Michael's Dispatches

Wolfpack 105 – Start point

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18 December 2012

All tracking begins with a start point.  Start points can be found in many ways.

The Israelis create track traps in soft soil that are impossible to cross without leaving spoor.  Israeli forces make heavy use of trackers.

Zoologists create similar track traps when trying to locate elusive animals.  They follow the spoor.  Spoor has various definitions.  For use here, spoor is any and all sign made by animal, man, or machine.

image003-1000These crocodiles regularly jerk people off the shore and from boats. Every creature and every thing creates spoor, 24 hours per day. (Sundarbans, Bangladesh, 2012)

Many nocturnal animals are rarely if ever seen.  Scientists will find a suitable water hole, and they might use a rake to prep the soil.  At sunrise they check for spoor.

As a passive security measure, track traps may be used around homes or businesses.  US Border patrol uses track traps.  Singaporeans use tracking daily.

Every base defense force in Afghanistan should know where their natural traps are.  When possible, they should create traps for daily patrol.  Quick sweeps by helicopter or ground forces can be done as a sidebar to other missions.

Helicopters can reset the track traps using rotor wash.  They must be careful for emplacement of Chinese cannons, which are made by digging a hole, emplacing a charge, and putting rocks on top.

Chinese cannons can shoot down helicopters or jets even high in the sky.  Areas dotted with Chinese cannons can make formidable air defense for little investment in time and other resources.  Trackers should be able to spot many emplacements of Chinese cannons.

Using Chinese cannons, the enemy can put tons of rocks high in the sky for minutes on end and over a wide area.  We have no defenses other than tactics and courage against this sky-IED.

If there are no natural track traps, we can haul sand and make them.  A retired Green Beret and Delta Force man who read this in advance said they used a kind of popcorn-like material that contained a chemical that emitted an infrared signature.  When someone cracked the popcorn at night, they tracked an IR signature.

image005-1000Memorial for Soldiers in Afghanistan. Tracking is not a lost art or science. People track daily worldwide.

Start points occur at all crime scenes.  In combat, when an attack unfolds, such as an ambush or raid, the areas are furnished with massive spoor.  Shell casings.  Gear.  Blood.  Disturbance. It reeks of flame and man.  Sometimes it is still smoking. A tracker can read it by Braille.

When our Harrier squadron was mostly wiped out in Helmand a few months ago, and the attackers were killed (one captured), our people had their shoes and smoking craters as start points.

On a moonless night, the enemy breached perimeter defenses and destroyed our jets.  This was a made-for-Hollywood beginning to what could have been a vicious trackback and destruction or capture of facilitators.

We have the gear to track at night.  A Wolfpack could have backtracked miles in an hour.

I know the area. It was impossible for the enemy to hide spoor.  The Camp Bastion area is wide open for miles around.

Backtracking (passive) can be as important as active (forward) tracking.  Bets are on that other enemy support personnel were still at the layup.  A leader of the attack was hit long after, in a village that was on a predictable route.

image007-1000Norwegian Army is going back to basics. The tracking instructor in civvies is a retired UK Special Forces sergeant major. Nobody wants him and a Wolfpack tracking them up.

Some trackers cast for spoor on foot, ATV, horseback, and often by helicopter.  Motorbikes are great because they are fast, and slightly harder to hit with IEDs.  Using IR headlights, bikes are good for night, but that takes practice.

One problem with IEDs is merely speed.  When you are on foot, the enemy has more time to predict your route and to get the IEDs ahead.  Afghans are good at encirclement with IEDs and ambushes.

Sometimes they try to pin the unit with a diversion ambush so they have time for IEDs.  These will be fresh and hasty, and should be easily spotted.  The IEDs that they put in months in advance are our tough luck.  They are less likely to work, but hard to see.

In Rhodesia, enemies often attacked farms.  The reaction forces were fast, so they could use the helicopters to get to the start point.  Trackers would cast and fix a cone of travel, allowing the commanders to use tactical prediction to box the enemy.  They killed thousands, often by using CT (combat trackers, or tracking).

Constant practice of basic skills and drills are essential for this type of combat.  CTs frequently make hasty ambushes and get into close contact. This makes the basics especially important.

