Mattis Wants Ground Combat Units to Be More Lethal in the Close Fight

Paratroopers with 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division fire at insurgent forces during a firefight June 15, 2012, in Afghanistan's Ghazni Province. (Photo Credit: Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod)
Paratroopers with 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division fire at insurgent forces during a firefight June 15, 2012, in Afghanistan's Ghazni Province. (Photo Credit: Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod)

The U.S. Military's top leader has launched an effort to make ground forces such as infantry and special operations units deadlier in close combat.

Defense Secretary James Mattis sent out a Feb. 8 memorandum to the service secretaries, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all combatant commands and other Defense Department agencies announcing the Secretary of Defense Close Combat Lethality Task Force.

"I am committed to improving the combat preparedness, lethality, survivability, and resiliency of our nation's ground close combat formations," Mattis wrote.

"These formations have historically accounted for almost 90 percent of our casualties and yet 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."

The memo does not provide a description of close combat, but "close quarters combat," or CQB, training deals with ranges between zero and 100 meters within a built-up or urban area -- the "belt buckle" zone that often takes a fiscal backseat to major combat platforms such as advanced aircraft, naval systems, armored vehicles and high-tech missiles, according to military experts.

Aside from new military technology, the task force may provide much-needed coordination for the services to ensure they are working together on small arms and equipment innovations -- something that the Marine Corps and the Army often fail to do, experts maintain.

In 2017, the DoD's Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, or CAPE, office conducted a Close Combat Strategic Portfolio Review to "identify the most promising investment opportunities to improve our close combat effectiveness and survivability," the memo states.

The CAPE review is now complete; recommendations and a final report are now being prepared, the memo states. The task force will fall under the direction of the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and will consist of members from the Army, Marine Corps, Special Operations Command and representatives from DoD's acquisitions as well as the research and engineering communities.

Related Content: reached out to the Defense Department to ask about the cost of such a sweeping effort but did not receive a reply by press time. Breaking Defense, which first wrote about this story, reported that the task force was prepared to invest more than $1 billion in the effort.

"The task force, I think is a great idea, because the intent behind it is, we spend a lot of attention and we spend a lot of money on aviation, the undersea environment ... missile defense," said Dakota Wood, a retired Marine Corps officer and the senior research fellow for Defense Programs at The Heritage Foundation. "Huge sums of money, so are we giving proportionally as much time and attention and resources to ground combat?"

This new emphasis on close combat is not a surprise considering Mattis's background. For more than four decades in uniform, he commanded Marines at all levels, from an infantry rifle platoon to a Marine Expeditionary Force.

Mattis led an infantry battalion in the 1991 Gulf War, an expeditionary brigade in Afghanistan in 2001 and a Marine division in the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003. He later commanded Marine Corps Combat Development Command.

But the effort also "serves as an indictment to the very communities that it is meant to support," Wood said, describing how the Army and the Marine Corps have a long tradition of selecting their most senior leaders from infantry and combat arms communities.

"So why then have the services chosen to prioritize spending on aviation or other systems and not the communities from which they have been selected?" Wood said.

To be fair, the Army and the Marines have made significant advances in individual combat equipment in the last two decades. These advances have included equipping troops with sophisticated weapons optics instead of iron sights, improved body armor, night vision equipment and small unmanned ground vehicles and aerial drones that can alert a combat unit if the enemy is hiding around the next street corner, Wood said.

Last October, the Army launched a sweeping acquisitions reform effort and named soldier lethality as one of its six modernizations priorities.

The U.S. Army is also leading a joint effort to develop new tactics and procedures for subterranean operations -- fighting in cramped tunnel complexes.

Learning to fight deep underground where ventilation is often poor has highlighted the need for specialized equipment such as self-contained breathing equipment, according to an Army source involved in the effort, who is not cleared to speak with reporters.

Anytime soldiers use explosives or fire small arms, toxic fumes are released into the air they breathe; prolonged exposure in this environment can be deadly, the source said.

The effort has been testing off-the-shelf, self-contained breathing apparatus, but these systems can cost as much as $13,000 each, a figure that has been hard for Army leaders to accept, the source said.

Specialized ballistic shields are another piece of kit that units will need for this type of warfare since tunnels provide little to no cover from enemy fire. Special operations forces have been using similar shields for tunnel operations since the late 1980s, but under their own contracts, the source said.

But some solutions to improving close combat effectiveness have nothing to do with technology.

The Army's Asymmetric Warfare Group has recommended to the senior leadership that the service needs to increase training ammunition allocation for units to allow them to conduct more CQB training with small arms, especially carbine and pistol, the source said.

"It's not about future vertical lift, it's not about artillery, it's not about tanks," the source said. "It's about hands, knives and guns."

The services are supposed to be working together on common solutions for needs such as body armor and small arms programs, but the Marine Corps and the Army often go in different directions.

The Marine Corps is evaluating the Army's new XM17 Modular Handgun System for adoption, but both services are headed in different directions when it comes to primary individual weapons.

In December, Marine Commandant Gen. Robert Neller confirmed to that the service plans to equip each member of the infantry squad, and possibly other infantry support elements, with the M27 infantry automatic rifle. The 5.56mm rifle, based on the HK 416, has been used by automatic rifle Marines since 2010.

But senior Army modernization officials recently told Congress that the Army is not interested in the M27 and instead aims to develop more powerful infantry weapons to replace the M4 carbine and M249 squad automatic weapon.

Last May, Gen. Mark Milley testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the service's current M855A1 Enhanced Performance Round will not defeat enemy body armor plates like the United States' Enhanced Small Arms Protective Insert, or ESAPI.

Lt. Gen. John Murray, deputy chief of staff for Army G8, told congress earlier this month that the Army wants a new squad automatic rifle and carbine that will fire something in between 5.56mm and 7.62mm NATO.

Murray also confirmed that the Army already has a science and technology demonstration weapon, made by Textron Systems.

The working prototype, chambered for 6.5mm, has evolved out of Textron's light and medium machine guns that fire 5.56mm and 7.62mm case-telescoped ammunition developed under the Lightweight Small Arms Technology program.

Over the last decade, the Army has invested millions in the development of the program, which has now been renamed Textron Cased Telescoped Weapons and Ammunition.

The question is, "will this task force be able to accomplish something that the services themselves have been unable to accomplish at the same level -- grappling with the defense acquisition system, can you turn things quickly enough?" Wood said.

"It's a neat idea; it is fascinating to see the secretary of defense directly getting involved at that level," he said. "But a neat idea doesn't necessarily mean it's easily translatable into effectiveness and accomplishing the objectives for which the task force has been formed."

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at

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