The Department of Defense wants to make its combat units more lethal. One way it plans on doing that is by targeting a certain kind of military recruit. A “higher quality” soldier or marine with specific skill sets required in close combat operations. It’s part of a DoD-wide, multi-year task force aimed at increasing the lethality and combat strength of troops assigned to close combat units.
The task force is charged with addressing combat needs and problems in a variety of contexts. This includes recruiting, retention, training, and equipment.
Known as the Close Combat Lethality Task Force, this effort started with a March 2018 memorandum issued by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.
That Memorandum includes discussion of an effort in 2017 known as a “Close Combat Strategic Portfolio Review.” It is designed to identify, “the most promising investment opportunities to improve close combat effectiveness and survivability.” The memorandum also identified some problem areas in need of addressing via the task force including what was described as “the fundamental problem to overcome.”
What is that problem? “An erosion in close combat capability relative to the pacing threats identified in the National Defense Strategy,” according to the Mattis memorandum.
Part of the solution, according to the Department of Defense, is to grow combat units with higher quality troops. Which in this case means recruiting people who have both inherent skills and the ability to learn how to survive close combat.
Close Combat Defined
According to Army Sergeant Major Army Jason Wilson, close combat is defined as, “an environment characterized by extreme violence within line-of-sight of the enemy.” Wilson says a large number of military combat casualties happen, quite possibly the majority according to one DoD report.
Military leadership insists that the Close Combat Lethality Task Force is not meant to address a “broken” infantry system, but rather an enhancement of it. This is in spite of the erosion of close combat capability mentioned above.
The Close Combat Lethality Task Force
The task force is a Department of Defense wide initiative that involves everything from training emphasis and procedures to the recruiting efforts mentioned at the beginning of this article. It is an effort to not only end the high turnover possible (and happening) at the squad level. It also makes sure that new additions to combat units have the learned and inherent skills necessary to survive close combat.
According to the Defense Department, there are some issues with past recruiting efforts. Namely that according to the memorandum issued by the Defense Secretary recruiting practices “do not deliberately identify candidates with the physical and personality traits that best align with success in close combat.”
In the memorandum, this issue is referred to as a “problem statement” rather than being a direct critique of the current recruiting and retention environment in the military. But the results are the same, a problem has been named that requires a solution. What will the task force attempt to do about this problem?
One of the stated goals of the task force according to the memorandum is to give troops live, virtual, and immersive combat training. It is intended to “attune infantry personnel to the shock of first contact within a hyper realistic training environment.”
A certain emphasis has been placed on “first contact” type combat. The shock of that first contact being a specific issue new troops will be required to deal with in the training environment.
One Important Goal of The Task Force
“Overmatch” is something among the stated objectives of the Close Combat Lethality Task Force. In the context of combat operations, overmatch is defined as the ability for a squad-sized military unit to “impose its will on a similar sized opponent.” This is regardless of conditions or the operational environment.
At least one branch of military service, the U.S. Army, is altering its’ training approach to achieving the overmatch goal by scheduling more high-stress environments to do military exercises. This is accomplished by including exercises scheduled at “most inopportune times” to stress the system and see how far conditions may be pushed or stressed before readiness is affected.
Task Force Progress
2018 was the first year of the task force. Some of the issues and solutions referenced in the Jim Mattis memorandum are barely past the conceptual stage.
Finding suitable recruits and adjusting retention policies is a stated goal of the program. But as of October 2018, it seemed a significant portion has more to do with retaining those already in combat squads or upgrading equipment.
The headline grabbing mentions of “higher-quality grunts” have seemingly more to do with a desire to keep combat units from becoming dumping grounds for troops who didn’t have the ability to serve in a different career field through performance, mental ability, etc.
At the time of this writing, there is not much data available about actual changes to recruiting tactics. But combat unit bonuses for Marines and revamped training requirements for Army units are touted as a step in the right direction.
Task Force Problems
At the time of this writing, retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel Joseph L’Etoile, director of the Close Combat Lethality Task Force, is on the record stating that funding levels for the task force are not adequate for the research and development needed to continue the work. Funding for some of the work has included more than $800 million for Army units and more than $480 million for Marine units.
Funding Issues and Task Force Phases
There are questions about whether the program will be funded beyond 2020. That’s a troublesome question mark for those with a vested interest in the success of the task force. It is designed to be implemented in as many as five separate phases according to the memorandum. What are those phases?
- Phase I– Establish the CCLTF, which has been accomplished.
- Phase II– Shaping via fact finding visits, research, and development communities developing “an understanding of threat capabilities,” etc.
- Phase III – Decisive Action via “the implementation of policy, changes, investment and divestment strategies, and training methods.”
- Phase IV – Exploitation via “an iterative process designed to identify and disseminate best practices.”
- Phase V – Transition via the task force’s pursuit of “policies and mechanisms that ensure outcomes are enduring in nature. The bias is toward systemic changes that yield repeatable results across transitions and fiscal planning horizons” according to the memorandum.
Add to this, a proposed $30 billion cut in defense spending in 2020. It is easy to see how the future of the task force could be viewed as uncertain (at the time of this writing). Will there be a more targeted approach to some types of recruitment? Will funding be enough to explore the recommendations made following the command-directed research and study of threats, training, and other important areas?
Will the task force choose equipment and virtual training alone instead of those areas plus more targeted recruiting efforts if budget issues are a constraint?
At press time, military leaders are still keeping many of their recommendations to senior leadership under wraps, but as 2019 gets underway that may change.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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