If you’ve watched enough of the two biggest mecha franchises you might have noticed that most mecha teams seem to operate in units of three, when they do operate in coherent units. But why units of three, why not units of four like modern fighter aircraft? Tanks offer a more varied model, where platoons have consisted of five, four, or three tanks depending on time period and country. Or is it just to make the leader of the unit look cool, having two allies back him up like some kind of badass yakuza boss? Gundam and Macross tend to use their mecha in different ways, even within their own franchises, so I began to wonder what would be the best explanation, and what would be the best real-world paradigm to fit mecha into. Much of this depends on how the mecha are used, the kind of writing and narrative a series has, and perhaps some historical influence and stylistic choices. With this post I put forward some thoughts on why the three-mecha unit is so prevalent.
First, some vocabulary
If we’re going to look at the kinds of small units seen in Gundam and Macross, we have to be on the same page as far as the terminology. The way fighters and tanks are grouped in English and in Japanese will have some effect on the consideration of the units, their structure, and their composition.
Platoon (tank) – a tank platoon is generally the smallest operational unit of tanks, made up of two smaller groupings called sections. In the modern US Army and Marines and the Japanese Ground Self Defense Forces, for example, one platoon consists of four tanks. But in the armies of modern-day Russia, Britain, and Israel a platoon consists of three tanks. The size of the platoon has shrunk slightly over time, from five tanks being the standard to four, and in some countries, three. Generally three platoons plus 1-2 commander’s tanks form a company, though sometimes it can be four 3-tank platoons forming the company, as in the German Army.
Flight (fighter aircraft) – Similar to a platoon, a flight is generally the smallest unit of fighter aircraft and consists of four aircraft. Since the end of WWII this has generally been the standard formation as it allows each section of 2 planes to cover each other (wingman covers the section lead.) Starting in WWI, the most successful formation was a 3-plane flight, called a Vic formation. However as planes became more maneuverable and their weapons more reliable, some air forces switched to the 4-plane formation, starting with the Germans in the Spanish Civil War and the Americans during the first year of US involvement in WWII. Today 4 is the standard.
小隊/shoutai (lit. small corps/unit) – This is the word used in the original Japanese title of The 08th MS Team (第０８MS小隊). Applies to both ground and air units as the equivalent of a platoon or flight.
Use of shoutai in Gundam and Macross
EMS-04 Zudah launched from the Jotunheim (left) and VF-25 Messiah from the SMS carrier Macross Quarter (right.)
Universal Century Gundam: The 3-MS formation has been and remains the standard for mobile suit forces throughout the Universal Century conflicts. Starting off with Char accompanied by two regular Zakus and Amuro being backed up by a Guncannon and Guntank (and later by two Guncannons) and continuing through the sidestories and into Zeta, the 3-MS shoutai is the standard small unit of mobile suit warfare. The Gundam franchise often puts the protagonist, usually a Newtype, out on his own to face down superior numbers or an enemy ace pilot, as happened frequently with Amuro and Kou. But when formal units operate together, it’s always in threes (the 08th MS Team, the Black Tristars, and Gato’s unit that attacked Konpeitou/Solomon are examples.) One case does stand out from the rest though, that of the elite Titans pilots during the Gryps Conflict. Piloting new, advanced model mobile suits, these pilots often operated in pairs instead of the usual 3-MS shoutai.
The MSC-07 Albion always launched its mobile suits in 3-MS groups except when losses forced Kou and Keith to operate as a 2-MS unit.
Zeon survivor unit from their defeat at Odessa, also 3-MS.
Jerid launches with his section lead as the Titans attempt to block the AEUG from landing troops on Earth. Typically Jerid was teamed up with another skilled pilot, who would rarely survive.
Alternate Universe Gundam Series: The alternate Gundam universes usually pushed the concept of the protagonist(s) fighting solo even more than many of the UC series, though unit organizations can still be observed, especially among the antagonists. Gundam SEED broke the mold in one respect, though likely not for reasons of tactics or realism. The ZAFT Kruze Team that infiltrated an Earth Alliance installation and stole four Gundams operated as a 4-MS unit, but often did not work together as a real unit should. Kira and the Archangel would not have lasted as long as they did had the four Gundams covered each other and worked as a team. My hypothesis for the 4-MS ZAFT team in SEED is that SEED was meant to broaden the appeal of the Gundam franchise and also retain the female viewership that Wing brought in. To that end, if you’re going to have a group of bishonen pilots, it is better from a marketing perspective to have the unit consist of an even number of pilots for easier slash fanfiction pairings…but let’s not look too long into that particular abyss. Gundam 00 seems to follow a similar pattern with Celestial Being’s 4-MS shoutai: an even number of units that often operate independently and rarely ever work together as two lead-wingman pairs.
Other units in AU Gundam series operated as 3-MS shoutai however. Union’s elite Flag Fighters unit was a 3-MS unit under the command of Graham Aker, and the Gundam Thrones were another 00 3-MS unit. Andrew Bartfeldt’s desert unit in SEED was a 3-MS unit, as well as O.R.B.’s Astray Team and the Dom team from Gundam SEED: Destiny. There are a few exceptions (Smirnov and Soma usually fought as a section), but by and large the 3-MS shoutai endures.