The US often fights farmers.  Farmers are keenly tuned into their environments, and their fields make natural track traps, and they go to the fields every day.  Many farmers make boobytraps.  They use shotguns with tripwires to ward off pigs and predators, making some farms natural danger areas in war and peace.

Their wealth is often in their livestock.  Cattle naturally wander off and so the kids track and bring them back. They naturally cast for spoor every day.

image009-1000A sniper without tracking is half a sniper.

Tracking provides intelligence.

Snipers—the rare real ones—will tell you that most of their work has nothing to do with shooting people.  Snipers are always on reconnaissance.

The end result is that snipers can kill more enemy with their eyes and radio than with the rifle.  Tracking is parallel.  Any sniper who has not taken serious tracking training is at best a half-trained sniper.

Given the danger that sniper teams themselves can be tracked up and taken down, it is gross negligence to deploy snipers who are not skilled combat trackers.

image011-1000Good men who unsuccessfully tried to save a comrade after he was shot during a firefight.

After attacks, spoor is massive.  Other than scheduling attacks during storms, there is little anyone can do to cover their trail when they are quickly leaving.

As an anti-tracking technique, we learned in the Army to take advantage of storms to move or to attack an enemy base.

In addition to hiding your tracks, the storm covers your sound and scent.  The enemy tends to duck out of the rain.  In Afghanistan, when the storms came, I kept my boots on even while at big bases.

image013-1000Combat often occurs at night.

The enemy, or you and me, cannot completely hide spoor even during bright daylight with a gratuity of time.  They often move at night, making it impossible to hide spoor, other than by selecting routes or conditions that mitigate creation or discovery.


image015-1000During a break in a firefight, a couple of A-10s laid cannons onto the enemy positions. The clouds are smoke from previous runs. Since we had no tracking capacity, all of the many firefights over the next couple of days were enemy-initiated. (To my knowledge.) And so we were reacting to him. No villagers told us where the enemy was. Enemy spoor was everywhere.

The US military is set to become the world’s foremost tracking organization, by blending basic skills with high tech and enormous mobility.

In Afghanistan, our optics on drones such as Predators often follow known targets.  Often we do not fire.

The crosshairs give coordinate readouts, and so picking up the track is a matter of going there and doing it.  Toggle the crosshairs on the enemy’s head.  Click the button to save the coordinates.  The Wolfpack has a start point and known cone of travel.

Every command-detonated IED strike leaves fresh spoor.  Every attack on a base leaves fresh spoor.  Even if the attack was done by rockets on a timer, there is fresh spoor.  The enemy does not set the timer for three days.  They set it for long enough to get away.  This might be ten minutes or an hour.   An hour is not long enough to escape a Wolfpack.

The Wolfpack can cast out to numerous missions without sinking their teeth into the enemy.  They create an intelligence picture.  They figure out how the enemy ingresses, dwells, and egresses.  Hunting includes coming back empty-handed sometimes, but they always pick up intelligence for future hunts.

They can pick up intelligence by finding spoor, or not finding spoor.  Both pieces are equally valuable.

In Iraq, our people would sometimes check the coordinates that were picked up after the enemy shot mortars.  Our counterbattery radar is fast and precise.  We can see where the rounds came from before they land.  So we would go look for base plate marks, which we would find, but nobody knew how to track from there.

Our radars also will pick up bullets.  We can see a firefight on radar when bullets fly high.  A helicopter can fly low to draw fire, and we can spot those bullets, and swoop in 30 seconds later with a Wolfpack that was on orbit over the ridge.

Ruses like this were common among the best commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We push out sniper teams, and then do a mission to somewhere, which the enemy is watching.

If they use phones or radios, we get it live.

We simulate a casualty and MEDEVAC (which using a red cross would violate Geneva Conventions; another reason to remove the red cross).

The snipers who got there the night before watch as the enemy starts putting out ambushes, and the snipers whack them.

Down in Somalia there is massive pirating.  The pirates often take hostages to shore, which we have on radar or by other means.  They then move the hostages inland by foot or vehicle.  SEAL trackers could be dispatched to ascertain direction, with backup teams on ship ready to hit.

image016-1000CH 47 creating Kopp-Etchells Effect during combat resupply. The rotor wash was blowing me away, making a good photograph difficult. This beast made a start point.

When the enemy is leaving an attack, he tends to stay in about a 45-degree cone.

