Pentagon's Lethality Task Force Is 'Dead' if Army Put in Charge, Top Adviser Says

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Soldiers from 1-21 Infantry Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division conduct live fire training, January 15, 2020. (U.S. Army/SPC Geoffrey Cooper)
Soldiers from 1-21 Infantry Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division conduct live fire training, January 15, 2020. (U.S. Army/SPC Geoffrey Cooper)

Defense Secretary Mark Esper put forward a plan Thursday to place the Army in charge of the Close Combat Lethality Task Force, a move that drew immediate opposition from a top adviser to the task force.

"What we're going to do, probably, is transition it to the Army because something like that needs a strong foundation of backbone upon which its ideas can then filter out," Esper said of the task force, which was set up by his predecessor, Jim Mattis.

The task force, originally positioned at the Pentagon, was designed to make recommendations to all the services.

"Nesting it right there" in the Army makes more sense, Esper said in response to a question during a presentation on the military budget at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

Related: Mattis May Be Gone, But His Effort to Revolutionize the Infantry Continues

"The Army obviously provides the largest share of infantry, if you will, infantry and special operators," he said, adding that putting the task force under the service's wing will "allow it to more quickly get its ideas and innovations out into the field."

Esper's proposal drew fire from retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, a member of the task force advisory board who worked closely with Mattis in setting up the group. It is currently led by retired Marine Col. Joseph L'Etoile and reports to the assistant secretary of defense for readiness.

"It's very, very disappointing to me," Scales said of Esper's plan. "I think the task force is dead if this happens."

Putting a single service in charge of what should be a multi-service mission would defeat the purpose of the task force, Scales said in a phone interview.

Esper's plan goes against "the vision General Mattis and I had that the task force would try to keep alive those most likely to die" in close combat by reforming how small infantry units train, equip, communicate and maneuver, he added.

"This is a decision that could potentially cost lives," Scales said.

The task force's recommendations "had to be centralized" in the Defense Department "and taken away from the services" to be effective, he explained.

"If it happens," Scales said of the transition to the Army, "close combat becomes just another budgetary line" that will be lost in the defense bureaucracy.

However, Esper, a West Point graduate and a retired Army lieutenant colonel, said in his remarks at SAIS that the task force is "near and dear to my heart as a former infantryman myself. So it's something I want to preserve."

"We've leveraged it pretty well," he said. "We'll continue to work on it to do it better. I think it's something to continue to invest in."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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