The Close Combat Lethality Task Force

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has created a “Close Combat Lethality Task Force” to fix problems with U.S. infantry forces.  The vast majority of these forces are found in the Army and Marine Corps.  Many of the task force’s ideas are encapsulated in a book by Major General Bob Scales, U.S. Army (Retired), called Scales on War.  In this book, General Scales calls for a comprehensive program to improve the lethality of U.S. infantry.  

The fundamental problem is that Scales has misunderstood the changes occurring in modern war.  Scales’ thoughts on past changes in war are muddled.  While he vaguely mentions changes in war as a result of societal changes, he provides a framework broken into “epochs”, each of which is defined by technological changes.  This leads naturally into a solution in which technology plays a central role.

Unfortunately, technology is neither the problem nor the answer.  If it were, the United States would not have difficulty defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan (as just one example).  War has changed and we are now facing Fourth Generation adversaries.  This change in war is based not on technology, but on who fights and what they fight for (as Martin Van Creveld has argued).  The truth is the U.S. military is poorly adapted to fighting Fourth Generation wars, where “lethality” can be disadvantageous.  Nowhere in Scales’ book does he demonstrate any understanding of this.

Scales also confuses tactics with strategy.  Scales believes American military ineffectiveness can be attributed to poorly trained infantry.  The solution is equally simple: provide massive resources to improve training and equipment and victory will be assured.  

This is a serious misunderstanding of what has gone wrong in U. S. military involvements since World War II.  American infantry can certainly benefit from better selection and training, but this will not cure the strategic disease which is crippling the U.S. military establishment.  One can have legions of the most effective and efficient killers the world has ever seen and still lose a war with poor strategy.

The United States has committed troops to poorly defined, poorly understood, and unwinnable conflicts yet demanded victory.  Senior military leaders who are little more than bureaucrats in uniform and lack either military sense or the ability to speak truth to power seem to do little more than nod when asked if the military can accomplish the mission.  The result in Vietnam was a disaster.  Although U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan is still ongoing, after nearly 18 years and 16 years respectively, can anyone seriously believe victory is still possible?

In advocating improved infantry, Scales provides a tactical solution to an operational and strategic problem.  He does not understand that in war, results at a higher level trump those at a lower level.  Back in 2009, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recognized that the United States could not kill or capture its way to victory in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Scales does not understand this.

Scales believes strategic victory can be won by stacking up tactical victories (and enemy bodies).  Unfortunately, war does not always work this way and this method has entirely failed in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Whether the Close Combat Lethality Task Force ultimately achieves anything other than spending a lot of money remains to be seen.  What is beyond question is that even if the program is wildly successful and the effectiveness of American infantry increases dramatically, until we gain a better understanding of Fourth Generation war, increased body counts will not improve our military’s ability to win wars.  If General Scales is providing a roadmap for our military, we are likely going in the wrong direction.