HomeMission AreasNational Security AnalysisLet's Get Closer: Remembering the Relevance of Close Combat 

National Security Analysis Staff

Let's Get Closer:
Remembering the Relevance of Close Combat

Appeared in Army Magazine September 2004
By LTC(R) R. R. Leonhard, PhD

In his insightful study of Army Transformation, Andrew Krepinevich rightly points to an irony within the Army's vision of the future. On the one hand, Transformation leaders are calling for a fighting organization that can "see first, understand first, act first and finish decisively," which implies fighting the enemy at a distance; and on the other hand, the Army's plan for Stryker brigade combat teams emphasizes dismounted infantry assaults. Krepinevich correctly perceives a disconnect here as the Army struggles to reconcile its past core competency of close combat with the future possibility of precision engagement at a distance. Long-range precision engagement has many advocates, both within and without the Army. Is the Army schizophrenic? Will the Future Force prefer distant engagement or close combat or both?

The purpose of this article is to explain why the most effective vision for the future Army will be one that refocuses on the close fight as the centerpiece of land warfare. Our ability to engage the enemy from the land, air and sea, at great distances, is a powerful tool and will continue to be an important part of the shaping fight. We must guard against inaccurate and ineffective theories, however, that suppose that distant engagement can supplant the decisiveness of close combat. Indeed, if the Army succumbs to the allure of long range, it will preside over its own marginalization and deprive the future joint force of a crucial capability.

Warfare is the coming together of opposites. The violent contest of battle causes war to be characterized by the constant tension between dialectically opposed ideas. Armies mass and disperse, attack and defend, maneuver and fortify, destroy and build up. Modern joint warfare also brings out another dichotomy--the need for both long-range precision engagement and close combat. These two forms of warfare are complementary--the use of one strengthens the other. In fact, the very existence of the one brings about the need for the other. When an enemy force--whether an armored corps or a gang of insurgents--mass together to oppose an American land force, they make themselves highly vulnerable to the devastating effects of long-range precision engagement from the land, air or sea. The most destructive results from fires occur when the enemy forces are close together in a building, along a road or assembling for an attack.

What occurs when an American joint force conducts effective fires against such targets? The first-order effect is the death and destruction caused by the kinetic energy of the attack. The second-order effect is that the enemy disperses to mitigate the effects of fires. Often this dispersion is one of the effects that the joint commander wants to cause. If the commander can force an enemy to disperse its combat power, they will be less effective in close battle. There is also a deleterious effect, however: a dispersed enemy is less vulnerable to further long-range engagement. An enemy force that is dispersed in an urban area or other close terrain, and perhaps intermixed with the noncombatant population, is highly difficult to find and attack.

The solution is close combat. Long-range fires cause enemy forces to disperse and hide, thus making them more vulnerable to a vigorous attack by ground forces. An American joint force that lacks the ground combat power to prosecute close combat must ultimately stand by and allow the enemy to make long-range engagement all but irrelevant. The threat of close combat forces the enemy into a constant dilemma: either mass for battle and risk destruction from fires, or disperse and risk destruction from close combat. This is the yin and yang of warfare.

The future joint force has an abundance of long-range precision fires. The Air Force, Navy, Army and Marines have an inherent capability in this area, and future developments will only make the force even stronger in precision engagement. While an organic Army capability for long-range fires reinforces the fires of the other joint forces, an over-emphasis upon fires can blind the Army to its unique core competency: dominating the close fight.

The Army is afraid to embrace the close fight publicly, because to do so seems anachronistic, politically incorrect and illogical. Real warfare—whether in the open field against uniformed opponents, or in urban terrain against irregular insurgents—depends upon close combat, but the close fight suffers from a pervasive and erroneous mythology. An effective vision for the future Army must combat these myths with the proven realities of military history.

