Michael's Dispatches

Wolf Pack 103: Sole Mates


image001-1000REMEMBER THIS PRINT. The terrain in Afghanistan is great for tracking: prints are often sharp and clear, and quarry is frequently channelized. During a mission with British forces, this print pinged my senses so I made the photograph in the morning light. Soldiers found many bombs nearby, and we were ambushed by machine gun. A smartphone app could compare this image to others in a database. Moments like this offer an opportunity to track down the wearer of this shoe. STUDY THIS PRINT and REMEMBER.

03 December 2012

There are countless types of footwear around the world.  If you sit down with a coffee and watch the passersby, it will be difficult to spot two people wearing the same shoes.

If you see many people wearing the same footwear, you are at a military base, a police station, a football game, or a prison.  Or kids are wearing a uniform.

When you go to a house party with special operations folks, you will see the same shoes and watches. If you are downtown, their shoes are a giveaway.  Noting the watches and the shoes that people wear is one of the oldest discovery methods. This is true of many wars.

2011-08-30-123418-5-1000Four souls come with eight soles, and all twelve are unique. Tire treads are unique. (Kandahar Province, 2011)

It is true in Afghanistan.  When you go to meetings, Afghans remove their footwear at the door. I often photographed footwear while looking for matching pairs or sports shoes. I reviewed the photos back in my tent.

There are thousands of islands and small shoe factories in the Philippines. Imelda Marcos used this cottage industry to explain why she had thousands of shoes in her closet.  Factories sent her free samples, hoping that she would wear them in public.

Footwear is often made locally, though full-time guerrillas often wear better shoes that are distinctive, and made elsewhere.

image005-1000Original image is from “The Illustrated History of the US Army Special Forces”, Citadel Press, 1987

During the Vietnam War, Special Forces in enemy territory could not hide their prints.  Locals did not wear jungle boots.  Many were barefoot.  An experimental boot with a footprint sole was tested.  For trackers, this is like slipping boots onto a team of Clydesdales pulling a beer wagon, attempting to disguise the wagon.

Soldiers in a mountainous jungle during monsoon season would never want to venture through the clinging mud, over slick rocks, or to teeter on slick moss-covered logs over fast streams while wearing these impractical soles.  The team would be casualties of their boots.

According to Special Forces lore, we flooded areas with American footwear in hopes that locals would wear the boots.

2011-08-30-123014-3-1000In Afghan villages, many people wear ill-fitting shoes, such as this fellow. He is not dressed for fighting. (Kandahar Province, 2011)

With thousands of tiny factories, and many big ones, no single mind can catalogue all of the footwear that exists. The variety of footwear helps tracking, but if you plan to maintain a footwear database—which numerous organizations do—you will need a staff, a budget, and a strategy.

Footwear is not as unique as snowflakes and fingerprints, but it is different enough for combat work.  An entire law enforcement industry revolves around the forensic study and the statistical incidence of sole and tread.

In combat, forensics are simple.  The enemy commits an attack.  Troops find the prints at the site, and track them down.  No more evidence is required.

For combat tracking, the hunter does not need to know who made the shoe.  He does not need to be ready to discuss the nuances of Bayes’ Theorem.  He needs to draw, to measure, and to remember the pattern.  He needs to be able to communicate it to other teams.  He needs to know how to track it.  He needs to have the heart and the martial skill to kill the guerrilla wearing that sole.

Shoes come in different sizes, they wear out differently, and nobody walks the same.  Combining all of these variables brings the prints closer to snowflake status: no two are alike, and they are sufficiently different to tell each of them apart.

The fact that humans can easily distinguish many voices, baby cries, and dog barks should dispel the idea that tracking is voodoo.  We can hear a voice and say, "That is a woman, and I think that she is French.  She sounds happy."

Likewise, a skilled tracker can glance at tracks and say, "My quarry looks tired.  He is carrying a heavy load.  He rested here.  He has an AKM with at least one magazine.  He is about six feet tall, so he is not a local.  He is wearing American jungle boots.  He put on his gear and walked to here.  He looked over his right shoulder, then ran three steps here and hid for a short time.  Maybe this was when the helicopter came ten minutes ago.  It is all fresh.  He started running.  He did not dump his gear, so he thinks we still do not see him.  I bet that he is hiding in the swamp 100 meters ahead, and in fact I see where something pushed through the grass 100 meters ahead.  Fresh.  We are in danger standing here.  I recommend that you box him against the river."

On the tech side, footwear and tread databases have long been used.  A next-generation interface to a footwear database could include a smartphone application that uses the camera and the GPS to photograph shoes and prints, and to tag locations.  Trackers often use a camera, but experienced trackers prefer pencil and paper. The act of drawing tracks helps them to notice detail, and to remember.

