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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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Rick · 12 years ago
    hey mike. give it a rest on knockin the US forces training. I am impressed with the way things are getting done there, but c'mon. I know you went through SF. It's new to you doesn't make it news worthy and would much rather read about current events oveseas.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Michael · 12 years ago
    I hope that guy knows his face is on one of the most popular blogs about the war.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Leah, Norway · 12 years ago
    My dear adrenaline idealistic adrenalin junkie,

    What will you come up with next? My knees have callusses from praying for you as you continue your odysey through life trying to make a difference in this world. It appears the US military does not like to entertain that there can be others whose training in some areas surpass it. Pride goes before a fall, one either hears and learns or one hears and denies. Keep writing... and keep the pictures coming.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    AUB · 12 years ago
    Michael, I couldn't agree with you more. Tracking skills are sorely lacking. The U.S. military continues to rely too much on high tech gear, when what is also needed is additional depth in some of the age old skills. Too often we depend on computers, instead of using our minds, eyes and ears to hunt the adversary. A tracker learns the lay of the land. He learns with time the nooks and crannies, the rat holes and the watering holes. This is the stuff of long wars, which just so happens to be the kind of wars we are now fighting.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Leonard Henry · 12 years ago
    Doubtless the military will be slow to appreciate what got them trashed by the small but highly effective groups of Apache indians in the 1880's who were outstanding trackers. The military's slow appreciation of the sniper is the model, unfortuately. Look at the uphill battle that was, until people like Carlos Hathcock finally and unequivocally demonstrated the effectiveness of independent sniper teams. Tracking will need its equivalent of Carlos Hathcock for the military to understand their potential.

    Tom Brown tells a story about"Grandfater" the Lipan Apache iindian who taught him tracking and fieldcraft. In the 50's there was a massive combined militray exercise that extended all up and down the East coast that involved cities and civilians. and I remember we kids were delighted to get into the military's act. So did Tom Brown who is about my age, and apparently, "Grandfather" also gave a demonstration. The Apache who by then was in his 80's worked his way into one of the command centers in the middle of their exercise and removed the lapel insignia from one of the commanding officers. Later that night he handed the insignia to Tom Brown as proof of just how close he was able to get into this guarded command compound undetected. Imagine our military being able to move in and among Al Qeda and the Taliban like that.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dale · 12 years ago
    Hi Michael,

    This has been a very interesting series. In concluding the series I think you are on track with the need for more awareness and of course more trackers and training in the military and specifically before being deployed into combat.

    You also stumbled onto a great opportunity by the title of your email "Bigfoot" - so put that training to use and track down the big guy :-) That would make headlines. Actually with a little tongue in cheek and some guerrilla marketing you could make something fun and clever out of your "Big" idea.

    Stay Healthy and Regards - Dale
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Carolyn · 12 years ago
    My son is a Marine, still in training, not yet assigned. I've been forwarding your emails to him and hoping they will make a difference to his training and those of his buddies. Thank you.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Robert H. · 12 years ago
    I haven't read every dispatch about tracking, but I was curious. Who in the military have to told about this? Are you going to talk to some higher ups to try to convince them to implement tracking training? I think it's a brilliant idea...it should be part of basic training IMO. I hope you get word to those who can start making it happen. My cousin in Afghanistan was telling me how the Taliban are such pu**ies that they try to hit and run....with this tracking training, they would be less able to hide like the cowards they are. God bless.

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