June 27, 2008
Pg. 10 Combat hunter program is 'a great example of outside-the-box thinking to defeat an adaptive and wily enemy'
By Jim Michaels, USA Today
CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — Marine Lance Cpl. Jose Cardona stared intently at the forest floor.
"This log has a piece that's broken off," he says, pointing with his machete so other members of the patrol could see a tiny chip on a rotting log. He studied it a few more seconds.
"Yeah, they looked like they stepped here," concludes Cardona, 19, as the Marines and Navy corpsmen resumed the pursuit of their quarry, a group of fellow Marines who had taken off into the pine forests earlier that morning.
Faced with an alarming increase in sniper attacks in Iraq, Marine commanders in late 2006 began looking for ways to turn the tables on an elusive enemy. Among the experts they consulted: a renowned African big game hunter and a former big city cop.
The result is the combat hunter program, an experiment in training Marines to fight insurgents by making the Marines as wily as the enemy they face. The training combines outdoor skills culled from hunting and tracking with the street smarts developed by police and Marines who grew up in cities.
"The motto we … try to instill in these guys is Marines are always the hunter, never the hunted," says Ivan Carter, the safari guide and hunter — born in Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe — who helped the Marines develop the program.
The program's supporters say it goes to the heart of why al-Qaeda has proved a resilient enemy and what the U.S. military needs to do to win. U.S. superiority in technology and firepower can't stop a resourceful enemy that attacks at will and makes deadly bombs from simple household items.
"We need to get down to their level," says Marine Sgt. Jose Ramirez, a 26-year-old from Mission, Texas, who was learning tracking skills here last month.
While much of the military has focused on technology and improved armor to give soldiers an edge in Iraq, the Marine Corps embarked on a different approach with this program, aimed at developing new mind-sets and skills.
"It's a great example of outside-the-box thinking to defeat an adaptive and wily enemy," says Army Lt. Col. John Nagl, a leading counterinsurgency expert.
The military establishment is watching the new training carefully. "If this works, I guarantee the Army will be doing the same thing, only calling it something different," says Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank.
The training has already been incorporated into boot camp and in operational units.
"They look at the entire world differently when they come out of this," says Marine Gen. James Mattis, an early proponent of the program. "That is where we're going to win this war — by having people who can look at the world differently. It's not going to be through technology — a new radio or new tank or new gun."
Some experts say the military's infatuation with counterinsurgency has gone too far, leading it to embrace training that distracts from preparing for conventional battles.
Army Lt. Col. Gian Gentile, a professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and former battalion commander in Iraq, says programs like combat hunter reduce the amount of time spent on more conventional training, such as clearing trenches or squad tactics. "You only have so much time and resources," Gentile says.
On a steamy day at Camp Lejeune last month, Marines and Navy corpsmen from the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines searched for broken twigs, litter, footprints, depressed grass and other signs of their quarry. When they found footprints in mud at the edge of the woods, they sketched the patterns on paper with a ruler.
Then they walked slowly into the woods, looking for the smallest sign that humans passed before them. It is slow, often frustrating, work.
"We're programming them to see things you wouldn't normally see," says Randy Merriman, a civilian tracking instructor at Camp Lejeune. "It's more than just following footprints," he says, pointing at the ground where someone stepped. "See that: Grass doesn't grow sideways."
Marines also learn how blood or broken branches look when they're fresh and how they age. By learning the time it takes a spider to weave a web, they can determine when someone moved through an area.
America's affluence has diminished some of the skills needed in an unconventional war. "We have bred out of ourselves — suppressed is probably a better word — the primordial skills for survival," says Col. Clarke Lethin, chief of staff of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, headquartered at Camp Pendleton, Calif. "Fight or flight."
Previous generations of Marines and soldiers entered the military with outdoor skills honed by childhoods spent hunting and fishing. Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II, perfected his marksmanship as a kid in rural Texas, where he hunted rabbits and squirrels to help feed his family.
"This is a generation of Marines that has grown up primarily inside" with television and computer games, says Col. Fred Padilla, commanding officer of the Marine Corps' infantry school at Camp Pendleton.
