Rationalizing Training Drills with Combat Reality

I received an interesting email about rationalizing training with combat; a request for a blog post on the subject. The question posed is here:

“……we trained a great deal of the drills and principles you teach, but I never saw combat.  One thing I don’t understand completely is how the drills relate to actual combat, in the details.  I have watched lots of helmet-cam combat footage from GWOT, and it never looks anything like the drills, or even like the footage of the drills being run live-fire.  The GWOT footage, even when SOF is involved, is best often described as “hiding behind a wall spraying bullets at the desert”.

I understand that “I wasn’t there,” and I’m not in any way trying to downplay the actions of our troops who did see combat.  What I’m trying to understand is how the details change from what we do in training, to what we do in combat.  Is it just that in the “desert”, you can see such a long distance that there is no cover for maneuvering?”

So this is actually a very interesting topic and brings a lot to mind. I will do my best to hash out some concepts and explanations in this post. There is a lot to it so if I miss out any points please remind me or add it in comments.

First off, training is about rehearsing and practicing drills. ‘Drilling’ at its most basic level. This develops muscle memory and competence. Once you have mastered the basics then training should move to scenario based situations where, whether live, blank, role played or otherwise simulated, you have to apply the drills to tactical situations. This requires leadership, decision making and dynamic interpretation. For example, when you are reaching the culmination of your training, going on a live fire range to practice, for example, squad advance to contact and the hasty attack, it should not be a set drill: the range should allow freedom of decision and maneuver; the squad will come under simulated fire and have to make decisions about how to maneuver to destroy the enemy. The drills and SOPs are there to facilitate the actual decision and application in real time and space. “But the squad hasty attack it is a drill,” you say? Yes, but the drill does not tell you, for example,  whether to go left or right flanking, who to leave in fire support, who to assault, whether and where to place intimate fire support or flank protection, what ground to use, how to approach the enemy position, effective leadership etc…..

When training contact drills, I am careful to explain that they are emergency ‘Oh Shit” drills. Over the course of a weekend we have time to introduce the mechanics and run through some live fire iterations. For example I talk about ‘man down’ and how that would affect the drill, but we don’t have the time to over-complicate the basic drill with casualties, not at that stage. So, we practice mechanical drills, albeit in realistic terrain and scenarios. I often equate it with fire drills: we practice these, the fire alarm goes off, and everyone leaves by the stairwell and ‘rallies’ in the parking lot. But in a real fire, the fire (enemy) may not make it so simple and worst case people may get trapped and die.

Firefighter’s practice their job in smoke filled simulated buildings. They try and make it as realistic as possible. That does not preclude a real fire cutting them off and trapping them: worst case. Similarly, I describe that our nice choreographed peel drill reacting to ‘contact left’ or ‘right’, may turn into you crawling down a creek bed dragging your wounded buddy while trying to coordinate fire and movement with the other buddy pair, if they are not already dead. Worst case, right?

So battle drills are essential prior to combat. You are training reaction and SOPs so you don’t have to make it all up and coordinate it on the spot. But in actual combat you are not going to follow a drill for the drill’s sake. You have to adapt it to make the best out of the situation you are presented by the terrain/enemy/friendly forces, their relationship and combination.

So this brings us onto the ‘GWOT helmet cams’. In my trawling of YouTube in search of video to illustrate tactical points and posts, I have seen a lot of this and I know exactly what the guy is referring to: troops behind a wall spraying out into the desert. I never used any of that video to illustrate any of my posts! But you have to know the context. They may actually be in a defensive position or in a FOB/COP. Or, they may be a support by fire element. Or they may be a patrol that came under fire. I can’t speak for every single ‘troops in contact’ (TIC) situation so I am going to have to generalize.

Often, troops are part of a much larger formation, such as a company-size fighting patrol, so their actual freedom to maneuver is limited and they are taking part in a bigger picture operation. In such situations, small unit tactics (SUT) may very well be limited within the larger organization.

However, what you are often seeing is a different use of tactics. You see a patrol coming under fire and returning fire before calling in fire support assets such as mortars, artillery or close air support (CAS). In such cases they are not maneuvering on the enemy but bringing these assets to bear as an alternative that will be less risky to them.

