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Visual Tracking and the Military Tracking Team Capability

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Visual Tracking and the Military Tracking Team Capability:

A Disappearing Skill and Misunderstood Capability

by John D. Hurth and Jason W. Brokaw

Download the Full Article: Visual Tracking and the Military Tracking Team Capability

Of all the potentially valuable skills in the military the one that is most commonly misunderstood and underestimated is Visual Tracking. Unfortunately most opinions are based on misconceptions within the civilian tracking community. Trackers who are teachers of a holistic form of tracking that focus their instruction on a spiritual aspect have crushed any true debate on the virtues of tracking as a military specialty skill. Visual Tracking is not an exclusive skill associated with the Native American, San Bushmen, Iban, or Dyak trackers.

Visual Tracking, at its very basic level is the natural predatory hunting instinct of man. The sign that the tracker reads, is the "Physical Evidence" that his quarry leaves behind. The Trained Tracker is able to locate, identify, pursue and interpret those signs as well as form reasonably accurate conclusions based on the evidence left by the quarry.

In an environment where information on an enemy is limited the primary means of intelligence gathering will be through conducting patrols. Visual Tracking supports a commander's intent to find, fix and finish the enemy as well as be that human sensor that collects information. Soldiers who are taught the visual tracking skill will possess a greater attention to detail. Visual Tracking also provides them with a keener situational awareness to the environment around them.

It is very difficult for even the smallest element of men to move across any terrain without leaving some type of evidence. If one looks at sign left by the quarry and puts that into the context of military intelligence, then the physical evidence becomes intelligence indicators. Indicators observed by a trained tracker can provide immediate use intelligence about the quarry, such as:

• Enemy size

• Direction of movement

• Rate of movement

• Infiltration and Exfiltration routes and methods used

• "Safe Areas" being utilized

• State of training and discipline

• Enemy capabilities and intentions

Historically, Visual Man-Tracking has been used by many Militaries and Law Enforcement Agencies in other countries around the world with a great deal of success. The ability of employing Visual Trackers to locate and interdict a subject attempting to elude their pursuers, gather information for intelligence purposes or help rescue lost individuals and groups.

In today's Contemporary Operating Environment, Man-hunting techniques employed by the Military have been ineffective and reactionary. With The inability to immediately interdict insurgents, who commit attacks and flee a clear capability gap exists.

The Military over the past few decades have focused on methods other than patrolling, as a way to deter, detect and pursue an elusive quarry. Scent Dogs, Sensors, cameras, and the use of UAV's are some examples. Basic "field craft" skills have given way to the over reliance on technologies and dogs. This has dulled their natural human senses and ability to pursue their quarry.

Download the Full Article: Visual Tracking and the Military Tracking Team Capability

John D. Hurth is a retired United States Army Special Forces soldier. John retired after 23 years of active duty service. He spent 10 years in Special Forces serving as a Weapons Sergeant (18B) and Assistant Operations/Special Forces Intelligence Sergeant (18F) in 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) where he participated in multiple deployments overseas to include two combat tours in support of the Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). John also served with the Special Operations Training Detachment, Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) at Fort Polk, LA. Prior to joining Special Forces, served as an Infantryman (11B) in multiple Airborne, Light and Mechanized Infantry assignments within the continental U.S. and overseas. After retiring, performed duties as the lead instructor for the United States Army Combat Tracking Course previously located at Fort Huachuca, AZ. He is currently the founder and President of TíR Group, LLC.

Jason W. Brokaw currently maintains active military status with the United States Army Reserves, assigned to a special operations unit as a Signals Intelligence Analyst (35N). Jason spent almost 5 years with 2nd Ranger Battalion, and also served as a member of a Special Operations Team -- A/B in both 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne), and 19th Special Forces Group (Airborne). He participated in two combat tours in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), one with Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force (CJSOTF), and most recently on Weapons Intelligence Team 6 (WIT 6) with Combined Joint Task Force Troy as an Infantryman (11B) performing Counter-IED functions with Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD). He is also a graduate of the United States Army Jungle Warfare School previously at Fort Sherman Panama, and Combat Tracking Course previously at Fort Huachuca, AZ.