Myth 1. Close combat should be a last resort and is equivalent to tactical failure. The close fight should never be viewed as a last resort, but rather as a full partner in modern joint operations. It is the close combat capability of the joint force that forces the enemy to mass and thus become vulnerable to long-range fires. Thus, close combat is not tactical failure; it is a fundamental component of victory—the yin that enables the yang of precision engagement. If we deprive ourselves of the one, we relegate the other to indecisiveness and irrelevance.

It is an easy matter to see the truth of this if we put ourselves into the enemy's shoes. If I were an insurgent fighting against an American joint force, I would be delighted if all my opponent had to offer was long-range fires. Indeed, I would anticipate an eventual victory with relish. Hiding from joint fires is a no-brainer if the opponent has no ability to force me out of hiding. If that joint force is able to have a strong combat force in my area of operations, however, I must either acquiesce in its presence, or expose my forces to oppose it, thus making myself vulnerable to fires once again.

Myth 2. Close combat is too bloody. More to the point, this myth supposes that close combat represents too great a risk to our own troops. The reality is that although any form of combat is dangerous, and close combat will always demand a special kind of courage, it can also be considerably less bloody than long-range fires and less dangerous than the rear area. In the first Gulf War, the single biggest casualty-producing attack against the American joint force was a missile attack against a barracks far to the rear. By contrast, our recent experience in close combat was decidedly one-sided as American forces sliced through Iraqi combat formations with few casualties. Improvised explosive devices have proven to be more lethal in Iraq than any pitched battle is likely to be. The bottom line is that in tomorrow's theater of war, close combat is no more likely to result in mass U.S. casualties than any other form of engagement.

Close combat gives the commander the best opportunity for the multiplicative effects of combined arms. In close combat—and only in close combat--the joint commander can subject an enemy to simultaneous attack by hundreds of weapons that combine complementary attack profiles that are able to finish them off quickly and break their morale. It is this collapse dynamic that only close combat can produce and that often makes close combat the most decisive form of warfare. This leads to the third myth.

Myth 3. Close combat is indecisive. The opposite is true. Close combat is the only form of warfare that results in surrenders. Enemy troops or insurgents do not surrender to long-range fires; they hide from them and defy them. Close combat confronts the enemy with his own imminent and inescapable death, and so it impacts directly on individual and organizational morale. For the past several millennia, virtually every battle involving close combat has resulted in a moral weakening or collapse by one side or the other (or occasionally both). Real battle does not involve killing every last enemy. Normally, less than 10 percent of the enemy force is actually destroyed before a moral collapse occurs. The breakdown that results leads to retreat, rout and often surrender, providing a most decisive outcome.

People do not live at 30,000 feet. They do not live on the seas. They live in cities, in villages and on farms. The core competency of the U.S. Army is to project combat power into the dimensions in which people live. The Air Force and Navy excel at delivering the joint force into theater and shaping the fight with overwhelming fires. They do not, however, have the ability to project discriminatory, combined arms combat power into the dimensions in which people live, work and play. It is the ground force component that can patrol the streets, occupy buildings, negotiate a cease-fire, separate combatants, take prisoners, provide succor to the fearful, shake the hand of a tribal leader and, when necessary, kill an insurgent trying to hide behind his wife.

When a bomb or missile falls to the earth, the resulting explosion delivers a tremendous amount of instantaneous kinetic energy against our foes. One second after the explosion, however, both the kinetic and potential energy of that munition go to zero. When an infantry patrol sets up in the town square, its potential energy remains as a force to be reckoned with. It has immediate and sustained effects on the politics, economics and social dynamics of the area in which it operates. It is a visible, human presence capable of greeting, helping, communicating or destroying. It is combat power in the human dimension. No missile, rocket or bomb can mimic this effect or lessen its relevance.

