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

By Leonhard, Robert R. | Army, September 2004 | Go to article overview
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Let's Get Closer: Remembering the Relevance of Close Combat


Leonhard, Robert R., Army


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. Longrange 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.

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