At long ranges in the desert, in particular with vehicle mounted operations, what you may see are long range firefights, often from vehicles out in the open desert firing at enemy in compounds or similar. The vehicles are using their heavy support weapons to suppress the enemy at range. The vehicles will maneuver and often it will culminate in a dismounted assault onto a compound; and/or a 500lb JDAM slamming into the compound. Coalition troops are taking advantage of superior range and support assets to suppress the enemy at range. If AK fire is ‘buzzing’ rather than ‘cracking’, ‘snapping’ or ‘zipping’ then most likely it is because it is tumbling at long/extreme range. This is more like harassing fire from small shoot and scoot enemy elements; mostly not effective fire.

This relates to the comment about ground possibly not being suitable for maneuvering in the desert, because there may not be cover, or because the ranges are so extreme it is beyond the scope for a dismounted assault. It simply may not be practical for dismounted troops to try and close the ground over maybe 800 meters against a shoot and scoot enemy who is hitting you with ineffective harassing fire. Call in artillery or CAS, or maneuver some vehicles around to flank and force them to withdraw.

However, let’s take Helmand Province as an example, from my personal experience. Helmand can be wide open flat desert or mountainous desert. In the ‘green zone’ around the Helmand River it is a mix of irrigation ditches with heavy tree growth around agricultural fields (poppy and other crops). Depending on the time of year the fields can be open or overhead high in crops. This means that you can go from open long-range vehicle suitable terrain outside the green zone, often capable of covering areas of the green zone with fire from vehicle mounted support weapons, to shorter ranges (100-200 meters) across the patchwork of fields, to very close jungle-like terrain. The green zone is dotted with walled compounds. In the population centers you can have wide open market place like streets to mazes of adjoining compounds, houses and walls that often require patrols to carry infantry assault ladders as well as IED detection equipment to navigate through it.

(That is an aspect that also has to be considered – often follow up or maneuver is limited due to the presence, or suspected presence, of victim operated booby traps, and routes often have to be cleared, similar to moving through a minefield.)

I have posted previously some video of a British fighting patrol conducting real contact drills while engaged in a running battle in Helmand. These battle drills do happen. However it is hard not to see an ongoing futility with these patrols. What you get are large, often up to company size fighting patrols, heading out from FOBs into the green zone. The idea is to dominate and deny these areas to the enemy, mostly for a political purpose, so the politicians can claim they have provided security to the area. Remember that break contact drills are designed either for small recce patrols to escape the enemy if compromised, because their mission is not to engage the enemy, or for larger squad or platoon sized elements to break contact and withdraw when over-matched.

HERE is the Fighting Patrol / Break Contact VIDEO
So why are heavily armed and often platoon sized elements moving out into the green zone and, when under fire, effectively breaking contact and moving back to the FOB? The answer is that you can only assault to close with and destroy the enemy if you can fix him in place. Enemy tactics often involve small groups in multiple firing points (360 degree battlefield!) They are also effective fighters and if you cannot secure your flanks they will often attempt to flank you and even roll you up. So depending on numbers they are either going to be doing shoot and scoot in small groups, or aggressively trying to close with you and roll you up.

So you have small groups of lightly equipped enemy, moving, arrayed around you. The troops are overburdened with equipment. This does not mean that they will not maneuver, they will, and will maneuver and clear compounds and enemy locations. A lot of the time the enemy is not effectively fixed and will withdraw – ‘military aged males’ blending back into the population. So these green zone patrols often turn into a fighting patrol advancing to contact, being ambushed by small groups of enemy, trying to fix and destroy them. Fire support assets will be called in on enemy if they can be located, and often compounds will be blown before being cleared. Then the patrol will break contact and withdraw back to the FOB. This isn’t the whole story, but I’m trying to generalize for this article.

So a large fighting patrol will not be able to close with and destroy the enemy using classic battle drills until they can fix that enemy in place. It’s a game where a light-footed enemy is trying to prevent that happening.

There are countless videos of U.S. troops behind walls spraying at the enemy. Poor marksmanship. I have seen some of the SOF video mentioned and what this seems to mostly be of are teams calling for fire to destroy enemy at range. I did see an excellent clip of U.S. SF flanking on foot and following up on some enemy firing points, just to show that it does happen and is done. Unfortunately, and I will say it, a lot of the troops you see behind those walls are poorly trained. Including Coalition/U.S. infantry. What they are doing is engaging in firefights with the enemy but they don’t have the effective training or leadership to move beyond that to maneuver, close with and destroy the enemy. Often you have heavily burdened overweight Baskin-Robbins fed FOB troops just firing at the enemy because they came under contact (I have discussed ‘Fire Superiority’ vs. effective accurate suppressing fire in previous posts). They may not have the training or leadership to move beyond that stage and the only solution is to wait for fire support assets to allow them to break contact.

