Student Review: Combat Leader Course (CLC) October 2019: Dave
Update on CLC by Max: The CLC became an 8 Day class due to the optimum number of students being 13, and having time to run a mission with each student as Squad Leader. Following the AAR for the 2019 class, the difficulty of getting OPFOR for the week, and the problems with time off for students, we have cancelled the CLC. On the face of ti that is tragic, because the CLC is an excellent class, however we have a solution.
This is my review of the Max Velocity Tactical Combat Leader Course, which was conducted October 6-13, 2019.
I arrived on the afternoon of October 5, and was happy to see two MVT alumni from the Texas classes. The class ran the gamut in experience, from students who had taken CLC twice before, to one student with no small unit tactics training at all. There were ten students faced off against a rotating cast of 3-5 OPFOR over the course of the week.
On the first evening, Max issued us with our AirSim rifles and six magazines, and gave us time for familiarization fire with them. I had brought a red dot sight to put on my rifle, yet somehow forgot a sling, so I wound up using the shoulder strap from my duffel bag all week. In order to give the squad leader time to prepare for the first mission on Monday afternoon, Max also gave him mission orders at the same time. The squad leader selected for the first mission had already been to CLC twice, and so was able to plan for the briefing the night before.
On Monday morning, Max gave us the lecture on how to conduct the pre-mission briefing. This was taken straight from the “Planning and Mission Preparation” section of the MVT Tactical Manual, and is basically just a way to communicate the situation, friendly forces, enemy forces, mission, and the way it is to be carried out to the entire squad.
The framing narrative for all the missions involved a citizen defense force which had moved into an area which was being terrorized by a criminal gang operating in the region.
After the Monday lecture, there were two missions a day, one morning and one afternoon. Each mission began with a briefing by the squad leader inside the Team Cabin. The squad leader would begin by organizing the squad. With ten students in the class, we were not able to use the preferred 3 teams of 4, with a squad leader. Instead, we used either 3 teams of 3, or two teams of 4-5, depending on the nature of the mission. Squad leaders placed individual students in teams and as team leaders, in order to get the right balance of experienced and new students. After the briefing, describing the mission, how it was to be executed, as well as “actions on” for various phases of the plan, we moved to an open area to conduct rehearsals. We practiced all the movements and maneuvers we expected to encounter, to make sure that all squad members understood their role. After that, we geared up to leave on the mission. Generally, the briefing and rehearsal process took about two hours.
MONDAY AFTERNOON – Attack the knoll I
Monday afternoon, the squad leader briefed us on the first mission. The squad was to assault an enemy position consisting of several bunkers occupied by 3 enemy. We moved out along a hillside, paralleling the crest, and eventually occupied an Objective Rally Point while the squad leader conducted a leader’s reconnaissance of the objective. With this done, we moved into position, with one team just down the slope from the position in a support by fire role, and with the team I was on preparing to assault the position. My team lost two as we peeled into line, but then we were able to suppress and assault the enemy bunkers. Ammo consumption was high, and at one point I had to rob mags from “dead” OPFOR.
TUESDAY MORNING – Route Clearance
Tuesday morning’s mission was a route clearance – in other words, we had to patrol the road along the ridgeline above FOB Velocity, and clear it of possible ambushes. The squad leader accomplished this by pushing a flanking buddy pair out on either side of the column as it moved down the trail. When one of the pairs of flankers contacted the enemy, the lead team would move into a support by fire position, while the trailing team moved around to a flank to assault the enemy position. We sprang two ambushes and successfully overran both enemy positions.
