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Ten Ways to Fix the U.S. Military’s Close Combat Lethality

Last month, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis directed the establishment of a Close Combat Lethality Task Force. The task force’s mission is to improve the “combat preparedness, lethality, survivability, and resiliency of our Nation’s ground close-combat formations.” This encompasses U.S. Army, Marine Corps, and Special Operations Command infantry small units such as those described in this gut-wrenching story from Niger and this article from Afghanistan. These units comprise less than 4 percent of the Defense Department’s total personnel strength. Combined, the people that serve in these units can fit in the seats of any single NFL stadium. Yet, as Secretary Mattis described in the memorandum that established this task force, they “have historically accounted for almost 90 percent of our casualties.”

Despite this bloody statistic, only a small fraction — publicly estimated at no more than one to two percent although some have suggested it’s slightly higher — of the Defense Department modernization budget is specifically dedicated to increasing close combat unit capabilities. Secretary Mattis explained that this lack of prioritization has led to the point where “our personnel policies, advances in training methods, and equipment have not kept pace with changes in available technology, human factors science, and talent management best practices.” This presents a series of tactical, operational, and strategic problems that will only grow worse with time to the detriment of American power.

Because policymakers often lack confidence in the maturity, training repetitions, skill sets, and equipping of most Army and Marine close combat units, they’ve increasingly decided to rely on special operations forces, who they believe to have higher probabilities for mission success. Such decisions, while perhaps understandable to some from an immediate mission accomplishment perspective, have both worn down these limited capacity special operations units and prevented them from preparing for other potential and more strategic missions. At the same time, Army and Marine close combat units have remained at the bottom of their respective service’s resource priority lists. More than 60 years ago, Field Marshall William Joseph Slim explained the flaws with this approach: “Armies do not win wars by means of a few bodies of super-soldiers but by the average quality of their standard units.” This is why the Close Combat Lethality Task Force is so fundamental for the future of U.S. national security policy.

With this understanding, what follows are the “Top 10” keys to ensuring the task force’s success. This list is in priority order with a clear focus, first and foremost, on people.

#1: Effective immediately, close combat personnel should be treated as a separate, “excepted” function of U.S. national security.

No, not a service or specialty, but an excepted, exclusive function separate from all other non-close combat specialties. By excepted, we mean different than the attitude and approach that exists today, which is a mindset best captured by many who believe “anyone can serve as a grunt or GI in contemporary conflict.” This mindset pervades Army and especially Marine manning, equipping, and training resource prioritization decisions. Hence, the need for the task force now. Secretary Mattis knows better than anyone that when policymakers need America’s enemies destroyed at close range, house-to-house in Fallujah, Baghdad, or Mosul, tombstone-to-tombstone in Najaf, poppy field-to-poppy field in Sangin, mountaintop-to-mountaintop in North Korea, or island-to-island in the Western Pacific, it’s not random members of the Defense Department that receive the task, but the close combat personnel assigned to Marine and Army infantry units, as well as special operations forces. These Americans have a more dangerous and historically much more costly mission than the other 96 percent of the Defense Department. This doesn’t mean they’re better than anyone else. What it does mean is that they have a fundamentally different mission. It’s time for the Pentagon, particularly the Army and Marine Corps, along with the entire U.S. national security apparatus, to acknowledge, embrace, and act on this fact.

#2: The Marine Corps and Army should commit to fixing the staffing and manning of close combat formations to allow for cohesion.

This begins with how Americans are recruited and screened for these units and must remain central to how they’re educated, trained, retained, and treated throughout their service. The Department of Defense has recognized it has a talent management problem. However, it has failed to implement tested qualitative and quantitative measures that would make future close combat warfighter recruiting and retention efforts both accurate and precise in their shot group. Morally, mentally, and physically tough Americans, with strong, team-centric athletic backgrounds should be the primary target. Additionally, it can no longer be acceptable for infantry personnel expected to make instantaneous, tactical decisions that can easily have strategic effects to have the lowest mental aptitude requirements in the Marine Corps and Army. Fortunately, Chad Buckel, a Marine infantry officer serving in NATO’s special operations forces headquarters, just published a detailed plan, with objective metrics, for the Close Combat Lethality Task Force to use in fixing this manpower problem.

#3: A laser-like focus is required when selecting those that lead America’s close combat units.

Once the services have recruited and retained the desired personnel for close combat formations, they must be precise in who they select to lead them. This is not always the case today. For example, only 19 percent of Marine infantry rifle squads are led by an American with the appropriate experience and schooling. The goal for future Army and Marine close combat leaders should be a combination of Ender Wiggin, Clifford Wooldridge, and Leroy Petry. Most War on the Rocks’ readers are likely familiar with Ender Wiggin’s intellect, extensive training, and exceptional decision-making prowess. What Ender’s Game doesn’t emphasize nearly enough though is the mental and physical strength, stamina, and instincts that close combat leaders should also possess. Navy Cross recipient, Clifford Wooldridge, who served as a Marine infantry small unit leader in Afghanistan, epitomized the required total package close combat leader when he both courageously led his Marines to destroy at least eight enemy fighters and then personally killed another in hand-to-hand combat. Army Ranger and Medal of Honor recipient, Leroy Petry, did as well, while leading his soldiers in a battle against 40 enemy fighters and risking his life to save two of his teammates. A close combat leader must be the pentathlete of mental and physical superiority. Detailed study of these leaders’ actions reinforces why mental and physical strength, stamina, and toughness are so vital for America’s close combat personnel. Our recruitment, training, and selection of close combat leaders must reflect these realities as well.

