Pentagon task force aims to revamp close infantry combat training with focus on lethality

A Marine in the Infantry Officer Course yells at his fellow Marines to push forward during a live fire training exercise at Range 410A aboard the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, Calif., June 9, 2018. The Purpose of IOC is to train and educate newly selected infantry and ground intelligence officers in leadership, infantry skills, character required to serve as infantry platoon commanders in the operating forces. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. William Chockey)

A Pentagon task force is looking at ways to bolster close-combat infantry training and lethality by getting forces, in part, involved in more realistic, immersive training, and as quickly as possible.

The joint-service Close Combat Lethality Task Force also noted there is a need for the appropriate ground-force services branches to recruit and retain members who are “steeled for the nasty, violent, close-in fight that’s at the core mission,” USNI News reported.

Also, the task force “is looking at more lethal and effective weapons to achieve ‘overmatch’ in close combat and, ultimately, improve the odds of combat success against adversaries,” the site reported further.

In a March 16 memo, Defense Secretary James Mattis instructed the task force to evaluate, develop, recommend, and implement measures to bolster infantry combat capabilities as well as lethality of forces, survivability, resilience and overall readiness. In particular, the task force is focused on squad-level infantry in the Marine Corps and U.S. Army, as well as Army Special Operations Command which includes the 75th Ranger Regiment.

The broad mission of the task force is about close-in combat “within line of sight of the enemy, where historically the vast majority of military combat casualties occur — approximately 90 percent,” said Army Sgt. Maj. Jason Wilson, the senior enlisted member of the task force, in a briefing to reporters at the Pentagon.

The overarching objective, then, is to bolster squad lethality in a manner “that is measurable and provides overmatch against our adversaries.”

He did not detail any recommendations that have been approved or decisions made by Mattis, but he noted “there is forward-momentum on it…in the very foreseeable future.”

One of the primary objectives, Wilson said, is to find and then retain service members with the “skills and traits to excel in this type of environment.”

Analysis: The Trump-Mattis transformation of the U.S. military is now in full swing with an emphasis away from fighting low-intensity brushfire wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to fighting major powers like Russia and China and, to an extent, even Iran and North Korea, should a conflict arise.

The Navy is working on developing better, longer range weapons systems designed to do what warships are primarily built to do — destroy other warships (and submarines). The Air Force’s next-gen development is the hypersonic missile, again with a focus on destroying high-value targets deep inside enemy territory without putting warplanes and bombers at risk.

The Army and Marine Corps, meanwhile, are adapting training of ground forces to meet and defeat well-trained, well-armed adversaries in head-on ground combat. While there have been occasions over the past 17 years where U.S. forces were in close combat with the enemy, that was the exception rather than the norm. It appears as though Mattis envisions a ground war in the future along the lines of World War II and Korea, and is attempting to prepare our force for that eventuality.

We often think that two nuclear-armed powers would eventually resort to them if a fight ever broke out between them, but that may or may not be the case. Wars fought to repel an invader without further designs on occupying the invading force’s country, for instance, is one occasion that would not necessitate the use of nuclear weapons. However, it would require a well-armed ground force trained specifically to slog it out with an opposing ground force, then overwhelm that force with superior tactics and weaponry. 

The part about finding service members with the “skills and traits to excel” in a close-in combat environment is particularly telling; it’s an indication that our warrior-scholar defense secretary is fundamentally aware that close combat isn’t something that most people can do or would be willing to engage in. Finding them — and then keep them — is therefore vital to overall force development.

The transition from a small-war force to one capable of conducting great power war is going to take some time. But obviously, Mattis and the president are convinced the transition must occur, and the sooner the better.



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