WASHINGTON -- The United States already has the best infantry soldiers, Marines and special operators on the face of the Earth, but Defense Secretary James N. Mattis wants them to completely overmatch any potential foes.
Joseph L’Etoile, the senior advisor in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness, is leading a Close Combat Lethality Task Force to ensure this overmatch becomes a reality.
The task force is laser-focused on capabilities, policies and doctrine that will allow close-combat squads to overmatch any opposing foe. “The idea is to ensure a squad can impose its will on a like-sized organization in any operational environment in any condition,” L’Etoile said in an interview in his Pentagon office.
A career infantry Marine, L’Etoile is working with Army, Marine Corps and special operations personnel to examine every aspect of infantry operations. This effort is aimed at the roughly 130,000 Defense Department personnel who engage in close-combat operations. This group historically suffers 90 percent of war casualties.
Improving Squad Lethality and Protection
Many things can be done to improve squad lethality and protection, L’Etoile said. “There’s some low-hanging fruit, there’s some that’s going to be a lot of work. There’s some that is futuristic,” he added. “In some areas, we are going to plant seeds that others are going to harvest.”
Over the last 30 years, most of the changes in infantry squads have been evolutionary, he said. He pointed to the first night-vision goggles he used in the late 1980s as an example. “The NVGs that are out there today are eye watering with the capabilities they have,” he said. But those are evolutionary changes. “What we’re also looking for are breakout capabilities – more revolutionary than evolutionary,” he said.
Infantry personnel are still shooting 5.56 mm rounds out of an M-4 rifle, which is a derivation of the Vietnam era’s M-16. “There is an element of this that bears repeating — first do no harm,” L’Etoile said. “We produce magnificent infantry that have been very successful. What we are looking at is, ‘What is technologically available today that will have a revolutionary impact?’ This is about optimizing for success.”
Training, human performance and manpower policy are three nonmaterial aspects that the task force will examine. “A good guideline is [that] it is what is in the soldier or Marine, not what is on the soldier or Marine, that is much more important,” he said. “Human performance enhanced by modern training techniques is what we are looking at.”
The task force is looking at weaponry that has greater range and lethality and the ability to find and defeat concealed enemy forces. “The material components are there – they are in the sensing arena. What can we give a squad that can look over the next ridge line -- and the one after that -- that is man portable?” he said.
Lightening the Load
This last is crucial, he said, as the task force does not want to add any more weight; in fact, it wants to decrease the warfighter’s load. A fully equipped infantry soldier carries weapons, water, ammunition, batteries, food, personal protective equipment, hand grenades, goggles and more. The weight easily tops 120 pounds. “The piece about reducing the soldier’s load is central to what we’re looking at,” he said. “There’s some opportunity there, but there are some technological challenges.”
The task force is looking at what exoskeletons can accomplish and is considering the possibility of autonomous robots carrying gear, food and ammunition.
Not all battles occur in the same clime or place. Combat in cities requires different equipment, sensors and weapons than combat in the desert or jungle or tundra or forest, L’Etoile said. These environmental challenges need to be factored into how military officials design, experiment and procure these capabilities.
One of the innate advantages American squads enjoy is the innovative spirit. Soldiers and Marines take the initiative to find new ways to use equipment, capitalize on new technology or use old technology in new ways.
“When they come up with a solution, we have to listen, and we have the mechanisms in place to exploit that creativity,” L’Etoile said. “We have a bias for action on the task force. We are not going to let ‘perfect’ be the enemy of ‘good enough.’”