Michael's Dispatches

May Day


01 May 2009

Borneo Island

Day thirteen of tracking was a live fire exercise with assault rifles.  All seventeen students have repeatedly demonstrated that they can track other men through miles of varying sorts of terrain, including heavy jungle, and a nearby town.  During the last several days, no group of students have lost the quarry.  Sometimes the students track sign for hundreds of meters, or even a couple of miles, before seeing an obvious footprint.  In a mere dozen days, tracking skills have increased dramatically.

And so today, a new branch of tracking knowledge was being grafted onto the trunk of combat skills the soldiers already possess.  Most of the students have been in firefights and other dramas – all are highly trained – which is helping the grafting process to go easily.

This morning, the students arrived in the equatorial jungle with 8,000 rounds of ammunition, consisting of 3,000 blanks and 5,000 live rounds.  The students come from different military branches, two are Bruneian officers and there are also Gurkhas who like to talk in Nepalese.  Most of the soldiers have never worked together before this school.  It would be a bad idea for them to start casting real bullets without first practicing together.  So they loaded with blanks and worked up a frothing sweat rehearsing counter-ambush drills.  When the instructors were “happy with that,” as instructor Taff Jones often says, they switched to live ammunition and practiced instinctive shooting and counter-ambush skills.  To simulate enemy contact, the “ambushing” soldier placed a rifle downrange, loaded with blanks, and tied about 50 meters of wire to the trigger.  Then when he pulled the wire from 50 meters away, the rifle fired, which was the initiation and direction of the ambush.  Poppopop…came the blanks.  The soldiers, now with live ammunition, took instinctive snapshots at the targets, dropped to the right knee, took aimed shots, then began maneuvering and firing.  The drills made for a good workout.  The soldiers stayed soggy and dripping in sweat.  This live fire provided a good opportunity for me; I got out there with the soldiers, like I do in combat, and practiced photography.  Photographers heading for serious combat work might consider training with soldiers in advance.  The photographer can learn how soldiers move and react, then work out ways to stay out of their way while still doing the job.  It’s helpful for a combat photographer to train with soldiers who are firing live ammunition; without the pressure of incoming fire, or being worried about doing something that would get one of our guys hurt.

Insofar as tactics, there might be some misconceptions about how tracking can be employed.  The tracking team does not have to actually catch up to the enemy to destroy them.  There are endless realistic scenarios.  For instance, yesterday it was easy to determine that the quarry was heading in a direction that would eventually cause it to encounter, and probably cross, one of two roads.  We could leapfrog ahead and set up an ambush on the most likely road.  Or maybe higher command would decide to put ambush teams on both roads and use us, the team on track, to ambush survivors who might escape a forward ambush.  Maybe the commander, with valid information, would call aircraft on station to conduct the ambush at a road or chokepoint where the aircraft might spot the enemy.  (This might be a lot easier in Afghanistan than Borneo.)  If the enemy popped out of the jungle and tried to cross at day or night, the aircraft could get them.  The possibilities are as bountiful as the endless possible scenarios.  Our primary job as the team on track would be to provide the commander with information that he could trust.  He could only trust the information if we are competent, and he knows it. But I can say with certainty that over the last few days, the teams have already reached the point where they could provide crucial, trustworthy information.

The morning was steaming hot, but at noontime, a refreshing cool breeze rolled in, smelling of rain.  Thick, dark clouds boiled up.  Thunder rumbled through the jungle and some drops started to pelt in while the students kept firing away.  The British soldiers were going to continue the live fire through the storm.  This would increase the value of the training by making the targets harder to see and the ground more slippery, and it was completely realistic.  Storms provide a chance to close on the enemy with less chance of detection, and I was happy to see that the British military would train right through it.

The storm would also provide an excellent opportunity to practice combat photography during a jungle deluge.  Unfortunately it passed us by, but maybe we’ll get lucky tomorrow as we start day fourteen.

That’s it for today.  Tomorrow starts early.


Please click here for Part IX of this series on the tracking course in Borneo.


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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Gary Stoltman · 12 years ago
    Hi Michael

    My limited knowledge tells me that there are few similarities between the topographies of Borneo and Iraq/Afghanistan. True?

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Gary Stoltman · 12 years ago
    Hi Michael. My limited knoiwledge tells me that there are few topography similarities between Borneo and Afghanistan/Iraq [?]


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