TUESDAY AFTERNOON – Bataan Death March & Attack Enemy Patrol Base
The Tuesday afternoon mission was to locate and destroy an enemy patrol base near a helicopter landing zone. The objective was on a high ridge, and our route in was long and up a very steep hillside. By the time we reached the top, the troops were exhausted and on the verge of mutiny; there was talk of fragging the squad leader. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and we moved into the attack. The plan called for my team to move around the left flank and assault the position, while the leading team provided support by fire from upslope. The plan, however, did not long survive contact with the enemy. One of the support by fire team was killed moving into position, and then as my team moved around the left flank we got into a firefight with an outlying bunker. My buddy and I managed to kill the defender of that bunker, but then I was killed by fire from an unsuppressed bunker on my right, which I had not seen. My buddy took the first bunker, but was then killed by fire from yet another depth bunker. The remnants of the squad eventually overran the two remaining bunkers, but not without losing a couple more men. This was the first mission where the importance of sequencing the assault became apparent. In other words, making sure that enemy positions are assaulted in an order that allows all depth positions to be suppressed during the assault. Failure to do this is what led to our relatively high casualties.
WEDNESDAY MORNING – Operation Blue Falcon (Now with nerve gas!)
I drew the short straw and wound up leading the Wednesday morning mission. The mission was to capture a case of nerve gas located at the same enemy position as the Monday afternoon mission. This gave me the advantage of knowing the approximate layout of the enemy position and allowed me to construct an elaborate plan. I elected to use three teams of three for the mission. I won’t even bother to say what my plan was, because we never got to use it – as we moved up onto the objective, we discovered that the OPFOR had moved the position of their bunkers slightly and had an observation post covering our route of approach. I had been leading the squad from the front, but got lost, and had just asked a veteran alumnus to take point, with the result that he got killed by the OP rather than me. That’s what they call leadership, boys. Blue Falcon award goes to me!
With my front team in contact, I sent my second team around to their left to support by fire and sent the rear team around the right flank. This is where my failure to exert what Max calls “Grip” during the chaos of a chance contact sent things awry. My right flanking team got lost in the woods and went out too deep on the right. By the time I got them back into the fight, the other two teams had taken some casualties and run through a lot of their ammo. The left team cleared the left-hand front bunker, and the two teams on the right cleared the right front bunker, but this left one enemy in a very strong bunker formed by the rootball of a downed tree. At this point I had only two men besides myself unwounded, and I was out of ammo, having given all my spare mags away earlier in the fight. I moved one guy to the front left bunker to support by fire, while the other guy and I assaulted the last bunker. The last OPFOR and I managed to double kill each other, leaving only two unwounded survivors out of the entire squad.
Overall, it was a good learning experience for me, because I had to attempt to win a chance contact where we were surprised by the enemy and adapt to the situation on the fly. It fell down when I didn’t pay close enough attention to the movements of my third team, leading to the delay that got so many killed. Communications were another issue – even after I realized that my third team wasn’t going where I wanted, I couldn’t get them to respond by radio or voice.
WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON – Attack the Other Knoll I
Wednesday afternoon found us moving up a draw to attack another enemy bunker position somewhere on a long finger north of the Team Cabin. Upon marching to a place in the draw just below the enemy position, the squad leader and two others left to perform a leader’s recon from the ground upslope, with the intent of locating the exact positions of the enemy bunkers so that the attack could be properly sequenced, thus avoiding the mistakes of the day before. Down below, we sat waiting for the order to move into position to attack, when we heard the sound of firing above us – the leader’s reconnaissance had been compromised and was in contact with the enemy. We immediately moved up slope and into contact with the enemy bunkers – we had luckily wound up in exactly the right spot to attack. At this point, we had the leader’s reconnaissance above the enemy position, with the remainder of the squad at a rough 90 degree angle, allowing for good angles. The fight got pretty chaotic, and overall the squad lacked coordination, but individual teams worked well together to clear single enemy positions. I got hit in the leg partway through, but tourniqueted myself and was able to move to a support by fire position on one of the bunkers. We eventually cleared all the enemy positions, though not without significant casualties.
