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Wolf Pack 101: Introduction to Combat Tracking


Tracking is not a wild idea but a proven method.  Combined with technology, it enhances lethality and force protection.  Tracking with helicopters enables commanders to exploit terrain and box adversaries in until they can be fixed and finished.

From my observations of American and British combat commanders, I would hate to have a battalion of their trackers on my trail.  It would be foolhardy to attack Americans and to think that you could evade a battalion commander with 500 skilled combat-tracker infantrymen. Fortunately, tracking expertise can be affordably developed.

Lamentably, the US Army has forgotten about old-school tracking, and tends to view it as hocus-pocus art, reserved only for specialists.  Any soldier who can graduate from infantry school can learn to track with little investment other than time.

Infantry combat is unmercifully Darwinian, so our NCOs and officers tend to be smart.  They will have no difficulty exploiting combat tracking with fatal results for our enemies.

This is an introduction to dispatches on combat tracking and ground sign awareness.  I claim no great expertise in either, though I attended two courses for a total of five weeks in Norway and Borneo. I spent four years and eleven months in the peacetime US Army, with approximately two years of training, then 32 months on A-teams.  Enough to get my feet wet. After the military, I spent nearly four more years in wars, witnessing about three years of combat.

In total, that is a little less than nine years of exposure to the military and to wars. Those years did not make me a pilot, yet I can assert that helicopters are crucial today, and it did not take years to develop that conviction.

Likewise, I can say that combat tracking would save many lives from IED strikes, and we would kill more enemy if all of our troops had just one month of training.  If US forces had a tracking instructor course, we could train our own tracker cadre, who could then teach at the unit level.  Everyone already knows a great deal of sign, but nobody has helped them put it together.  Everybody reading this can read sign.

It is not enough to train handfuls of trackers and to spread them around piecemeal, which is like training only a small number of soldiers to read.  It is vital that every combat soldier be a combat hunter.

Few in the US military, including among our special operations forces, have tracking expertise.  Some of our special operations soldiers have attended civilian tracking courses, or military courses in Malaysia and Brunei, but their numbers are small.  Some commanders deride the skill.  When those who have been exposed to combat tracking see a commander dismiss it, the commander diminishes his own stature. He might as well dismiss helicopters.  The comparison is valid, obvious, and powerful.

Some commanders view tracking as outmoded, as though the skill belongs to an era of hatchets and loading flintlocks.  It is similar to the map and the compass fading as a soldierly skill.  Our enemies do not need to use the map and compass because we fight them on their home terrain. Meanwhile, for our soldiers, navigating in thick forest during a heavy rain on a black night is not something that many of them can still do, though it was a common skill just twenty years ago.

As the art and science of warfare evolves, it is a matter of time before commanders dismiss the compass and paper charts entirely.  But there is a difference: compasses and maps are supplanted by GPS. When GPS works, it works swell.  But GPS often does not work in jungles, and batteries die, and increasingly, GPS can be spoofed.

Celestial navigation is another lost art. Even with my basic stargazing ability, on a clear night I can glance at the stars and tell true north as fast as I can read a watch, and faster than I can read a compass.

Identifying true north can be learned in five minutes, but most soldiers cannot do it these days, and critics say, “Why should I spend time learning the stars when I can use a GPS that works day and night?”  It takes five minutes to learn enough celestial navigation to instantly find true north, and once you have north, you know south, east and west. If you need a compass for when the sun rises and the stars disappear, you can draw a compass in the dirt based on the stars.

You can learn how to find north in broad daylight by sun tracking in twenty minutes. There must be thousands of ways to navigate without map or compass. I read books about this when I was in the Army, and I often practiced. Our old Vietnam veterans hammered home this field craft.

If you can see the stars at night, and if you can see your shadow in daylight, and read the hands on a watch, then you can learn these techniques in one day and an evening. If you can learn improvised navigation, you can learn basic tracking.

The compass replaced the stars, and GPS is replacing the compass.  Tracking on the other hand just disappeared and nothing replaced it.

Soldiers with Vietnam combat experience knew the value of tracking, and many of our old Special Forces sergeants could do it.  It was commonsense, basic soldiering for them.  Anybody with good vision can learn to track, just like anyone can learn to read or to tell time.  Some will have a natural knack for it, but everyone can learn the basics.  There is nothing voodoo about it.

You just need a good teacher, and practice.  Like reading.  Reading is what you are doing with tracking, but you are reading different signs and someone has to teach you the alphabet.  Any of us can walk up to ten parked cars and say, “Nine of the cars have been parked here all day, and one got here five minutes ago.  Find the car that got here five minutes ago.”  There might be dozens of ways to identify the new car, but for starters you can touch their hoods until you find the hottest one.  Nothing hocus pocus, just common sense, and you can learn that sign in ten seconds.  To a guy who has never seen a car, you just did magic.

Learning to read these written words takes far more effort and investment than learning basic tracking. You could probably read most of these words and follow most of this thought trail by your tenth birthday.

We do not send combat troops to battle without teaching them how to accurately fire their rifles.  Even the worst marksman in the US infantry compares favorably to most Taliban. Some Taliban are good shots, but most are not.  The Taliban can be good tacticians, but they are bad marksmen. Partly this is because they use inaccurate AK47’s and AKM’s, they invest little time in marksmanship, and because few who need glasses have them.

Many of us have been in ambushes where “spray and pray” bullets came close but hit nobody.  Had American or British soldiers executed those ambushes, I would be dead many times over.  We track like the Taliban shoots.  Most of our soldiers cannot track anything short of a blood trail.  Conversely, many Taliban can track, and they have killed our soldiers after tracking them down.

It does not take decades to learn how to fly a helicopter, or to shoot a rifle, nor to learn basic tracking.  Just a month can make a dramatic difference.  My five weeks of training left me confident that I could track the enemy nearly anywhere in southern Afghanistan.  Good trackers can stay on the track of a single man, but often you are tracking ten or twenty, which for anyone with even basic tracking skills can be like tracking a herd of elephants.

Tracking ten Taliban in Southern Afghanistan should be child’s play for our soldiers, but after more than a decade of war, many still cannot do it.  Every time that the Taliban ambush us, they leave fresh sign during their getaway.  They might as well be dropping breadcrumbs. They are often close.  Trackers can determine their cone of travel and bound ahead with helicopters.  The Taliban try to bait pursuers into IED traps and lure them into area ambushes, but by bounding ahead, hunters can jump beyond the traps.  After identifying a cone of travel, a commander reads the enemy and the terrain.  Good commanders can identify problem areas and likely routes.  Trackers used to do this on horseback.

Imagine an entire battalion — with 500 skilled infantry — all with at least that much training.  Evading them would be like evading a pride of lions on foot.

The US Marines, the Dutch Marines and some other forces are forging combat hunting capability.  The US Army remains stone blind, even though the Army previously considered tracking a basic skill, and Robert Rogers’ Third Rule for Rangers specifically addresses counter-tracking.

The misconception that professional militaries monopolize martial prowess is dashed by the brutalities that unfold in places like Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and countless other conflict zones. Amateur talent that sticks to basics often thwarts coalitions of professional forces, which ironically enjoy relatively limitless national assets.

This tracking series has nothing to do with digging wells and handing out lollipops.  It is about hunting down and killing the enemy, and how to avoid being hunted down and killed by the enemy.

Several experienced combat trackers and others with combat experience have reviewed these dispatches.

One reviewer is a retired British Royal Marine Commando, Major Dean Williams, who owns the Pencari tracking company.  Pencari trains various militaries.

Stay tuned for Wolf Pack 2, “Sensing”

Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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