.62mm Maximi GSMG and the other three armed with Steyr F88 assault rifles. One rifle is equipped with an attached 40mm grenade launcher attachment for the lance corporal and the grenadier, while fire team bravo has a HK417 7.62mm for the designated marksman role. More recently, the designated marksman of an Australian fireteam has been issued the HK417 in Afghanistan and possibly afterwards. The platoon may also have three MAG 58 general-purpose machine guns, one M2 Browning heavy machine gun or a Mk 19 grenade launcher at its disposal.
In the British Army, a rifle platoon from an infantry company consists of three sections of eight men, plus a signaller (radio operator), a platoon sergeant (a Sergeant), the platoon commander (either a second lieutenant or lieutenant) and a mortar man operating a light mortar (full strength of 27 men and one officer). This may not be the case for all British Infantry units, since the 51mm mortars are not part of the TOE post-Afghanistan. Under Army 2020, a platoon in the Heavy Protected Mobility Regiments will consist of around 30 soldiers in four Mastiff/FRES UV vehicles. As of March 2016, the British Army is reviewing whether to retain the FN Herstal Para Minimi 5.56x45 mm light machine gun and the M6-640 Commando 60 mm mortar at platoon-level in dismounted units.
Each section is commanded by a corporal(Lance Sergeant in the Foot Guards), with a lance corporal as second-in-command and six Riflemen divided into two four-man fireteams. Support Weapons platoons (such as mortar or anti-tank platoons) are generally larger and are commanded by a captain with a Colour Sergeant or WO2 as 2ic. Some sections are seven man teams.
An armoured "platoon" is known as a "Troop".
In the Bangladesh Army, infantry regiments have platoons commanded by a major or a captain, assisted by two to four lieutenants (or combination of lieutenants and Junior Commissioned Officers) and at least two sergeants. The platoon strength is typically 30 to 50 soldiers.
These platoons are equipped with at least one heavy machine gun, rocket launcher or anti-tank gun, with the crews of these weapons commanded by a corporal. In addition, there are at least two light machine guns, each commanded by a lance corporal. Each soldier is armed with an automatic or semi-automatic rifle and all commissioned officers carry a side arm.
In the Canadian Army, the infantry Platoon Commander is a Second Lieutenant, Lieutenant or a junior Captain assisted by a Platoon Warrant (who holds the rank of Warrant Officer, but can be a Sergeant). It is usually divided into three eight to ten-man sections and a heavy weapons detachment which will deploy a GPMG, and a Carl Gustav, depending on mission requirements. Sections are commanded by a Sergeant or Master Corporal with a Master-Corporal or Corporal in the second in command, or 2IC, position; two members of a section will carry C9 LMG's and the remainder will carry C7 or C8 assault rifles fitted with either optics or a grenade launcher. A section is broken into two assault groups, similar to the British and Australian organization.
Three infantry platoons will make up a typical infantry company, sometimes with a heavy weapons or support platoon in addition. Specialist platoons, like reconnaissance, or "recce" platoons, that may be attached to a battalion may be led by a Captain and assisted by a Warrant Officer. Some very large specialist platoons will actually have a Lieutenant as the second-in-command. In many corps, platoon-sized units are called troops instead.
Prior to 1940, a platoon might be commanded by either a warrant officer WO III or a lieutenant. An officer was referred to as "platoon commander", while a WO III in the same position was called a "Platoon Sergeant Major" or PSM.
Within the Colombian Army, a training platoon (in Spanish pelotón) is often commanded by a higher-ranking soldier known as a dragoneante, who is selected for his excellence in discipline and soldiering skills. However, a dragoneante is still a soldier and can be removed from his position if his commander sees fit. For combatant platoons (platoons engaged in combat with guerrilla rebels), a corporal or sergeant would be the most likely commander.
In the French military, a peloton is a unit of cavalry or armor corresponding to the platoon, equivalent in size to an infantry section, and commanded by a lieutenant or sergeant. It may also mean a body of officers in training to become noncommissioned officers, sous-officiers or officers (peloton de caporal, peloton des sous-officiers). Finally, "peloton d'exécution" is the French term for a firing squad.
The Georgian Armed Forces equivalent of the platoon is the so-called Ozeuli. Translated, it means "Group of 20", but has no more connection whatsoever with the number. It has been transferred into modern usage from medieval army reforms of the Georgian king David the Builder. Originally, it was meant to be a small detachment of exactly 20 men to be led by a leader of corresponding rank. Almost all smaller formations are based on the designations of those reforms, which originally suggested tactical flexibility by keeping the size of small units in round numbers (10, 20, 100). Battalions and brigades were not affected by that system. It is unknown whether that usage was abandoned in the 1820s or earlier, but in present days a Georgian platoon still called "Ozeuili" has a similar size to that of other armies. Normally for infantry it has 32 men, but can vary depending on the type of unit.