A retreat from a close-combat capability is equivalent to the abandonment of national grand strategy. There is not a single expert today who does not foresee the continued need for stability and support operations as part of our future strategy. Those operations will most certainly involve combat against both regular and irregular forces. Without a commitment to honing the close-combat effectiveness of the Future Force, we will be unable to sustain and protect stability and support operations. Succumbing to the fiction of attractive theories that promise the ability to find and destroy the enemy's center of gravity, golden screw, or Achilles' heel in a rapid and decisive campaign built on precision engagement is an amateurish approach to real war. War on a PowerPoint slide is quick, decisive and a splendid opportunity for a barrage of cruise missiles to do it all. Real war, however, involves enemies with more guts, savvy and determination than we like to credit them with. They have no center of gravity; they do not use a golden screw; and the Achilles we will face had a mother smart enough to dip his entire body, including the heel, in the River Styx. To defeat such a foe will require sustained combined-arms combat that uses both long-range fires and close combat in an integrated campaign.

We have to stop trying to out-Air Force the Air Force. It is reasonable and important for our future to continue building an organic capability for long-range fires. They provide reliable, sustainable fires that reinforce joint precision engagement. If the Army becomes too enamored with long-range and precision engagement, however, we will wander ever deeper into the domain of the Air Force, where we will lose programmatically. An Army weapon system that delivers long-range fires will inevitably have to face the question: why cannot the Air Force do that instead? Sometimes there are good reasons behind such systems. The Air Force cannot deliver round-the-clock, all-weather, all-terrain, close supporting fires. The Army must rely upon artillery and mortars to do that. When we gravitate more and more to non-line-of-sight precision engagement, however, we degenerate to trying to duplicate what the Air Force can already do.

To some degree, this overlap must continue, because both stability operations and close combat require a high volume of non-line-of-sight engagement capability that cannot be fully provided from the air. In the context of limited defense budgets, however, no program that duplicates another service's capability will escape scrutiny. The Army's core competency is not long-range engagement; it is killing or capturing the enemy up close and personal. Long-range fires facilitate the success of close combat, but it is in building that close-combat capability that the Army ensures its future.

The U.S. Marine Corps is our natural partner in preparing for tomorrow's wars, because close combat is the Marines' purview as well. As with the Army, the Marine Corps has a long, proud tradition of being able to master the most intense ground warfare on the one hand, and guard the peace in the most exotic trouble spots across the globe on the other. It is impossible to think of our Marines without remembering their record of decisive close combat throughout our nation's history. Just as the Army continues to exploit the technological potential of precision engagement, so also the Marines continue to modernize, but they have not shied away from the realities of war or the need for wading in and dominating the close fight.

We must expose the defense community's addiction to long-range fires for what it is: an erroneous, ineffective and dangerous theory that has been consistently disproved in real war. It is not anachronistic to resource the close fight; it is the most forward-thinking, futuristic thing we can do. Enabling the future soldier to dominate the 50 meters around him creates a powerful dynamic that strategists can use to secure our national objectives with a high degree of reliability. This is not a romantic glorification of the bayonet; it is a scientific, dispassionate and pragmatic preparation for tomorrow's challenge—a responsible and sober girding for the real fight, rather than cowering behind promises of winning easily from a safe distance.

No other service and no other agency of the government can resource the close fight like the U.S. Army can. It is the one dimension of future conflict that belongs to us, and with good reason. We have the institutional expertise, the experience and the moral commitment to our soldiers required to ensure victory in the close fight. Theories of war that contemplate a super-smart joint commander hitting just the right target and creating a fourth-order effect that saves the day ultimately rely upon hope, pseudo-science and good luck. Cultivating the close fight mentality results in a future joint force that can reliably and consistently deliver mission accomplishment, if necessary at gun-point.

Stop apologizing for the close fight. Stop trying to avoid it as if there is something wrong with it. Stop buying into the mythology and bad science that sustains the theory of long-range engagement. Get real. Get closer.

The bread and butter of the Army is the close fight. We are the world's masters at this ferocious art, and it is destined to be the centerpiece of conflict as far into the future as anyone can see. We surely embrace any technology, including precision engagement, that can help us win that fight. We must not, however, take counsel of our fears and abandon or weaken the close-combat component of the joint force. Without close fighting, the joint force loses or becomes indecisive and irrelevant. Equipped with a robust capability to kill up close, the future joint commander will accomplish the mission and win the fight.