Infantry: Trackers Are Trendy Once More


August 8, 2010: The British Army has hired a Canadian professional tracker, Terry Grant, to teach troops how to use his stalking skills to detect IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices, mainly roadside bombs) and the signs (spoor, the signs people leave on the ground as they move) of enemy troops. This is an ancient skill among professional soldiers, that tends to atrophy in peacetime, and become urgent again in wartime. Terry Grant has become famous with his TV show, Mantracker, where he hunts down people in the wilderness. Grant has long been called upon to find people who were missing in rural areas. The British army noted this and made the connection with combat operations.

The U.S. Army and Marine Corps have long had similar programs, that have become more popular since September 11, 2001. Two years ago, the marines even added hunting skills instruction to its combat training. You'd think this would already be a standard feature of infantry training, but the need to master lots of new tech had pushed it out. However, noting that in Iraq and Afghanistan, the enemy tried to remain hidden in plain sight (often among civilians), and then set up a bomb or just (more frequently) get off a few shots and run away, the marines sought methods that would make it easier to spot these irregulars, and quickly hunt them down.

Like the British, the marines called in some professional hunters and quickly developed a training course that emphasized observation and deduction. That's what hunting is mostly about, spotting the prey first, and knowing where to position yourself to do that. Hunting irregular fighters turns out to be much the same. Over the last few thousand years, armies have gotten away from this hunting aspect of warfare. But the first "soldiers" were simply good hunters now going after different game. Terry Grant developed a similar program to help the British troops to get back to the ancient basics.

This shift to more tracking training for troops began nearly a century ago, with the appearance of the infantry squad. This was truly a 20th century development, even though the original squad size fighting organization was the hunting party that was turned to wartime use. The Germans were the first to introduce the infantry squad as an independent combat unit in modern times. This happened when the Germans perfected their "Stosstruppen" (storm troopers) tactics in 1917. After that, the infantry squad was no longer an administrative unit, but became a more independent and effective combat organization in all the world's armies. This changed infantry combat dramatically, but the significance of the change was rarely noted.

The marines rediscovered that a hunting party organization is only as good as its hunting skills of its members. So now marines practice looking at crowds and villages, to see if they can be the first to spot who the bad actors are. Terry Grant taught British troops to do the same, to look hard, and think carefully.



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