Michael's Dispatches

Making Tracks

British soldiers tracking in Borneo

08 May 2009

A quick email from Borneo:

The tracking school ended on Day 17.  The full course is scheduled for 21 days, but the final four days are admin.  A new class has arrived and begins on Monday.  I’ll go through the first couple of days with the new class, and will get a couple more days training with the dogs.  Another group of British soldiers is training for deployment to Afghanistan.  I’ll start training with them this afternoon.

The tracking course brought back many memories of times in combat wherein tracking could have made a decisive difference.  There was the day, for instance, when a massive bomb detonated, killing four Americans and an interpreter.  The bomb was buried in a road.  The explosion was so powerful that an armored humvee door landed on the second floor of a house.  One door was blown so far that we never found it.  There was a command wire leading from the massive crater to an abandoned house which had a swampy area behind it.  The trail of the triggerman obviously would have started at the back of that house.  Somewhere back there, either starting at the back of the house, or out in the swampy area where we recovered one of the bodies, would have been a trail leading to where the triggerman ran off to.  We never found it.  I am convinced that any students who had just finished this course would have been on that trail within minutes.

Yet even if we had twenty-thousand trained trackers out there – and we don’t – likely it would be a rare commander who would realize their value, and know how to employ trackers.  The reality is that it might take a decade of concerted effort to lift the American military to a reasonable proficiency in tracking.  It would not be appropriate to view tracking teams like, say, EOD teams.  EOD teams are highly specialized, they need a great deal of specialized gear and support, and each EOD soldier requires many months of specialized training.  EOD is a specialty unto itself.  Tracking differs.  Tracking should be viewed more like basic marksmanship.  With only ten days of concentrated effort, every soldier out there can make a dramatic improvement.  Just as every soldier needs to know his or her way around an M-16, every soldier should have basic tracking instruction.  In addition to everyone knowing his way around tracks, there should be special tracking teams, who would be the tracking equivalent of sniper teams.  Everybody can learn to shoot, but some people can shoot much better.  Those people sometimes become snipers and get specialized, ongoing training.  Trackers work much better in teams.  If they were divided up and sprinkled around to various platoons, the commander probably would not increase his tracking capacity.  He probably decreased it remarkably.  I recall a commander from a Stryker unit in Iraq, complaining that he had been attached to a non-Stryker unit.  He said that the commander of the non-Stryker unit did not understand how Stryker units work in wolf packs.  Stryker units fight much differently from units using the Bradley or Humvee platform.  The Stryker commander complained that his Strykers had been broken up and used as individual vehicles to augment other platforms, which remarkably decreased their effectiveness.

It would take years to raise the U.S. military to some descent level of tracking proficiency but would be well worth the effort.  At the going rate, children who are not born yet will end up deploying to AfPak, which should more appropriately be called PakAf.  The Afghanistan portion of that war is not going away any time soon.  No U.S. combat soldier should be sent to that war without tracking training.

I’ve must cut this short; going back to the field in another twenty minutes and must fill the canteens.

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