The German Army equivalent of the platoon is the Zug (same word as for train, draught, move or streak), consisting of a Zugtrupp ("platoon troop" or platoon headquarters squad), of four to six men, and three squads (Gruppen) of eight to eleven men each. An Oberfeldwebel ("Sergeant first class") is in charge of the Zugtrupp. The Zugtrupp provides support for the platoon leader and acts as a reserve force (such as two additional snipers or an anti-tank weapon crew).
Three Züge make up a Kompanie ("company"), with the first platoon usually commanded by a Kompanieoffizier ("company-grade officer"), an Oberleutnant ("first lieutenant") or Leutnant ("second lieutenant"), who is also the Kompanie's second-in-command. The second and third Zug are led by experienced NCOs, usually a Hauptfeldwebel ("master sergeant"). In the first platoon, the platoon leader's assistant is a Hauptfeldwebel; in the second and third platoons, the assistant is an Oberfeldwebel. Each squad is led by an Oberfeldwebel, and its size corresponds to the typical passenger capacity of its squad vehicle (either wheeled or armoured). Another of these vehicles is used for the Zugtrupp. Sergeants of inferior rank act as assistant squad leaders in the other squads.
A Fallschirmjägerzug ("airborne infantry platoon") has special operations responsibilities, and has command positions one rank higher than corresponding positions in a standard infantry platoon. A captain (Hauptmann) is the platoon leader, assisted by a first lieutenant and each squad has a second lieutenant or a master sergeant in charge, often supported by a long-service sergeant or skilled senior corporal.
In the Hungarian Armed Forces, a Rifle Platoon is commanded by either a 2nd Lieutenant or a 1st Lieutenant, with a Platoon Sergeant (with the rank of Sergeant Major), a Platoon Signaller, an APC driver and an APC gunner comprising the Platoon Headquarters. There is also in the HQ's TO&E a designated marksman rifle - either an SVD or a Szép sniper rifle.
The Platoon is sub-divided into three squads, each with eight soldiers. Each squad is commanded by a Sergeant. His/her deputy has an RPG, there are also two soldiers with PKM machine guns, two with AK-63 assault rifles - one is an RPG grenadier, the other is the Medic - the APC driver and the APC gunner.
New Zealand organization
In the New Zealand Army, an Infantry Platoon is commanded by a 2nd Lieutenant or a Lieutenant, with a Platoon Sergeant, a Platoon Signaller and a medic (where relevant) comprising the Platoon Headquarters. The Platoon is sub-divided into three section of between 7-10 soldiers, each commanded by a Corporal with a Lance-Corporal as the Section 2iC. Each section can be sub-divided into two fire-teams, commanded by the Section Commander and 2iC respectively, as well as normal two man Scout, Rifle and Gun Teams.
There are three Platoons in a Rifle Company, which is commanded by a Major, and three Rifle Companies in an Infantry Battalion, which is commanded by a Lieutenant-Colonel. An Infantry Battalion will also contain an organic Support Company (Mortars, Machine-Guns etc.) and a Logistics Company (Transport and Stores).
In the Singapore Army, a platoon is a Lieutenant's billet. However, in practice, a Second Lieutenant is usually appointed and then eventually promoted. A typical infantry platoon consists of three seven-man sections of riflemen and a machine gun team, both commanded by Third Sergeants, a platoon sergeant and a platoon medic for a total of 27 soldiers. Beginning in 1992, the Singapore Armed Forces has allowed warrant officers to be appointed as platoon commanders.
In the Royal Thai Army, a platoon is commanded by either a Lieutenant or Second Lieutenant, assisted by a Platoon Sergeant, usually of the rank of sergeant major. In infantry units, rifle platoons are generally made up of five squads (three rifle squads, one machine gun squad and command squad).
United States organization
From the 1700s up until the late 1800s in what would become the United States, an infantry platoon was a "half company" commanded by a lieutenant, assisted by two sergeants and two corporals (increased in 1861 to four corporals). The sergeants, assisted by the corporals, led the two sections (half-platoons) and the squads (the terms were often used interchangeably until 1891) of the platoon. An additional senior sergeant serving as the "platoon sergeant" (originally designated as "assistant to platoon commander" from 1917 until 1940, and as "platoon leader" until 1943, when officer platoon commanders were re-designated as "platoon leaders") was not authorized until 1943.
Depending on the time period, the platoon could include from as few as 20 privates (with two corporals, two sergeants, and a lieutenant) to as many as 44 (with four corporals, two sergeants, and a lieutenant) with 10 to 22 privates per section. The corporals, and the sergeant, prior to the increase to two corporals per section, led the two squads of the section. The squads were primarily a non-tactical, sub-unit used mainly for drill (marching practice, formations, ceremonies, etc.) and "house-keeping" matters, such as interior guard duty, billeting, messing, fatigue details (i.e., working parties), etc.
