Review: Combat Leader Course April 2017: JohnnyMac

Combat Leader Class AAR – JohnnyMac

I want to be very direct: there is no other place in the world in which a civilian can receive this sort of training. This is, for all intents and purposes, the apex of tactical training from the civilian perspective. In general we can think of a training progression that looks something like: weapon manipulation, individual fire and movement, buddy fire and movement, team fire and movement, team battle drills and, finally, leading teams through sequencing in battle. The combat leader’s class, at the zenith of this progression, was educational, challenging and revelatory. It’s important to note that any gaps in your personal performance at any of the lower levels can/will have a dramatic impact on the effectiveness and survival of your combat team. Bluntly, your screw-up could get you and your buddies killed.

The purpose of the class was to develop the ability to receive a mission, plan it, and lead it. The amount of onus/freedom placed on students was quite large. If you were in command, you had to make sure your team knew precisely what needed to happen, when, where and how to do it- no hand holding from cadre. The cadre would step in if you were on a collision course as a leader, but otherwise, they left the squad leader to plan/supervise the execution of the mission. The class is roughly 20% planning, 80% execution. This is both in terms time and importance. There is the often quoted maxim, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy” but until you live it, I’m not sure you can really understand the chaos and confusion of battle.


The afternoon of arrival was spent in-processing and getting the FOB set up. The students were also challenged to make a terrain model of our AO. Our initial attempt was kind of feeble, so Max stepped in to point out errors and discuss construction techniques. After some revision (and lots of dirt!) we had something that resembled the terrain of the MVT training facility. If you haven’t ever created a terrain model, it is an art. From a practical standpoint, an accurate terrain model really helps your team understand your mission plan and where they need to be. At the same time, even if you could make the world’s greatest terrain model, crappy leadership or execution is going to mean mission failure.

Monday morning was classroom time around the terrain model going over Max’s tactical check notes and the basics of running a mission. We were then thrown to the wolves for our first mission Monday afternoon. MVT training usually follows a walk, crawl, run methodology and I think for many of us we felt like it went from walk to run. It’s a tough problem because there isn’t as much time as you might think over the course of a week to get everyone through a command appointment. No matter how it’s approached though, the first day or two is going to feel like drinking from a fire hose.

One of the things I learned quickly was that details need to be worked out to a level of detail much greater than I expected going into it. Some of the really small details can be worked out in the rehearsals but, as a leader, you really need to have a firm handle on exactly how everything should unfold (and contingencies that you can clearly articulate ahead of time, for when the situation/plan changes).

Over the course of the ensuing days, the class became conditioned to the routine of mission planning, prep, rehearsals and execution. It was particularly evident in the OPORDs, which slowly began to follow the standard format being taught. Although I wish I had more than one command appointment, we were all able to learn during the debriefs that occurred after each mission. During the debriefs, we were able to learn from not only our own mistakes, but also mistakes of others. Now, there was yelling in some debriefs, but I would say we deserved it after making the same mistakes for multiple missions. Honestly, if you’re too sensitive to be yelled at, you’re probably too sensitive for armed conflict. On a few occasions, Max went around and individually pointed out opportunities for improvement. I think that was super helpful as a student.

To a certain extent, some of the most valuable lessons had to be learned the hard way. The value of this training, and its use of UTM, cannot be overstated. When I say ‘the hard way’, many of the lessons we learned, both individually and as a team, caused the “death” of usually multiple team members. Very few people are lucky enough to get a second chance at life like we are given when training with UTM. In the real world, most lessons are paid in blood, but with UTM, we can learn some of those lessons with only the cost of a bee sting and maybe a bruised ego.


The tactical lessons learned were so numerous I’ll have to list them, but make no mistake, reading these bullets points will not cement them into your mind. You might not even understand them without enough training. Heck, I was THERE and still feel the need to take the class again to really internalize all the lessons. No matter what skill level we as students came into the class with, I think we all left with the feeling we have a lot of work to do.

Onto the stream-of-thought lessons list:

-You’re not nearly as good as you think you are. Check your ego at the door.

-Good communication is both VITAL and difficult.

-“Any given Sunday” …even with a tactical advantage things can go south quickly. In less time than it takes you to read this sentence, an entire team can be wiped out, even if they have numbers or terrain on their side.

-Indecision or freezing up can end up getting everyone killed.

-Even with a good plan, things can go south. With a bad plan, you might be doomed from the outset.

-As a leader you need to “grip” your team. Sometimes that means telling someone to STFU.

-A leader needs good followers- do what you’re told!

-Every man is a link man.

-You need a deep, booming voice to be heard on the battlefield. For me personally, developing a better command voice over the course of the week was one of my bigger personal achievements (and hurdles).

-Don’t get sucked into your own little bubble, stay aware and keep communication brief so you can hear incoming communication.

-The larger the team, the more difficult it is to function efficiently. (OODA Loop)

-You better be in good shape if you plan to do any direct action. Even more so if in mountainous terrain. Your lack of fitness could get yourself or a teammate killed. And if you think, ‘oh, I’ll use my vehicle’ (or some other excuse)….you’re wrong. Without fitness you might die.

