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Marines Already Revamping Close Combat Ahead of Mattis' Initiative

A U.S. Marine with 1st Combat Engineer Battalion and Japan Ground Self Defense Soldier with the Western Army Infantry Regiment, clear hallways while conducting Urban Explosive Demolitions training during exercise Iron Fist 2018, Jan. 19. (Robert Alejandre/Marine Corps)
A U.S. Marine with 1st Combat Engineer Battalion and Japan Ground Self Defense Soldier with the Western Army Infantry Regiment, clear hallways while conducting Urban Explosive Demolitions training during exercise Iron Fist 2018, Jan. 19. (Robert Alejandre/Marine Corps)

A senior Marine Corps leader told Congress recently that the service is already "in line" with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis' effort to make U.S. ground forces more lethal in close combat.

Mattis sent out a Feb. 8 memorandum to all senior military leaders announcing the Secretary of Defense Close Combat Lethality Task Force -- launching an effort aimed at "improving the combat preparedness, lethality, survivability, and resiliency of our nation's ground close combat formations," the memo states.

Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, deputy commandant for combat development and integration, told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee's subcommittee on seapower that Commandant Gen. Robert Neller directed the service to experiment with new equipment and tactics focused on close combat more than a year ago.

"That's where we need to put the focus. The commandant is an infantryman and that is where he's got the focus, and I think we are completely in line where the secretary of defense is taking us," Walsh said.

Subcommittee chair Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi, wanted to know more about the task force and whether the Marine Corps has let other priorities overshadow readiness for close combat.

"I have heard concerns that the Marine Corps may have prioritized readiness recovery efforts on aviation units to the relative detriment of close combat units," he said during his opening statement.

Sen. Mike Rounds, R-South Dakota, asked Walsh for his insight into the direction the task force might take.

"What are your thoughts on the changes in personnel, policies, training methods and equipping strategies that you believe this task force should be looking at?" Rounds said.

Walsh said the Corps began focusing on close combat during its Sea Dragon 2025 experiments that began more than a year and a half ago.

"We took 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, an infantry battalion, and we took that organization and reorganized them," he said, describing how each of the three line companies was organized and outfitted differently.

Units were given new equipment such as unmanned ground and aerial systems, new night vision goggles, helmets and small arms.

"We have learned a lot from Marine Corps Special Operations Command, so we have gotten much more developed in that area on how do we raise the game up to a higher level," Walsh said.

After the experiment, Marine leaders came up with a list of 41 different recommendations generated by the unit. As a result, Marine infantry squads will be issued the M27 infantry automatic rifle as a replacement for the standard M4 Carbine.

The IAR, based on the Heckler & Koch HK416, offers a longer effective range and better accuracy than the M4 carbine currently fielded to infantrymen, but it also has come with a steeper price tag: about $3,000 a piece compared to less than $1,000 for the M4.

Other recommendations included issuing Marines weapon suppressors and new AN/PVS-31A NVGs to replace the standard AN/PVS-14s currently in use.

"That program took about a year and a half. We took that back to the commandant, and I think out of probably the 40 different recommendations they made, we have probably now already programmed 20 of those recommendations," Walsh said. "Out of the experiment, we have fielded over half of the squads of the Marine Corps with unmanned aerial systems -- unheard of that we would give an unmanned aerial system to the squad."

In 2017, the Defense Department'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," Mattis' memo states.

The Marine Corps was directly involved in the portfolio review, Walsh said.

"All of those members that are down at the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab have been involved with the Close Combat Strategic Portfolio Review done by the secretary of defense that has now turned into this close combat task force," he said.

"In fact, our experiment lead, who was leading our experiment division, we gave up to go work for the secretary of defense on this to help continue to move our things forward," Walsh said.

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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