San Diego Union-Tribune
February 29, 2008
Pg. 1 Unorothodox war training emphasizes 'primal skills'
By Rick Rogers, Staff Writer
Trying to become predators instead of prey, Marines headed to Iraq will go through training built on advice from big-game hunters, soldiers of fortune and troops who grew up around firearms in the woods or the inner city.
Combat Hunter, a program begun at Camp Pendleton and now being rolled out nationwide, is designed to help Marines stalk and kill insurgents by using their senses and instincts. It emphasizes keen observation of Marines' surroundings and meticulous knowledge of their foes' habits.
“This is the most comprehensive training of its kind in our history,” said Col. Clarke Lethin, chief of staff for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton.
“These are primal skills that we all have but that we evolved out of,” he added. “We are going back in time. The Marines who go through this program will never be the same. They'll never look at the world the same again.”
The Marine Corps had not paid much attention to this low-tech combat approach since the Vietnam War. Like the other service branches, the Corps has generally gone high-tech by creating increasingly advanced weapons and developing virtual reality training.
Combat Hunter grew out of a concept by Gen. James Mattis, who has spearheaded the formation of various training programs for the Marine Corps. He saw the need for greater focus on hunting-related skills while overseeing combat forces at Camp Pendleton in 2006.
At the time, the Marines had recently turned the corner on roadside bomb attacks that killed and maimed so many of them in Iraq. They became better at detecting improvised explosive devices and blunting their impact.
Then the insurgents changed tactics. Instead of blowing up Marines, the enemy increasingly turned to shooting them as they patrolled neighborhoods or drove by in convoys.
Mattis, known for out-of-the-box thinking, weighed his options. He considered adding Marine snipers to protect his units, but he rejected the idea because it would take too long to train and field them.
Then he hit upon the idea of Combat Hunter, a strategy that squared with the Marine Corps' aggressive fighting style.
“One of the things that Gen. Mattis said is that he wanted a quick turnaround for this project. There was a sense of urgency,” said Maj. James Martin, the project officer for Combat Hunter.
Lethin recalled the reason for that urgency: Too many troops felt fear when they left their bases in Anbar province, the vast western region of Iraq where Marines hold the lead combat role for the U.S. military.
“Fear is a terrible thing. The Marines felt they were being hunted. They felt they were bait for the insurgents,” Lethin said.
“How do we teach our Marines to be the hunters? How do we bring the confidence back?” Lethin said. “Sometimes technology is not the answer. We think we have the answer in Combat Hunter.”
The unorthodox program draws on the expertise of an eclectic mix of consultants. There are the tracking abilities of David Scott-Donelan, a former officer in the South African Special Forces and a veteran of civil wars in Africa. Then there's African guide Ivan Carter, as well as others who would rather not be identified by the Marine Corps.
Training drills also reflect the hunting skills of Marines from rural areas and, as an unclassified Marine briefing said, the life experiences of those “who have lived in disadvantaged areas of large cities.”
Some of the training was on display yesterday in an area of Camp Pendleton called the K-2 Combat Town.
Marines usually train among its prefabricated buildings and in its dirt-lined streets. But for Combat Hunter, they perch in the green hills and watch what goes on in the mock village.
From a distance of eight or more football fields away, teams of Marines learned what to look for downhill. As they peered through binoculars, the Marines tried to catalog hundreds of details to form a baseline of knowledge. Then they looked for telltale signs of insurgent behavior.
The scenario they watched yesterday involved a mock sniper shooting an Iraqi police officer. The Marines had to tease out clues to ascertain who did what and from where. The exercise was one of 15 scenes that they will scrutinize in the next two weeks.
One goal of the training is teaching troops to unleash deadly force only after they have determined that it's warranted.
“Just because someone is a jerk does not mean we can kill them, do you got me?” said Greg Williams, a former police officer and big-game hunter as he debriefed 55 Marines from the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.
“Rrrr,” the Marines replied in agreement.
“We never do trigger time unless we do brain time, do you got me?” Williams emphasized.
“Rrrr,” the Marines responded.
After a lunch break, the trainees started analyzing more complex attacks.
Some of them praised Combat Hunter for teaching them to more effectively spot insurgents – as well as roadside bombs and weapons caches – while giving them confidence to patrol day in and day out.
“I think it is absolutely critical training,” said Cpl. Andrew Moul, 25, from Hart, Mich., who will deploy to Iraq in the fall. “In Iraq right now, it is more of a security situation, and we need this skill set to keep civilians and Marines alive by making better decisions.”
Unconventional thinking about an unconventional war might make a lot of sense, said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer for the Lexington Institute, a pro-defense think tank in Arlington, Va.
“What we are learning in Iraq is that the demands of warfare in the new century are so widely different from anything for which we were planning. We have to look in unexpected places for the skills that will serve us best” Thompson said.
“It may be that a combination of better hunting skills, language skills and cultural anthropology serves us better in Iraq than some gee-whiz wireless network,” Thompson said. Wartime training
Since the Iraq war began in 2003, the Marine Corps has launched combat training programs such as: Mojave Viper
: National program headquartered at the Twentynine Palms base. Offers monthlong, customized courses in urban combat and cultural awareness. Consists of two mock Iraqi villages with hundreds of actors and about 400 buildings on 252 acres of desert. Infantry Immersion Trainer:
One-of-a-kind, high-tech simulator that uses holographic images, role players, Hollywood-style sets and other means to depict an Iraqi neighborhood. Housed in a 32,000-square-foot building at Camp Pendleton. Combat Hunter:
Created in response to insurgents wounding and killing more Marines with small-arms attacks. Teaches Marines to use their natural senses and other hunting skills to track down and eliminate enemies.