#4: Success for close combat units in the current and future operational environment depends on sustained personnel readiness.

Army and Marine leaders need to stop talking about the importance of infantry small unit cohesion and instead act to ensure these units are manned appropriately. Seven years ago, then Army Maj. Gen. Robert Brown, provided a straightforward answer as to why close combat unit cohesion and trust are inextricably linked when addressing current manning processes: “But you’re just not going to empower somebody, if (you) don’t know them well.” Furthermore, it is difficult to build cohesion and trust when 8 to 11 percent of a close combat unit’s personnel are non-deployable, and the others do not have necessary subject matter experts to increase unit readiness. The Army and Marines’ new close combat unit manning model needs to ensure 100 percent stabilized staffing, while increasing the efficiency of transitioning non-deployable personnel and providing the necessary professional resources to increase physical and mental health. Rather than figuratively saying that soldiers should be treated like professional athletes, it’s time to actually do so with specialized health and fitness care.

#5: Congress should “fence” funding that triples spending on close combat formations.

Given how little the services have voluntarily invested in their close combat units, combined with how much the military-industrial complex is stacked against fiscally prioritizing them, this “fenced,” meaning not authorized for use anywhere else, budget line is essential. Why triple though? This is a fair request on behalf of those who take 80 to 90 percent of America’s combat casualties, especially when the next generation, short-range, tactical aviation fleet, which is not optimized to provide close air support, costs three times more than what it’s replacing. This doesn’t include the $11 million cost to train a single pilot. Nor does it include each pilot’s $400,000 fused optical helmet. As another point of comparison, Marine close combat leader optics today are the same that they were 15 years ago – and cost 1 percent of the pilot’s helmet.

#6: Congress should also direct Army and Marine aviation program funding be dedicated to ensure “Guardian Angel” support is available for U.S. close combat companies.

Fortunately, the Army, led by its Special Operations Command aviation element, is already heading down this path. Unfortunately, the Marine aviation combat element, due to its expensive pursuit of an all “fifth generation” tactical aircraft fleet, lags far behind the Army in providing the dedicated support that its close combat units require. Ultimately, what certain U.S. Air Force units have accomplished in recent years in support of special operations units should be the foundation built upon when it comes to providing aviation support for all U.S. infantry units. It is key that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff directs his staff to capture these lessons learned. Current Joint Fire Support and Joint Close Air Support publications do not adequately address the value of persistent, reliable, and dedicated air support. Likewise, it’s important to note that we understand that this type of support might not be immediately possible in every combat environment. However, the historical record suggests that it will be possible in most.

#7: Instead of accepting the “myth of high-threat close air support,” invest in an organic surface-to-surface, non-line of sight precision-guided missile capability for our close combat units.

Missile systems such as the Spike LR II (Israeli designed) or the ALAS A/B (Serbian/U.A.E. designed) provide infantry companies an anti-armor capability with ranges from six to 60 kilometers, bridging inevitable gaps in close air support. Each fiber-optic connected missile cruises towards the threat — scanning the route and, ultimately, the objective area with high definition and thermal optics — while emitting no electromagnetic signal that could provide warning of the approaching missile or unveil the controller’s location. With the confirmation of a generic threat in a general location, the missile controller can identify and prioritize targets using the missile optics and guide the missiles into the highest priority targets on final approach. Given the 2018 National Defense Strategy’s guidance on deterring, and if necessary, countering revisionist powers that possess significant armor forces, this type of capability is increasingly important for distributed close combat units. The last attempt to field a similar system was cancelled due to concerns about cost. Yet, India, Poland, and even Latvia — all countries that face armor threats from more powerful nations on their borders — have invested nearly $1 billion in Spike missiles in the past 12 months, joining the list of 29 countries that have purchased a combined total of over 29,000 of these missiles. For the price of a single F-35B, Secretary Mattis can buy 1,085 Spike LR II missiles. This missile quantity would rise rapidly if the cost of manning, fueling, and maintaining the F-35Bs to conduct 1,085 attacks were included as well.

  1. In the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress should direct and fund the immediate establishment of the Joint Close Combat Leader Center.