-If you don’t want to be seen, stay low and don’t move when they’re looking in your direction.

-Turn your head slowly, not fast.

-Look in to your leaders and teammates periodically.

-Without proper use of cover, you’re going to die.

-Moving without suppressing the enemy, you’re going to die.

-Always bring as much ammo as you can, without it you’ll die.

-No one cares how fast you can burn through a mag, you’re going to run out….and die.

-Failure to ensure everyone understands and can execute the plan will probably mean you die.

-Keep a headcount, leaving someone behind will mean they probably die.

-Never underestimate the power of a flanking attack.

-Never position friendlies where they could cross fire into each other, even if shooting down into a valley. (Bullets do crazy things)

-Ambushes need walls of lead….and surprise.

-Jumping around when describing your plan will confuse people.

-There is a direct correlation to how well-developed your plan is and how many questions you get after laying it out.

-Keep your plan as simple as possible but don’t skip the key details.

-The tactical skills of the individual can make or break the team.

-Trust in your teammates is vital.

-Be an aggressive savage towards your enemies.

-When you’re given feedback, keep your mouth shut and take time to digest what was said.

-Dress for the mission so that you’re a little cold at the start, you’ll heat up when moving on foot.

-Dry leaves are super noisy, go for moss/dirt/rock.

-There is an art to staying perfectly still for long periods of time and remaining tolerably comfortable.

-Accept that you’ll be uncomfortable and try to stay positive.

-Being helpful to your teammates and leaders goes a long way.

-You need to move quickly.

-You’ll never have all the information you’d like to have.

-Adapt the plan to the situation, don’t try to jam the plan into the situation. (Don’t go towards the light)

-Buildings can be death traps, don’t try to clear a building if you don’t have to.

-A leader needs to know both where they are and where they’re going.

-When you face plant, recover as quickly as possible.

-A warm drink can do wonders to warm you up.

-Stay hydrated.

-Pose-Pause-Nominate questions

-Communicate both specified AND implied tasks to subordinates so they’re ready to perform.

-If you think you’ll be able to throw a tactical team together ad hoc, you’re sorely mistaken.

-Just because you’re good at X, Y or Z, doesn’t mean you’re good at combat. Either accept it step out of the way or seek to improve your abilities.

-Gear might not make or break a mission, but it sure helps. A few things that were either clutch or that I wish I had: a bore snake and cleaning kit to care for your rifle (especially with UTM), goggles that don’t fog and have both tinted and clear lenses (Revision Wolf Spiders never fogged on me), a solid daypack, a drybag and rain gear, a good fleece jacket, a magnified optic for PID (debatable), multiple TQs in easy to reach places, a sleep system warm enough for the weather conditions, extra clothing/socks/footwear, pain reliever, a litter for casualties, lightweight ballistic plates, HELMET SCRIM ( or camo boonie hat), an easy way to clean a pot/cup, a multitool,  open mag pouches (MVT, taco, esstac, etc), GOOD KNEE PADS

-You might need more than 1000 rounds of UTM to get through the week.

Overall I thought the class went quite well and it will only evolve into an even better class the next time around. The knowledge I gained through the class was enormous, more than I ever expected. I will definitely attend the class again, especially because the learning curve is rather steep for the first few days. I would highly recommend this class to anyone who feels they have the basics down pretty well (or feels confident they can learn quickly). The immersive environment through camping at the FOB was great, allowing the students to help each other out, have our own informal debriefs and get to know each other better. Although not required, I would encourage future CLC students to stay on site.

To my fellow students, it was a pleasure learning and fighting alongside you.

Max Adds: There is only room, and it is tight, for a single squad leader appointment on the class. Students are able to get multiple team leader appointments. We will make some tweaks for next time to allow students to plan more than their own mission, voluntarily, as homework each night. This would only vary if we got more students who were there to be ‘rifleman only’ and did not want the squad leader appointment. The battle rhythm was, after we ran the first mission Monday PM, two missions per day, with those nominated as squad leader having the night before to plan and write their mission briefs.

I just posted some comment here: ‘Video: Combat Leader Class (CLC) April 2017.‘ Copied from that:

I am going to schedule another of these for April 2018. I am also interested in knowing if there is sufficient interest in running another CLC in the fall. We could fit one in late October / early November. The training value of the class is priceless. I realize that it is a chunk of time, but well invested, at 8 days Sunday – Sunday.  The way I run enrollment, is that we need 12 – 13 students to make the class work. I take deposits with the understanding that if the class does not make the numbers, students agree to transfer to deposits to another MVT class of their choosing. So you commit to train either way.

If we do not run another CLC until April 2018, in the meantime we do run the 2 0r 3 day Force on Force Team Tactics / CQB intro classes. The next one is running June 16 – 18 and there is space. There is an opportunity for team and even squad leader roles, purely voluntary, on the scenarios we run as part of that class. It is a good intro if you are looking towards the CLC.

We have the next Combat Team Tactics (CTT), which is really the MVT ‘basic training’ class, July 6 – 9.



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