HERE is video of a Coalition Platoon executing maneuver in a  dawn raid on a compound. 
(Application of trained drills to a real situation)
HERE The U.S. Special Forces video I referred to
Unfortunately, particularly in the Pashtun areas, the Afghans can be fierce effective fighters (governed by the Pahtunwali code and often not Taliban per se but guys fighting feuds brought on by relatives being killed by ISAF – we came, we killed we created enemy where sometimes there was none). Aggressive and lightly equipped, mobile like mountain goats. It’s not always the case. Located In southern Helmand are the ratlines where the training Madrassas in Pakistan fed in their ‘Taliban’ across the border into Helmand. These ratlines went past fixed Coalition positions based in and around Garmsir and often it was a mincing machine as local Taliban commanders would feed these guys into the fight, often to be destroyed by fire support assets and CAS.

But with that exception, it has to be said, many times these Pashtun fighters would overmatch McDonalds fed overburdened Coalition infantry operating at close ranges in close country.

Basic battle drills for a hasty attack are as follows:

1)      Reaction to enemy fire

2)      Locate the enemy

3)      Win the firefight – suppress and fix the enemy

4)      The assault

5)      The reorganization (on the objective, after assaulting and clearing it)

Often what happens in the situation as described are that the troops are not getting past numbers 2 & 3. They are either unable to effectively locate the firing points of these small groups of scattered enemy, who will be arrayed in clever tactical positions around the patrol. Or, they are not effectively suppressing and fixing the enemy to allow maneuver. If you can’t get that done, you can’t maneuver. So, they end up behind the wall engaged in an inconclusive firefight. Don’t forget that they may also be using support assets like artillery or CAS to take away the need to conduct an infantry assault, to remove the need to close with and destroy the enemy. Or they may be calling in fire support in preparation to move forward and, perhaps, clear compounds or enemy positions. If you have fire support available, then you would be a fool not to use it.

Trouble locating the enemy – patrol suppressed
(snapping/cracking sound is passing enemy rounds overhead)
There are in fact plenty of examples of Coalition infantry bravely and effectively maneuvering onto enemy positions. It is just that the helmet cam guy may not have been there.
Another thing to note is that the quality of training of the troops in these ‘behind the wall’ firefight movies may be poor. They are ‘spraying and praying’ and not generating accurate effective fire to suppress the enemy. It may be that they have not correctly located the enemy and are just suppressing an area. That also may be because they have not effectively communicated enemy location along the line. Sometimes it just comes back to training and quality of the troops. Sometimes, circumstances make it hard to locate and fix the enemy. People don’t want to hear this, but just because you are a soldier and got deployed neither makes you a ‘hero’ nor does it necessarily make you good at it. It’s a profession where you know the deal when you sign up, and you are either well trained and effective, or you are not.

Green Zone Grunt Work – Danish Maneuver
Green Zone Grunt Work – British Maneuver
(It’s not my intent to post video of ‘spray and pray’ U.S. troops behind walls – I have no knowledge of the situations beyond the video clips and I don’t want to criticize specific persons in combat.)


If you find yourself operating tactically as a small unit and you don’t have fire support, then your answer is in accurate effective application of the firepower that you do have. A squad sized element will not be able to engage in squad attacks beyond 300 meters with standard small arms. If you want to harass enemy at longer ranges than you would need accurate marksmen to engage with scoped rifles. You don’t want to be trying to engage in squad small unit tactics in the open desert. Pick your ground. You need to utilize terrain to maneuver on the enemy. Also, open ground is tank country: armored/aircraft country. You need suitable terrain – broken ground, terrain features, woods, swamps, cluttered urban terrain etc.

Also, if your enemy is equipped with fire support assets then if you engage you want to be close so that they cannot bring them to bear on you – be within ‘danger close’ ranges. Most firefights take place around 100 meters anyway. However if you are to do this then you need to do it right. Your battle drills must be trained, rehearsed and slick. Your fire must be accurate and effective in order to kill or suppress the enemy in order to allow you to maneuver and close with the enemy. You need to be able to concentrate force and apply firepower to gain temporary local superiority and overwhelm the enemy, destroy them and then move away using suitable ground/terrain masking to avoid follow up by indirect fire or drone/CAS assets.

Live Hard, Die Free.