THURSDAY MORNING – The Battle of the Little Big Horn
The next morning’s mission added a double helping of added complexity – an entirely unknown enemy position, and a friendly hostage to be rescued and brought back to the FOB. Once again, we moved close to the map location and sent out a leader’s reconnaissance. The leader’s reconnaissance was unable to locate the enemy bunkers, and we ended up moving into contact. My team wound up moving toward two enemy bunkers across a shallow draw which was lacking in cover. I was wounded almost immediately, and the attack stalled. I moved to a handy tree and continued to fire on the nearest enemy bunker, until I was wounded again, and then eventually killed by a depth bunker. Our attack shifted around to left flank, and wound up attacking along the long axis of the enemy position, clearing bunkers one by one, and rescuing the hostage, though not without numerous casualties. Max resurrected the dead, and we began to move the hostage back along the road toward FOB Velocity. We took too long to get organized and get moving, and did not pay attention to rear security, and before we knew, we were being counterattacked by zombie OPFOR QRF. Once again, I was killed almost immediately, along with several others. The remnants of the squad attempted to break contact back along the road, taking the hostage with them, but Max and 1Sgt were punishing us for being too slow to get off the objective after the attack, and kept resurrecting the QRF until we were wiped out.
THURSDAY AFTERNOON – House of Pain, Part 1
Thursday afternoon was our first opportunity to use some CQB techniques, as the mission was to attack an enemy force holed up in the CQB huts, and once again attempt to rescue the hostage. The plan was to place a support by fire element on the hillside above the house, suppressing the doors and windows on the north side, while the remainder of the squad attempted to gain a foothold and make entry into the house on the southwest corner. The squad leader had careful fire control orders in place to prevent fratricide of the attacking element inside the house by the support by fire element. We had the distinct advantage of knowing the interior layout of the house, several of the students having taken CQB before.
The approach to the house went flawlessly. Once the support by fire team opened fire, the maneuver team threw a smoke grenade to cover the view of the OPFOR on the north side of the house, and the rest of us were able to move down off the hill and get onto the west wall without taking any casualties. The next part of the plan was for me to move to the southwest corner of the house and cover the south wall, to allow the rest of the team to enter the house. I wound up trying to crawl up a slippery gravel bank to get to the position, and caught a faceful of Airsim rounds from the doorway on the south side. The rest of the squad managed to enter and clear the house room by room and rescue the hostage, although not without further casualties.
FRIDAY MORNING – The Attack of the Angry Slugs
Friday morning gave us yet another crack at rescuing the hostage, this time from the enemy base camp we attacked on Wednesday afternoon. This time, the plan was to approach from the other side of the ridge, with one fire team crawling downslope on line into contact, while the other team attacked from the flank just below the ridgetop. I was on the crawling team, and because of our failure to stack trees and crawl directly at the enemy position, we apparently looked like what Max called “a herd of angry slugs” to the OPFOR. In the interests of the scenario, 1Sgt allowed us to keep crawling and initiate contact. Once we opened fire, my team moved around the right flank and cleared two bunkers fairly quickly, while the downslope team cleared two more. Our right flanking move was not really part of the plan, and actually put us in a partial crossfire situation from the other team. Once again, we were operating well at the team level, but lacked coordination at the squad level. The hostage rescue part also didn’t go all that well – an enemy fighter used the hostage as a human shield, and both she and he were killed by return fire. *Cough cough cough* What I meant to say, was that as we were moving into position, we heard the hostage screaming for mercy followed by a series of shots, and she was dead when we got there. We totally avenged her death though!
As we consolidated on the objective and prepared to move the dead hostage down to FOB Velocity, we were counterattacked but managed to defeat them.
FRIDAY AFTERNOON – Hostages Be Trippin’/Blue on Blue
Friday afternoon, out mission was to ambush an enemy patrol which was moving the hostage down toward the CQB huts. The ambush went off largely according to plan, with the entirety of the OPFOR shot in the kill zone, and the hostage miraculously surviving. When we went to secure the hostage things went sideways, however. I won’t spoil the surprise for future classes, but suffice it to say, she did not seem particularly grateful to be rescued, and hilarity ensued.