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Chris (not verified)

Thu, 03/17/2011 - 1:00pm

John & Jason,

You have produced a powerful and relevant case for building the combat tracking capability amongst our forces, especially in the current operational environment. However, to fully embrace combat tracking as a tool for the warfighter, it needs to be embedded in a kind of "Light Infantry" warrior culture that is sadly lacking in my opinion. The sniper community, SOF community, USMC, etc. are stronger advocates for tracking because they maintain the light infantry/warrior ethos and culture. The trend over the past decade to move towards increased modularity with a motorized/mechanized force in a command & political climate that is highly risk averse works against inculcating the right culture for the broader warfighting community to recognize the need and relevance of combat tracking capability. If the maneuver world was willing to embrace the mindset, it would equip local commanders to get into the enemy's battle rhythm and operations in a way that technology does not. Afterall, our national strategic objectives in the war on terror are being hampered by guys in sandals cooking with animal dung. Technology is an enabler, not the answer. Thanks for the article and keep up the fight...

Fantastic paper! I am a big fan of this kind of stuff, because it works. We have been fighting this war for close to ten years, and I am still stunned by the lack of focus or dedication to this very basic and fundamental aspect of warfare.

I guess this stuff isn't as sexy as an M-1 Abrams or an XM-25 grenade launcher. It is hard to get the military excited over something that isn't high tech or requires batteries.

But hey, I have a solution if the military doesn't want to maintain or develop this crucial war fighting skill. Hire contractors to do it.

During the Indian Wars, the military hired Native American trackers, as well as mountain men trackers called the Civilian Scouts. The paper mentioned one of these Scouts named Frederick Russell Burnham--the grandfather of the Boy Scouts for any of you scouts out there. Check out his exploits in Africa, and his influence on that continent. He actually fought with Baden Powell and Frederick Selous, and his tracking skills and field craft definitely wore off on those guys.

But the other guy that needs a quick mention was William Cody (Buffalo Bill). He was an excellent civilian contractor scout during the Indian Wars, and even received the Medal of Honor for combat operations as a Scout. Matter of fact, one civilian scout from the Civil War and 4 from the Indian Campaigns(to include Bill) all received the MoH.

So lets take it to the present day. There are former Selous Scouts, Native American federal trackers, SAS, or Koevoets who could easily be contracted out and asked to form civilian scout units that could serve the military in this war. I am not talking about teaching, although that could happen. I am talking about actually using civilian scout trackers, just like we did in the past.

Because if we want to track these vermin (al qaeda, taliban, etc.) back to their little rat holes, and in all of these crappy countries these rats want to live in, then we are going to need some rat hunters to track them down. If the military doesn't want to develop the capability, then private industry will certainly step up and answer the call--just like we did during the Indian Wars.


Mon, 12/13/2010 - 2:10pm

Couldn't agree more. While the allure of complex, big, expensive, and visually impressive munitions and technology makes for nice videos on the television I would bet a large sum that the primitives we are currently fighting would be greatly impacted by an army that they cannot shake from their trail. I say outfight them with timeless skills coupled with our flashy stuff. I feel this will erase some of their bravado and reduce the attraction of jihad to the younger testosterone driven glory seekers. Especially if a campaign of leg shots could be implemented. Let them survive and be a self-propelled crippled billboard for the glory of allah.

rob rome (not verified)

Mon, 12/13/2010 - 9:49pm

The Marines have been on the ball with this for three or four years already. The "CombatHunter" program. I think you'll find that most soldiers and marines that have grown up in outdoor shooting and hunting sports families already have these tracking skills. It's just a matter of identifying these men and get them into the right position to take advantage of these skills.

BriMac (not verified)

Mon, 12/13/2010 - 11:29pm

I forgot that the British are delving into this as well. I recently spoke with some fellows from the King's Royal Hussars who were involved with the training.

BriMac (not verified)

Mon, 12/13/2010 - 11:27pm

Good stuff, there is definately a gap out there. I know that 2-393 IN BN, one of the 1st Army units down at Fort Hood has been working this hard of late, and is producing some stuff on Pressure, Pursue, Pos ID and Interdict as well as sending their NCOs to tracking schools and are in the process of establishing some combat tracking MTTs for the Army as well.


Wed, 12/15/2010 - 2:51pm

Mr. Hurth and Mr. Brokaw,

Great article. This is without a doubt a lost art and one that we could use in Afghanistan.

We could use this capability here.

I am familiar with the Marines "CombatHunter" is great training.

Thanks for the article.