Indeed, the sections, as well as the platoons, were primarily administrative sub-units of the company, since tactically the company seldom employed in other than as a massed formation. The standard procedure, once the company had marched into its position in the line of battle, was for the company to form facing the enemy as two ranks, by platoon, one behind the other. The commanding officer (a captain), and the one to three lieutenants, serving as platoon commanders (not designated as platoon "leaders" until 1943) and the executive officer (again depending on the time period, but not officially authorized until 1898) would direct the fighting, leading from the front in the attack and on the flanks in the defense. The executive officer, when assigned, or usually the junior lieutenant and the first sergeant were normally positioned behind the battle line so as to assist the company commander in overseeing the company and managing the rear (company trains, including the wagoner and company supply wagon - under the supervision of the quartermaster sergeant, as well as casualties, enemy prisoners, non-combatants, deserters, etc.).
While the officers managed the battle and the staff NCOs (first sergeant and quartermaster sergeant) superintended logistics, the NCOs (sergeants and corporals) served as first-line supervisors and leaders by exhibiting a soldierly example for their privates and encouraging them to maintain proper discipline and to fight effectively. In so doing, the sergeants acted as "file closers", working the line by putting men forward to replace casualties in the front rank, exhorting men to fire, reload, move forward, etc. and, if need be, physically assisting or restraining men who refused to move forward or attempted to flee. The corporals physically led by example (much like modern fire team leaders) by taking their place in the line with their privates, fighting alongside them, and by demonstrating proper soldierly attributes.
Cavalry platoons had a similar organization to the infantry, but with fewer men; platoons rarely exceeded around 33 men, including the lieutenant, sergeants and corporals.
Field artillery platoons, led by a lieutenant (who rode his own horse), with two or three to a battery, normally consisted of two gun sections. Each gun section was led by a sergeant (who also rode his own horse) and consisted of two half sections led by a corporal. One half section contained the gun and its implements, its limber (including one ammunition chest) and four to six horses (depending on gun weight and available horses), and several members of the gun crew. The corporal and one or two privates rode on the horses pulling the limber, while a couple of privates rode on the ammunition chest lid seat. The other half section consisted of the caisson (which carried two ammunition chests, tools, spare parts, baggage, and a spare wheel) with its limber (again with one ammunition chest), pulled by four to six horses, and two spare horses (when available) tethered to the rear of the caisson, and the remainder of the gun crew with the corporal and privates riding the horses or sitting on the several ammunition chests lid seats as described above. In total, the field artillery platoon (at full strength of men, horses, and equipment) consisted of a lieutenant, two sergeants, four corporals, 24 privates, 31 horses, four limbers, two caissons, two field guns, two spare wheels, plus ammunition, implements, tools, spare parts, and baggage.
By the end of World War I in 1918, the rifle platoon had expanded to its largest size in U.S. Army history into a unit of 59 soldiers. This platoon organization included one lieutenant, three sergeants, eight corporals, 15 privates first class, and 32 privates. The platoon was organized into a six-man platoon headquarters (including the platoon commander, a sergeant as "assistant to platoon commander", and four privates as "runners" or messengers) and four sections. The sections were specialized by primary weapon and each contained a different number of men. The "Riflemen" and "Automatic Riflemen" sections were each led by a sergeant and divided into two squads of eight and seven men each, respectively, including a corporal to lead each squad. The "Hand Bombers" (i.e., hand grenade throwers) and "Rifle Grenadiers" sections had a total of twelve and nine men each, respectively, including two corporals each, but no sergeant.
In the United States Army, rifle platoons are normally composed of 42 soldiers. They are led by a Platoon Leader (PL), usually a second lieutenant (2LT), and with a Platoon Sergeant (PSG), usually a Sergeant First Class (SFC, E-7). Rifle platoons consist of three nine-man rifle squads and one nine-man weapons squad, each led by a Staff Sergeant (E-6). The platoon headquarters includes the PL, PSG, the radio-telephone operator (RTO), platoon forward observer (FO), the FO's RTO and the platoon medic.
In the United States Marine Corps, rifle platoons nominally (per TO) consist of 43 Marines and are led by a platoon commander, usually a second lieutenant (O-1), assisted by a platoon sergeant, a staff sergeant (E-6). The platoon headquarters also includes a platoon guide, a sergeant (E-5), who serves as the assistant platoon sergeant and a messenger (Pvt or PFC). Rifle platoons consist of three rifle squads of 13 men each, led by a sergeant (E-5). In the attack (especially if part of the assault echelon) or in a deliberate defense, rifle platoons are usually augmented with a two-man mortar forward observer team and are often reinforced with a seven-man machinegun squad and/or a four-man assault weapons squad.