The poor Flag, it deserved to be in a better series than Gundam 00…
Macross – Space War One formations: The events of SDF Macross and Do You Remember Love have a bit of an ambiguous element to them due to the retconning done in DYRL. This extends to the unit compositions as well. In SDF Macross all the Valkyrie flights are 3-VF units, while in DRYL they are comprised of four fighters. Given Macross’s attention to detail regarding US carrier aviation, it’s rather odd that it started off with the obsolete 3-VF formation. This was changed for DYRL, although that movie also includes many scenes emphasizing the individual combat of Hikaru and Max. As we shall see in later Macross series, the standard Valkyrie unit is still varied between organizations.
Hikaru, Max, and Kakizaki in formation with the VF-1s in SDF Macross.
DYRL Skull Squadron, led by Roy Fokker, is a four-VF flight.
As the radar monitor indicates, all UN Spacy flights in DYRL are comprised of four craft.
Macross – sidestories, 7, and Frontier: Macross 7′s Diamond Force retains the 3-VF shoutai, but the other series either use the modern standard 4-fighter flight or use both 4- and 3-VF units. Macross Plus, while not concerned with unit engagements, does show Isamu with a single comrade fighting enemies at the start of episode one, suggesting a switch to 4-VF flights of which he and his section lead were a part. Macross Zero used entirely 4-VF flights for its normal and variable fighters. Macross Frontier certainly has the most interesting use of the two types of unit composition though. The SMS private military corporation flies its VF-25 Messiah in standard flights of four craft, while the Macross Frontier and Macross Galaxy UN Spacy forces are shown to operate their VF-171 and VF-27 as 3-VF shoutai.
Shin’s flight of F-14 kai Tomcats in standard 4-fighter formation, just before engaging a 3-fighter flight of MiG-29s.
4-fighter flight of VF-25 launched to cover the Macross Quarter as it leaves the Frontier fleet.
3-fighter flight under the command of Macross Galaxy’s Brera Stern.
The Appropriate Paradigm: Mecha as fighter aircraft vs mecha as tanks
If we want our mecha shoutai to make sense, then we have to consider which is the appropriate paradigm to build units around. 4-unit shoutai allow each unit to be covered by a partner, while 3-unit ones have been chosen by some real-world armies because they allow more guns from the company to fire while one platoon moves, or because smaller companies based on smaller platoons are more economical. The role and capabilities of mecha matter greatly as well. And then there is the ‘rule of cool’ factor of having two, often no-name grunts, backing up the boss.
Capabilities: Mobile suits in space and Valkyries in general have capabilities and missions much more akin to fighter aircraft than tanks. They are highly mobile, operate in three-dimensions, and frequently are deployed one shoutai at a time. On this count the fighter aircraft paradigm is clearly the most suitable for space-based MS and all VFs.
Ground based MS can be seem as different, especially if a show would actually show company-level operations. An MS company comprised of either 4- or 3-MS platoons would function in similar ways to a tank company comprised of either type of platoons. As the combat is not as quick and fluid as in space, the need for one unit covering another is not as great, though I tend to think that 4-unit platoons are a better idea. In this realm, real-world tank platoons would indicate that 3-MS ground units can make sense.
Company-shoutai maneuver: This depends on how much one strays from what’s presented on screen. If most battles are not massive engagements of companies/squadrons and larger units, then the 4-unit shoutai would make more sense. However, if we imagine that these battles do take place, even though they are not shown (or at least not presented as coordinated operations), then the 3-unit shoutai makes some sense since the lack of intra-unit cover can be made up for by company-level maneuver and coordination.
Rule of Cool: 3-unit shoutai definitely have the advantage here, since they very prominently display the leader as either the most skilled pilot (as with Char and his two backups) and/or as the obvious leader, the one with command (Hikaru in SDF Macross.)
One of the more plausible uses of the 3-MS platoon: ground combat.
Why? Possible Reasons for the Continued Preference for 3-unit Shoutai
Generally, I believe that there are two possible reasons for the continued preference for 3-unit formations despite the fact that they are not used in modern fighter flights and are not universal in tank platoons. History could have had an impact on the decision to choose 3-unit shoutai at the start of the Gundam and Macross franchises, which continued to varying degrees in later works. WWI and WWII, the era where aces became famous and the largest air battles in history were fought, had most countries using the 3-aircraft Vic formation for one or sometimes both wars. Choosing a 3-unit formation might have been an attempt to connect to the kinds of exciting dogfights that took place in both World Wars. Furthermore, Japan continued to use the 3-aircraft formation throughout WWII, even after the US Navy had switched in 1941/1942 to 4-aircraft flights specifically to counter the more maneuverable Japanese fighters. Perhaps this historical tactic left some impression on Tomino and Kawamori. The other reason follows from the ‘rule of cool’ element mentioned above. Many of the series in each franchise are narratives centered around one specific character and often an enemy rival ace. By using the 3-unit formation, it elevates the leader above the rest and makes him stand out during the instances where he isn’t fighting one on one with his nemesis, this being especially true in Gundam.