Trackers can communicate sign information over the radio without pictures.  When an enemy or a lost child is the quarry, trackers describe prints to other teams with simple descriptions like, “I got a flat [shoe].  Heel has a dime-sized Z.  Waffle around the Z.  Toe has four concentric racetracks and waffle edges.”  Trackers who work together know each other, and need few words to describe tracks.

The other trackers draw the print, and one might call back saying that he found the sign three kilometers ahead.  They have closed the gap, and they will keep doing this until they box the quarry.  Sometimes the quarry is a lost child.  Similar techniques are used to box terrorists.  Leap ahead, box in.

Law enforcement will want to follow every step, but searchers and combat forces just want to find the lost person or the target.

The Rhodesians and others in southern African countries like Namibia were masters at boxing and killing, often using helicopters to leapfrog.  The Rhodesians made it an art.  The British and our own Army used to be masters at this, but now we can hardly tie our tracking boots.

The Rhodesians would get on track, often simply by flying in helicopters and looking for it in grass or other opportune traps, especially during morning or evening patrols.  You simply cannot move through many sorts of grass without making a color change.

You can try to hide track from air observation, and it can help, but that wastes time in the open.  If numerous men go single file, there is no way to hide it.  If they spread out, they leave more trails.  Real accounts of combat tracking against good anti-trackers sound like a Tom Clancy submarine story.  The submarines cannot see each other, but they can sense each other through various means.  Even the stealthiest submarine creates disturbance.

After track is confirmed, the commander will have options.  He can use a helicopter to put a dog down.  The dog goes alone.  The handler stays in the helicopter and controls her by the radio on her back.  Rhodesians tried this and it worked.

They just put the dogs down on known track, and the helicopter lifted off to follow the dog.  Many dogs love to ride in helicopters just like they love to ride in cars.  If she gets tired of tracking, she might look up and bark at the helicopter.  No matter where it lands, there she comes.

A Rhodesian account in the book Winds of Destruction mentions a dog inserted by helicopter.  During training, the dog could track an eight-hour-old trail, more than nine miles, in 40 minutes.  The dog would start off slow, where the scent was weaker, and speed up as he closed.

Dogs can be trained to hide and to lay down when they acquire a target, and to make a small yelp into the microphone.  This is not hocus pocus.  It has been done.

The Rhodesians would use forces inserted by air to box the enemy, and then crush the quarry with speed and efficiency.  They might find track that was seven days old, and within two hours track it to where it was an hour old, which was close enough for boxing and hammer and anvil.

The Rhodesians took few casualties, and their tracking and martial skills forced the enemy into reaction mode.

Tracking Taliban in Afghanistan would not be more difficult than tracking Neil Armstrong on the moon.  We do not like to pursue the Taliban because they often lure us into IED traps, but we could use our helicopters and leap ahead.

We can do better than the Rhodesians.  First we steal their lessons, which they are happy to teach.  Then we meld them with our expertise, with our gadgets, and with our natural aggression.

In dusty, muddy war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan, troops can whip out a smartphone, take a photo, or use a stylus to make a drawing of a track, and send the image back to the database via encryption.

A minute later, the database can confirm a match, and return a message, SUSPECTED ENEMY:  Similar shoe found in connection with IED in Urozgan Province.  CLICK FOR MORE.”

In wars like Iraq and Afghanistan, tracks that are observable at the scene of the attack can be linked to tracks at other sites.  Every day, troops encounter random prints during missions.  The prints are often as clear as Buzz Aldrin’s bootprints on the moon.

So let us put technology into real-world use.

We begin with a short story.  I met some Dutch Marines at the British combat tracking school in Brunei, on the island of Borneo.  That school opened my eyes to the lethality of combat tracking.  The students, as I recall, were all combat veterans, and the lights came on for all of them.  That we send ground troops to combat without this training is criminal.  Even our Tier 1 "go kill bin Laden" elements cannot track as a team.

After the tracking school, the Dutch returned to combat in Urozgan Province, Afghanistan. They found an IED.  They tracked prints several kilometers straight to a farmer’s compound.

The Marines sat the suspect against a wall for a photo.  The US Border Patrol also uses this pose to photograph the soles of the feet and the face in a single image.


This pose is useful for intelligence, for prosecution, or for personnel recovery.  A photograph of the soles of your children’s shoes could be invaluable if they go missing.

When a Dutch Marine read a draft of this dispatch, he saw my photograph from the Sangin area of Helmand Province.  He remembered the Afghan’s strange waffle and Z sole.

But how did he remember that shoe?  Because he did what trackers do, which is to draw the print.  Drawing does two things:  It helps pick up details that photos can miss, and it stamps the image into your memory.

In that area, the Dutch Marines picked up a great print about every 50 to 100 meters.  Between those spots, they were going on sign, such as flattening, color change, and other tracking features that anyone can learn.

In some places, like a beach, you get great prints every step.  During one track in Borneo, we got one good print after eight hours, and miles in the jungle.