A weapons platoon will usually have a first lieutenant (O-2) and a gunnery sergeant (E-7) due to the generally larger number of Marines (up to 69 in the 81mm mortar platoon) in these platoons (the heavy machinegun platoon being the exception with only 28 members) and the more complex weapon systems employed. A rifle company weapons platoon has a 60mm mortar section of 13 Marines with three M224 LWCMS 60mm mortar squads, an assault section of 13 Marines and six SMAW rocket launchers divided into three squads of two teams each, and a medium machine gun section of 22 Marines and six M240G general-purpose machine guns divided into three squads of two teams each. The infantry battalion weapons company consists of three heavy weapons platoons: 81mm mortar, heavy machinegun (.50cal HMG and 40mm AGL), and anti armor (Javelin missile and Antitank TOW missile). Each of these three platoons is divided into sections. Three sections of two squads each in the heavy machinegun platoon, two sections of four squads each in the 81mm mortar platoon, one section of two squads with four teams each in the Javelin missile section, and one section of four squads with two teams each in the antitank TOW missile section. Marine rifle or weapons platoons would also have from one to four Navy hospital corpsmen assigned along with the Marines.
Platoons are also used in reconnaissance, light armored reconnaissance (scout dismounts), combat engineer, law enforcement (i.e., military police), Marine Security Force Regiment (MSFR), and Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team (FAST) companies.
In armored vehicle units, platoons consist of sections containing two or three vehicles and their crews:
- tank and light armored reconnaissance platoons consist of two sections, each containing two tanks/light armored vehicles and crews
- assault amphibian vehicle (AAV) platoons consist of four sections, each containing three AAVs and crews (Per T/O 4652M.)
- combat engineer assault breacher sections consist of two CEV assault breacher vehicles and crews
In low altitude air defense (LAAD) batteries, the firing platoons consist of three sections, each consisting of a section leader and five two-man Stinger missile teams.
In artillery batteries, the firing platoon consists of six artillery sections, each containing one gun with its crew and prime mover (i.e., a truck to tow the artillery piece and transport the gun crew and baggage).
United States Air Force
The United States Air Force has a similarly sized and configured unit called a flight. A Flight usually ranges from a dozen people to over a hundred, or typically four aircraft. The typical flight commander is a Captain. The typical flight chief is a Master Sergeant. Letter designations can be used, such as Alpha Flight, Bravo Flight, etc.
A motorised rifle platoon in the Soviet Armed Forces was mounted in either BTR armoured personnel carriers or BMP infantry fighting vehicles, with the former being more numerous into the late 1980s. Both were led by a platoon leader and assistant platoon leader and consisted of three 9-man rifle squads mounted in three vehicles. In both BMP and BTR squads, the driver and vehicle gunner stayed with the vehicle when the rest of the squad dismounted, and one squad in the platoon would have one of their rifleman armed with an SVD sniper rifle. There was either one empty seat in each BTR or two empty seats in each BMP to accommodate the platoon leader and assistant platoon leader.
Tank platoons prior to the late 1980s consisted of a platoon headquarters squad and three tank squads, each consisting of one T-64, T-72 or T-80 tank for 12 personnel and 4 tanks total; platoons that used the older T-54, T-55 or T-62s added another crewmember for a total of 16. However, tank units operating in Eastern Europe began to standardize their platoons to just two tank squads, for a total of 3 tanks and 9 personnel.
- Bacil Donovan Warren, M1 tanker, veteran of Desert Shield & Desert Storm, author of With It or in It (May 4, 2016). "What are the differences among battalion, battery, brigade, company, platoon, and regiment?". Quora.
- p.250 Curtis, Thomas The London Encyclopaedia: Or, Universal Dictionary of Science, Art, Literature, and Practical Mechanics... Volume 9 T. Tegg, 1829
- p.486 Lynn, John A. Giant of the Grand Siècle: The French Army, 1610-1715 Cambridge University Press, 14/12/2006
- p.404 Nimwegen, Olaf Van The Dutch Army and the Military Revolutions, 1588-1688 Boydell & Brewer, 21/10/2010
- p.25 Gudmundsson, Bruce The British Expeditionary Force 1914-15 Osprey Publishing, 10/12/2005
- "Table of Ranks and Responsibilities". Canadian Soldiers. Retrieved August 9, 2012.
- United States Army. Center of Military History. Organization of the American Expeditionary Forces, Volume 1, Washington, DC, 1988, p.347.
- US Army Table of Organization
- US Army, FM 100-2-3 The Soviet Army: Troops, Organization and Equipment, 4-3
- US Army, FM 100-2-3 The Soviet Army: Troops, Organization and Equipment, Paragraph 4-15
- US Army, FM 100-2-3 The Soviet Army: Troops, Organization and Equipment, Paragraph 4-108
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