Jim Gant


Thu, 12/16/2010 - 7:04pm

Very good article. I will disagree with one thing however. The use of dogs has a big advantage and I know from experance that a dog can track for longer than 20 minutes average if the correct type of dog is used. Tracking dogs were used successfully in Vietnam. Also a dog can alert and tell you of the presance of the enemy long before they can be dected by humans even if they are not tracking at the time.

I agree we need to use trackers more and train more tracking teams.

Side note--
Speaking of dogs, I think the military and civilian groups could benefit on a study about how to use dogs for security purposes. Specifically, using local dogs that a group might obtain in the field.

Of course you are not going to turn one of these muts into bomb sniffing dogs or attack dogs, but there might be some value in using the thing as an alarm/early warning sentry. Especially if there was any endorsed methods of training a mut puppy into a usable sentry type dog.

On some of my contracts, we used local dogs in this manner and it worked pretty good. Although the things tend to bark at anything that moves at night, to include animals, but still, the dogs were helping the guard force keep alert to anything outside the wire.

The other benefit is stress relief. You already see dogs on bases being used like this, and that is really cool. Although leaving the dog can be kind of traumatic.


Sun, 12/19/2010 - 2:56pm

Thanks everyone for all the great feedback. We have been working on this for quite a while and are glad to see that we are not alone in our way of thinking. We believe from each of our own combat experiences recently that a "Back to Basics" and "No Batteries Needed" approach is what is currently needed.

Matt- Your idea of using contractors as modern day trackers has been discussed before within certain Tracking communities. The potential problems of this lie in some of those contracting companies to hire quantity rather than quality (this has already started to happen within the Tactical and Military tracker training community) because they are trying to out bid other competing contracting companies which again creates the problem with hiring quality personnel.

Roger Smith- No doubt the ability to employ operational Trackers will impact the enemy not just in the approach of finding fixing and finishing the enemy but also the psychological effect that it will have on them and the local population that they recruit from. The enemy will have a harder time recruiting local villagers who are down on their luck to emplace IEDs or take part in other offensive actions for pay if they understand our soldiers will hunt them down relentlessly.

rob rome- You are correct the Marines have done a better job cultivating Track Awareness but the Combat Hunter Program does not produce competent operational Trackers. What it does do without a doubt is provide Marines with a set of skills that provide greater situational awareness, something that every combat arms soldier needs.

BriMac- I am aware of what is going on there as well and the training will undoubtedly be well received by the soldiers on the ground because it will be new to them. IMHO I do not believe the process in which it was conceived will help the Army. The problem with Visual Tracking programs in the past was that the wrong agency as well as the wrong people were in charge of the program for the wrong reasons and those programs never lasted the test of time. If the military is ever going to provide this type of training and employ it operationally it will have to do some serious quality control because it is the right thing to do for the soldiers who will be employing it.

Jim - You are right that this is a capability that could be employed in Afghanistan and it has on a small scale which has made a difference for those who have employed it, but not on the scale that it could have been. Im glad you enjoyed the article, De Oppresso Liber.

Ekaphoto- Thank you for your comments. I agree with you as well. K-9s are a great asset and a special asset at that. A lot of times K-9s are not available to every unit conducting an operation because there are not enough of them that can be employed. Our objective for the article was to highlight the capability gap that exists at the lowest level of our combat arms units to find, fix and finish an elusive enemy, while using doctrinal and historic references to back the argument for the employment of Visual Tracking techniques at the individual and collective level. As far as the 20 minute average, remember that was an average. You are very correct some K-9s can track longer than that based on breed, individual temperament, climate, training, handler as well as a bunch of other factors. We just wanted to make the point that Visual Tracking is a self reliant skill set that soldiers could employ during operations at their current MTO. The problem within the tracking community is that there has always been debate with Visual Trackers on one side and K-9 handlers on the other. The fact is that both have their pros and cons but when employed together as a cohesive specialized tracking team they are very effective when conducting a pursuit operation. This has been proven in many conflicts in the past which was the reason why we stood up tracking teams during Viet Nam. The problem though, was that not every unit was able to use this capability and after the war the Army deactivated them. I think having soldiers trained at an acceptable visual tracking level as per "doctrine" at PLT level is quite realistic with the possibility of a more specialized Tracking PLT capability at Bn or Bde level depending on whether or not the Army saw themselves conducting more centralized or decentralized operations in the future.

Thanks again for all your great comments.