Meanwhile, the dead OPFOR had all gotten up again and were scuttling away with 1Sgt, which was a bad sign. Sure enough, as we were stretchering the hostage back toward FOB Velocity, they counterattacked. Our squad was totally disorganized, and our response was pretty ad hoc. Myself and two others immediately RTRed, and were able to make the enemy take cover, while the remainder of the squad made a long right flanking movement and rolled them up from the side. Things were going great until I shot up my own troops as they moved through the enemy position, killing one and wounding another. Undeterred, they pressed on, until they took more friendly fire from the guy on my left. We eventually drove the OPFOR off, but not without several casualties. As I recall, ALL of our casualties were from friendly fire.
This incident was a huge learning point for me. After the initial RTR, I was down behind cover, having a firefight with two OPFOR. My rifle jammed, and I spent some frantic moments trying to clear it, expecting all the time that the OPFOR would charge my position while I couldn’t fight back. Between the surprise contact and the weapon malfunction, I was completely sucked into my own world and had no awareness at of the whereabouts of the rest of my squad – I had no idea who was on my left or where they were. I just knew that since I had been at the front of the column and responded to contact left, there were no friendlies on my right. When I got my weapon working again and popped up to continue the firefight, I saw troops moving across my front and immediately engaged them. And I can’t even pretend that my squad looked like the OPFOR – our side were all wearing camouflage uniforms, and the OPFOR all wore civilian clothes. I was just in full video game mode, firing at anything that moved.
Of course, I already knew that fratricide existed as a concept, but this incident really made it real for me, and made me realize how easily it can happen. God help anybody who tries to do any kind of small unit tactics in the real world without proper training and procedures.
SATURDAY MORNING – Passing Gas
Saturday morning’s mission was to transport the Sarin nerve gas captured on Wednesday morning to a helicopter LZ for pickup. On our initial route to the objective, we ran into the OPFOR, broke contact, and wound up taking a different route. The OPFOR was waiting for us on that route also, and managed to inflict some casualties this time. We wound up assaulting downhill onto the LZ and clearing it without too much bloodshed.
SATURDAY AFTERNOON – Little Big Horn II
The mission for the afternoon was to attack the enemy site from Thursday morning. We thought this would be an easy one, since we knew already knew the layout of the position, and perhaps we had gotten a bit complacent. We left the FOB and moved along a creek bed next to the road, and walked right into an L-shaped ambush that the OPFOR had set up with about ten minutes notice. I think we lost three or four in the first minute of the ambush, including the squad leader, and were down to two survivors within another minute or two. And bear in mind, this was a four man OPFOR ambushing a ten man squad.
This was another big learning point, as it was intended to be. We shouldn’t have been moving along such an obvious route, and if we had been partway up the hillside or had flankers out it wouldn’t have been nearly so bad. Also, when we came under fire we should have RTRed and then started peeling back out of the ambush. I don’t think anybody in the squad actually froze up, but I know after I RTRed, I just lay in cover and fired back at the OPFOR for a good long while, and didn’t try to break contact. Eventually, somebody (it may have been Max) started shouting at as to peel out of the ambush, and people started moving, but it took a long time. Losing the squad leader in the first moments really paralyzed the squad, and nobody took charge. We should have known what to do without orders anyway.
Once again, it’s not that I didn’t know being caught in an ambush was a thing. But it is a lot more real for me now that I have been through one. I’m glad I didn’t just freeze up or go to ground and hide, but I should have known to try and move out of the kill zone.
After a stern ass-chewing from 1Sgt and a pause to reload magazines, we were resurrected, and the mission resumed. This time, the attack on the enemy position went a lot better. A lucky shot killed the defender in one of the front bunkers in the first exchange of fire, and my team pushed around the left flank and took the other front bunker. Once again, we did fine at the fire team level but lacked coordination at squad level. My team wound up curving around on the left flank, until we were in a partial crossfire with the support by fire team. We had another blue on blue incident where the support by fire team didn’t shift fire and wound up putting rounds on the attacking team member as he entered a bunker.