On the battlefield, Marines and soldiers are facing a resourceful enemy that makes bomb detonators from washing-machine timers, garage-door openers or cellphones. They run around the battlefield in nothing more than dishdashas — or tunics — and sandals.
Yet, they have proved their ability to frustrate America's technological advantages. Insurgents continually found ways to build larger and more lethal bombs that would get around American technological fixes, says Patrick Lang, a retired Army Special Forces officer and former Middle East specialist in the Defense Intelligence Agency.
"Insurgents tied us in knots with these roadside bombs," Lang says.
Marine commanders were also looking for ways to overcome a key advantage insurgents have: They can easily hide among civilians.
"Finding is the problem," Mattis says. "Our soldiers, SEALs and Marines are quite capable of killing these guys. It's how do you find them."
Commanders turned to cops for advice, but they also looked within their own ranks — to Marines who grew up in inner cities.
"The inner-city kid has a unique perspective," says Greg Williams, a retired Detroit area police officer who was recruited by the military to help develop the program. "They have a stronger urban survival instinct. The inner city kid … will see the world a little differently, a little more opportunistically."
To assist with building the training, Williams said he relied on a couple Marine sergeants who grew up in the city and chose the Marine Corps over a life of gangs.
It may be the first time the military has considered growing up in a poor neighborhood as an asset. Some of the colonels and retired officers were initially skeptical that they would learn war fighting skills from young Marines who grew up in the inner city, Lethin says.
During a conference at Camp Pendleton last year, Williams and a sergeant took a group of skeptical senior officers for a walk in a nearby town.
The sergeant pointed out dangerous neighborhoods based on where cars were parked, whether there were toys in the yards and other signs that they noticed but the older officers did not.
"When they came back, all the naysayers were thoroughly convinced we were on to something," Lethin says.
Marines can be taught to pick out criminals and insurgents trying to blend into a crowd, if they know what to look for, Williams says.
Lt. Patrick Zuber, whose platoon was the first unit to get combat hunter training in a pilot program last year, said the training made Marines better able to sniff out trouble before it happened.
The combat hunter Marines were able to spot patterns on streets that had formerly only appeared noisy, chaotic and strange.
In one instance, Zuber's Marines were manning a series of checkpoints outside Fallujah, a city west of Baghdad. They received reports of a man illegally charging residents to enter the city, so the Marines carefully watched the throngs of cars and pedestrians that appeared every day. They noticed a man who moved among the crowds and regularly talked to people trying to enter the city.
After the man was detained, Marines discovered he was carrying a list of people who he had been charging and the amounts they owed. Marines determined he was working for the Iraqi police.
The idea for the combat hunter program formed in late 2006, when enemy snipers in Iraq's Anbar province were growing more effective. They were hitting soldiers and Marines in vulnerable spots despite the heavy armor they wore.
"They knew exactly what we were wearing and where to shoot us," says Jack Sparks, a retired Marine officer who helped develop the combat hunters program at the Marine Corps' Warfighting Laboratory in Quantico, Va.
"Marines said, 'When we leave the (main bases), we know we're bait,' " Lethin says.
"They're good Marines — bait or not, they're going out there to do their mission," he says. "(But) when you feel vulnerable, you don't go out there with the necessary confidence."
Commanders began to consider how best to counter the attacks. Marines were already weighed down with protective equipment, including vests and helmets. More armor would further reduce mobility and alienate Marines from the civilians they were supposed to protect.
The typical Marine rifleman carries about 97 pounds of equipment, including protective gear, a weapon and ammunition. The recommended load is about 50 pounds, according to a Naval Research Advisory Committee report called, "Lightening the Load."
Instead, commanders were looking for a solution in keeping with the Marines' offensive spirit.
Today nearly all Marines are exposed to the training, either in boot camp, infantry school or when they join operational units.
"It doesn't mean we're going out there to kill everything we can," Lethin says. "We're hunting the enemy — those insurgents … hiding among the people.
"We're trophy hunting," he says.