The Dutch Marine who drew the sole saw my photo and made the connection. He sent me the photograph of the enemy that his unit tracked down.

Imagine if this Dutch Marine had a smartphone with a footwear database app.  After transmission, the database could kick back the reply: SUSPECTED ENEMY:  Similar shoe found in connection with ambush in Sangin District, Helmand Province, 2009.  CLICK FOR MORE.”

The Marine clicks, and this image comes up on his screen:

image001-1000When I made this image in Helmand on the same day that we were ambushed, we could see Afghans using signal mirrors. We saw the flashes, not the people. Afghans often keep small signal mirrors inside their snuff cans.

image013-1000A smartphone application could connect the photograph that I made near Sangin (lower left), with the shoe sole near Tarin Kot (upper right). The airplane icon close to the red line denotes an airfield near the Provincial Reconstruction team in Tarin Kot. Chora is the location of another dead Taliban that I photographed wearing his shoes: DEAD TALIBAN of Chora.

These prints match the shoe type.  I am not leaping to premature conclusions, or claiming that these Afghans hang out in the same training base in Pakistan and wear the same shoes at their bomb school. But some fact-patterns can be revealed in seconds by melding old-school tracking with new-school gadgets.

In Afghanistan, the incidence of these prints can be melded with other patterns, such as tribal distributions, or similarities in IED types.  Sole impressions can be linked to fingerprints, to retina images, and to countless other bits of information.  The experts know their business and can fill in the blanks.  The crucial tactical tracking piece is still missing.

Tracks are the single most pervasive form of evidence.

In this case, it took years and luck when I sent this dispatch to the Dutch Marine.  Where else is this shoe pattern showing up?

It would be worthwhile to compare these sole prints against the shoes of suicide attackers, and to the Taliban who destroyed our Marine Harrier squadron at Camp Bastion earlier this year.  It would be prudent, as a matter of force protection, to build a database of prints that appear around our bases.

Please stay tuned for Wolfpack 104

For more on combat tracking courses.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Undertoad · 9 years ago
    Fascinating, and great stuff!! Thanks for this. But how can a tracker know "He has an AKM with at least one magazine"?
    • This commment is unpublished.
      JSW · 9 years ago
      PB- think about it a moment: the man was wearing a heavy pack, took a break... and what do you do when you take a break in the field? Right: you set your rifle down, lean it against your shoulder/chest, etc. The butt mark would be a fairly good indicator of what kind of weapon it is. Since AKs use magazines, the conclusion would be 'he has at least one magazine'.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    JamesH · 9 years ago
    Great post.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Hercdriver · 9 years ago
    Michael, you might consider a piece on the San, the bushmen, the world's greatest trackers who can track a spider across a boulder. They wrote the book on tracking. (If they could write, that is...)
  • This commment is unpublished.
    BM-4 · 9 years ago
    The Rhodesian tracking methods should immediately be taught to those operating in Africa. I recently returned form the central region of Africa and I can tell you, these techniques would have been tremendous help. After finding a track, speed and continuos movement were a problem. The helicopter and dog technique would pay dividends. I will be taking this info and pushing for this to be implemented. We have dogs now, but none are used for tracking to my knowledge. Thanks for the article.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ed · 9 years ago
    Epic story. Mike, you need to be involved with military technology think-tanks so you can get your ideas in front of the technologists. @Pawnbroker, if the target's weapon touches the ground, it also leaves a distictive sign. If the weapon is laid down on the ground, you will be able to easily see if it has a mag attached or not.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jeff Foerster · 9 years ago
    As a budding (read:unpublished) novelist who's genre is the military-based thriller, articles such as these are great for adding a unique touch of realism to my story. It's doubly important especially considering I have no military experience and I'm relying heavily on interviews to enrich my plot details.

    If anyone has any other unique experiences and/or details they'd like to add, I'm all ears.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    John House · 9 years ago
    If our military doesn't seize on this info, they are fools. You looking for a job, Michael? 8)

    BTW, the pattern tracking can also be used to identify potential terrorist training camp locations.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Merrell · 9 years ago
    Well....its a Sketchers...I dont remember seeing too many haajis in Sketchers...they like those crappy little sandals...

  • This commment is unpublished.
    David Lee · 8 years ago
    Makes me think of the Andy Griffith episode where Barney said they shouldn't "make a big moulage about it."
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Kurt Laduron · 8 years ago
    This type of training should be mandatory, when someone is accepted into higher training like any of the Special Forces...it would definately make the "bad guys" keep a look out over their shoulders and inturn do something stupid, and then it will be too late...
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Christopher Ivey · 4 years ago
    It's funny how this stuff never goes away. I have a copy of the original edition of Lord Baden-Powell's Scout manual, and it had a couple of chapters making many of the same observations about footwear and tracking. It also included a section on differentiating the tracks of bare feet based on characteristics like the shape of the toe line.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Danielle · 4 years ago
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