SUNDAY MORNING – Return to the House of Pain
The final mission of the class was simply to attack the enemy headquarters located in the CQB huts and kill the remaining OPFOR. We then had to hold the house for 30 minutes against possible counterattacks. No hostages or complications.
The approach to the house we used on Thursday afternoon worked so well we were tempted to use it again, but it seemed likely to me that the enemy would be expecting that. I also expected that they would have an observation post on the hillside above the house. The general plan was to fight up onto the house, and then clear as much as possible from the outside by firing in through exterior windows, and then make entry slowly, clearing rooms from the outside as much as possible. Because of the complexity of the house clearing portion of the operation, we constructed a floorplan for the house out of 2x4s and spent all our rehearsal time practicing the clearance.
After moving out up the hillside, the squad moved into the ORP, and then the leader’s reconnaissance went to look for the OP. We didn’t find one, and the squad continued, and approached the west side of the house along a draw. We were able to fight up onto the west wall and control one of windows pretty easily. The plan called for us to move around to the east side of the house and take the windows on that side. We lost two guys to a defender just inside the south door of the house, but the rest of us made it around, using smoke to get up to the house. One team began to clear the east side rooms from the outside, one by one, leaving me and one other holding the south side of the house. At this point, we got lucky – I was able to kill an enemy just inside the south doorway of the house. I ran up onto the south wall of the house, and a moment later, got another enemy on the other side of the door. Assuming that the south room of the house was empty, we opportunistically took the south room of the house, giving us our foothold in the house. From our position inside the house, we could see another dead enemy, but nonetheless we continued with the plan as rehearsed, and cleared the rest of the structure. It turned out all of the enemy were dead before we made entry.
The mission was only half over – we still had to hold the house for 30 minutes against possible counterattacks. The OPFOR had all come back to life and run off into the woods, so we had no time to lose. Some of the students in the class who had taken CLC before told me that the key to defending the house was to fight away from the house itself, so we placed two man observation posts on the hillside covering the two main approaches, with the remainder of the squad in the house to act as a QRF. The OPs on the hill soon spotted the OPFOR moving down the same draw that we used to approach the house, and opened fire on them. The OPFOR took cover from the OP, but this gave me an angle from one of the windows of the house, and I got one of them. The other OP on the hillside went around the right flank of the OP in contact and rolled up the rest of the OPFOR from the flank without taking any casualties. With the enemy counterattack defeated, Max called an end to the scenario, bringing the class to an end.
The whole mission went largely according to plan, and all the squad members were so squared away that my job as a leader was actually pretty easy once the fight started. After running missions all week, the squad was working very well together, with team leaders taking control of their part of the mission. In particular, during the counterattack, the team leader on the hillside ran the whole fight – the only thing I did to help was cheapshot an OPFOR from a window.
I learned a great deal from the Combat Leader Course. On the individual skills level, I noticed that I was doing a much better job taking and utilizing cover by the end of the week – rather than popping out in the same spot of a piece of cover to fire every time (something that got me killed in Texas in February), I was crawling into cover, and shifting positions within the same piece of cover. I also found myself doing a better job of stacking trees to move up onto enemy positions and going prone where appropriate rather than taking a knee.
At the leadership level, I made some improvements as a squad leader. I now understand the planning, briefing, and rehearsal process. It was also very illuminating to see how the squad’s performance improved through the week as we learned how to operate together. This really underscores the importance of training as a group. Anybody who thinks they can conduct combat operations with a scratch team and work it all out in the moment is in for a world of hurt.
The most broadly applicable skill I improved was the ability to continue to think, make decisions, and give orders under stress. During the Texas 2019 class, I was the squad leader for one Force on Force evolution, and although we won the fight, I didn’t really have control of the squad – I came up with the plan, but one of the team leaders basically ran the fight after the initial deployment. I did better this time, especially on the Wednesday morning mission when our approach march was compromised, and we had to attack on the fly.
Overall, despite the trouble and expense of traveling halfway across the country, the Combat Leader Course was absolutely worth doing. I have never taken another class like it. There is no substitute for properly structured Force on Force training.