This center should be constructed no later than January 2019 and be responsible for certifying all of America’s future close combat leaders. An expected and welcome byproduct of the joint training environment would be greater attention paid towards interoperable units and equipment to fight on tomorrow’s battlefields. At the most basic level, the existing disparity in equipment means that if Marine, Army, and Special Operations Command close combat units were tasked on short notice to simultaneously assault a dense urban environment, their communications systems would not be interoperable. The joint center will prove critical to fixing this unacceptable deficiency, as future close combat leaders would provide their organic formations a keen understanding of the contemporary operating environment, the knowledge to ensure joint interoperability among peer units, and ultimately the best practices to enhance overall lethality and effectiveness. Further, the center’s cadre of experienced trainers, historians, and researchers will not only pass on the lessons of contemporary wars but through teaching, researching, and experimenting use the learning process to prepare close combat personnel for the future. Provided with this proper training and education, Army and Marine close combat units would ease the burden on Special Operations Command and raise the lowest common denominator as Field Marshall Slim recounted.

  1. Starting in the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress should allocate “joint close combat leader experimentation” funding of no less than $4.6 billion a year.

Allotting 5 percent of the Defense Department’s $92 billion research and development budget would follow the aforementioned three-fold increase in investment on the nation’s close combat units. This funding would be used at the discretion of the Joint Close Combat Leader Center’s commander and focused exclusively on the needs and capability shortfalls of U.S. infantry units. As things stand today, the Defense Department does not have a single commander, in any service, focused exclusively, day-after-day, month-after-month, and year-after-year, on this mission. These funds will allow the commander to focus on key lines of effort such as: physical and cognitive performance enhancement, unit and individual lethality, tactic and technique evaluation, and counter-threat tactics. An example of what this could look like would be designing a realistic adversary drone swarm capability targeting America’s close combat units in a “living and breathing” urban environment. In response, joint close combat leaders could use their future interoperable communications systems that have adversary frequency detection finding capabilities incorporated. They could then use information gained from these systems to help cue their Spike missiles and, threat scenario dependent, their “Guardian Angel” support as well. Another example would focus on joint close combat leaders employing lightweight, long-range loitering munitions to enable sea control in the littorals. The bottom-line is that given the increasing rate at which small tactical units are having strategic impacts, this funding is an essential enabler for the joint force.

  1. Starting no later than the end of 2018, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees should hold annual close combat readiness hearings.

These hearings should involve the services reporting on key close combat unit readiness metrics. For example, the Marine Corps should report on what is being done to ensure that its infantry rifle squads, the service’s core close combat units, have the 100 percent school-trained sergeant leadership that they require instead of the 19 percent that they have today. Additionally, instead of the services providing how many hours per month pilots fly as an indication of service readiness, they should, specifically for Marine and Army aviation, describe how many hours — per day — their pilots and aircraft are providing “Guardian Angel” support and other integrated training with close combat units.

No More Fair Fights

Secretary Mattis’ new task force is the best hope that exists for the Americans that volunteer to serve in the units that have historically suffered nearly 90 percent of the nation’s casualties in combat. Time and again, these courageous and dedicated Americans have been sent into unnecessarily fair fights. The near one-to-one enemy loss to friendly loss ratio inside Fallujah’s buildings in November 2004 is a perfect example of this. That battle should serve as the contemporary close combat and moral imperative for change “high-water” mark similar to what the 1968 Ault Report did for fighter aviation. This report, focused on air-to-air engagement losses approaching parity in Vietnam between 1965 and 1968, catalyzed the creation of the “Fighter Weapons School,” or what came to be known as the Navy’s “Top Gun,” less than 10 months after publication. Anything close to a fair fight for America’s naval aviators ended soon thereafter.

As tougher sanctions are enacted on North Korea, would the American people stand for a close combat unit fair fight against Kim Jong Un’s army in the urban sprawl of Seoul or Pyongyang? Better yet, why should they even be asked to do so, especially after recently making clear their anger in response to an American close combat unit finding itself completely overwhelmed in Niger?

The Defense Department budget was just increased to $686 billion. The Pentagon can and should do so much more to ensure the era of close combat unit fair fights comes to an end immediately. This article’s “Top 10” recommended actions provides the aiming stakes to get us to this point.

No more talking. Action is what counts now. The Ault Report showed that the seemingly impossible is possible in only 10 months. The task force must do the same for America’s close combat units.


Steven Cummings is an Army infantry officer and currently serves as a Company Commander in 1BCT, 10th Mountain Division. He is a 2010 graduate of West Point and has deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Inherent Resolve in a variety of roles within the 101st Airborne Division and 10th Mountain Division. 

Jeff Cummings is a Marine infantry officer and currently serves as a Military Faculty Advisor at The Expeditionary Warfare School, Marine Corps University.

John Kivelin is a Marine infantry officer. He conducted two deployments with 1st Battalion, 7th Marines in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and deployed twice with 2d Battalion, 7th Marines in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. 

John Spencer is the deputy director of the Modern War Institute at the United States Military Academy in West Point, NY. A former Ranger Instructor, he has held the ranks of private to sergeant first class and lieutenant to major while serving in ranger, airborne, light, and mechanized infantry units during his 24 years as an infantryman.

Scott Cuomo is a Marine infantry officer and currently participating in the Commandant of the Marine Corps Strategist Program at Georgetown University. He has served in infantry units while deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, and multiple other contingency operations.

Image: Defense Department