Small Wars Journal

Embedded Staff Officer Survival on an Asymmetric Battlefield

Wed, 11/07/2012 - 5:30am

The Army’s training for deploying troops has continually evolved over that past ten years from one-size-fits all to a tiered approach based on mission set. The training, however, still relies on standard required training packages that are normally not modified based on unique mission requirements. This has truly come to light with the recent attacks on staff officers working side-by-side with Afghan partners (Green-on-Blue attacks).  The inability of staff officers to respond with appropriate aggressiveness to a threat underscores that chasm between the idea of a warrior ethos and the reality of the response.

Traditionally, Army combat skills such as marksmanship are trained, tested, and validated on courses with the closest distance of 25 meters. In a recent Green-on-Blue attack in an Afghan ministry, the assailant was well within 10 feet (3 meters) of his two victims. In another Green-on-Blue attack, nine advisors were murdered by a lone gunman. None of the victims in either attack had a chambered round in their weapon nor were the weapons in holsters that allowed rapid withdraw. 

Reaction to this type of attack is not part of a standard training program for military personnel, although at least one NATO organization in Afghanistan does conduct a close quarter combat shooter reaction course for its embedded advisors. Neither current required weapons training nor combative (unarmed combat against an unarmed opponent)  training replicate real world conditions and miss the mark at providing a holistic skill set that can be applied to personnel functioning as embedded advisors. Commanders have the option based on their mission analysis to include additional training for deploying personnel. Additional training, however, must be balanced against the growing list of mandated training competing for the valuable resource of time.

Skills training and drills are only one part of the equation for survival as an embedded advisor. Warrior attitude, the ability to quickly transition to the offense in reaction to a threat, is often missing. Instead, the response tends toward being, “just a staff officer” building spread sheets and slides in an office setting with retreat in the presence of a threat. This was evident the passive language in some of the written emergency response plans to an armed threat where the plan was to lock down and avoid conflict instead of actively destroying the enemy.  Combat can occur anywhere on an asymmetric battlefield. Active shooter programs in the US advocate a passive response that is not appropriate for combat environments. In a combat theater, everyone’s mission is to seek and destroy the enemy, not lock oneself in an office and wait for help. Non-warrior mindset is reinforced when military personnel are required to have a letter from a general officer in order to leave the compound during periods of high threat, part of a risk adverse mindset.  All Soldiers must be prepared to transition from non-threat to threat, responding in an aggressive, offensive manner.

Solution: Most US civilian police agencies employ a number of techniques for confronting an armed suspect, including methods other than shooting when disarming an armed person in close quarters. Some of these techniques may seem counterintuitive such as rushing and armed person. All scenarios must be trained and drilled until sufficient “muscle memory” is developed. This includes weapons posture; whether the weapon, particularly the side arm, is carried loaded with a chambered round. In the United States, civilian law enforcement officers usually carried loaded side arms with a round chambered without being considered a safety risk.  In a combat zone, however, most staff officers follow weapons posture requirements or personal choices that vary from location to location and vary between being unloaded to loaded and one chambered round.  Numerous negligent discharges from “unloaded” weapons have occurred, some with serious or fatal consequences where a loaded, holstered weapon remains safe. It was not uncommon to observe officers, outside the wire with unloaded weapons or weapons carried in manner that renders the weapon difficult to employ. Not until August 2012 did the commander of the International Security Assistance Force has mandated that all military personnel carry their weapons loaded.

Required training must focus on the skill sets that will be encountered by deployed personnel, in particular for those in the embedded environment. A uniform, constant, across the theater policy on weapon status must be established and enforced.  Operating as an embedded advisor during an ongoing insurgency is inherently risky; no measure will completely remove that risk.  For staff officers and other personnel operating as embedded advisors enhanced close combat training and a ready weapons posture is imperative for survival. The question will be whether this is a lesson identified or lesson learned? 

About the Author(s)

James M. Shelley is a retired Baltimore City Police law enforcement officer who served in a variety of patrol and investigative assignments as well as a police academy instructor. Most recently he served as ISAF Joint Command’s Deputy Director and Director of the National Police Coordination Center, Kabul, Afghanistan. The views in the paper are those of the author and do not represent the Department of Defense or NATO.


Your article was a real shock to me, particularly with respect to the lack of "real life" training scenarios as well as the variance and negligence in carry conditions among troops in Afghanistan.

I am a certified NRA Firearms Instructor, and a graduate of Gunsite Training Academy's 499 Expert Pistol Course, When I decided to carry a firearm for for self defense I got the best firearms training I could find. I took a week off work and attended Gunsite;s basic pistol course. My instructors were all former operators and active duty police. More than a few of them later worked as contractors in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I was lucky I could afford this kind of training as I cannot imagine carrying a firearm without it.

As I read your article, I remembered that when I took Gunsite's Expert Pistol Course two of my classmates where active duty Marine officers. At the time, I found it odd that they could not get this kind of training in the military. Each week-long class includes close quarters training in simulators with moving targets. We even trained on how to shoot a stationary target from the bed of a moving pickup truck. The course ends with a competitive shooting contest. I was paired against one of the young Marine officers. I think he was more than a little worried about the kidding he would receive if lost to a civilian and, even worse, a lawyer,

After my courses I tried an FFL case in Federal Court where the ATF agent kept covering both me, the prosecutor and even the jury as he displayed a firearm during his testimony. Safe gun handling had been drilled into me during my Gunsite courses and every time the muzzle was pointed in my direction I would instinctively try to move out of the line of fire. Finally, the Judge had enough and told the ATF's "so-called gun expert" to use proper gun handling or leave his courtroom.

The moral of the story is that there simply is no safe substitute for competent muscle motor memory training for anyone tasked with regularly carrying or handling firearms, much less our armed forces stationed in combat zones. It is a disgrace that our government sends them into harms way without such training


Wed, 11/07/2012 - 1:00pm

Mr Shelley some very good points! As for the training you describe we are getting better at it. I can say that I have spent alot of leave and my own money gettng it. The problem really I think is one of leadership. Take for example a BN CDR... If he has been with the troops he got 3 years with a platoon and two with a company Both in the first half of his 20 year career... Now he gets that BN but he hasn't lead in years. He relies on what HE knows, and what he did with that PLT and company... 10 years ago. Alot changes in 10 years, equipment, capabilities etc. But the entire time he has been indoctrinated with risk aversion to the point where this type of training seems risky and dangerious. 10-12 years ago I had a BN CDR who was convinced that the only way a bunker could be taken by a squad was by frontal assault or fire teams spread out but within sight of one another and given the terrain we trained in that just about made it a frontal assault. This didn't need to be done because we had squad radios... Something he did not when he was a platoon leader... the BLUF: He could not make the move to a new way of doing things because he was stuck on what he did in the past.