Routes are predictable by looking at the terrain.  At this point, a Wolfpack commander might not need the trackers because he can put ambushes in all the likely routes, and push the enemy into ambushes, as per normal tactics.

In Vietnam, our people used sensors, and sometimes would fire artillery or mortars when the sensors tripped.  They would fire at predesignated spots where they thought the enemy would be when the projectiles arrived.

Under many ROE (Rules of Engagement), our people will not be permitted to fire when a sensor trips.  The sensor is a start for hot track.

image018-1000Photos, finger prints, and eye scans. Many Afghans do not have fingerprints due to farm work. But they all have footprints, except for one story I heard. As I recall, there was an Afghan with no legs, who rode on the back of an Afghan with no arms. The man on the back provided the arms in exchange for use of the other man’s legs.

Sometimes we track enemy by drones and do not fire because the platform is unarmed, but we have coordinates and video to the fresh tracks.

Many times I have watched unarmed drone feeds, and frustrated Soldiers who could not attack a known enemy simply because they had no missile on the bird.  Or they were watching from a powerful camera, miles away on base.  This is common.

image020-1000We do not own the night. When the weather is good and birds are up, and the enemy does not have shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, we dominate at night. But when the skies are cloudy or the weather is bad, it remains man vs. man. Desert is often man vs. man, while jungle is always man vs. man.

During an instance last year, two known bombers (they’d just planted a bomb) disappeared into light vegetation and trees.  Under the ROE, continuous observation was required to engage.  Even if they’d reemerged from the other side, our people no longer could fire because the drone had lost sight.

image022-1000During this mission, we came in by helicopters, so the enemy had a good start point. We moved through their fields.

The copse of trees represented an island to fix the enemy.  They could not leave without crossing open farmland.  Granted, it was a large area under the trees, but it was an island.  A Wolfpack could narrow it quickly.

image024-1000US Soldier using body bag for sleeping bag. Our boots and large formations are easy to follow.

This was a perfect case for “vertical envelopment.”  Helicopters were parked just a few hundred meters from the HQ.  Those Blackhawks, Apaches, and Kiowas were about ten minutes’ flight from the tree stand.

It takes about six minutes to launch a Blackhawk, so our Wolfpack could be there in less than twenty minutes.

Jets were in the area.

image026-1000

The commander could have directed that F-18s dive low and loud in a “show of force,” with intention on pushing the enemy to stay hidden in the copse.

This is a common CT tactic.  Wolfpacks want the enemy to hide, or to run.  Either way works.  Running can be safer because we can get them from air or ambush, but hiding is fine.

image028-1000Combat operations in Kandahar, 2011.

image030-1000Kiowa pilots often spot tracks. (Photo credit US Army, Afghanistan.)

Three Blackhawks can carry about sixty combat-loaded men.  Twenty minutes after the enemy disappeared into the copse, the Wolfpack commander could have emplaced blocking elements, or blocked with the airborne helicopters.  The men are unlikely to leave the copse with Kiowas and Apaches buzzing around.

An old hunting technique involves a large group of villagers who form a large circle.  They make noise and close the circle until all the animals are forced into the center, where the villagers dispatch them with arrows.


image032-1000Crossing farmers' fields during combat mission.

At the copse, a Wolfpack should be able to make a match on shoes in the farmer’s field.

image034-1000The bomb-detecting gear and dogs are of limited use. The Soldier who gets blown up often is far back down the line. He might be man number twenty. Soldiers carry ladders because they are constantly climbing walls.

At least one Afghan came out of the copse.  He pulled himself onto a tractor and drove away.

Our people frequently use helicopters to stop vehicles. They blast rotor wash until you are blown off the motorbike, or cannot see out of the windshield from the dust and dings.  The pilots can do this with surprise.

The bad guys are driving along suddenly they are dusted out.  They can no longer see the road, and a minigun is pointed at the windshield.  Unless they have suicide vests, they tend to stop.  The suicide vests were a dangerous technique in Iraq.

It would be easy to follow the tractor, stop it with a helicopter, and confirm or deny if the tracks in the field led to the man on the tractor, while the other Wolves entered the copse.

image036-1000This small helicopter package, along with a couple of Kiowas for scouting, would be hell in the hands of a Wolfpack commander.

Bets are on that there was a cache in the copse.  The Rhodesians could pull off such attacks in an hour or two, and be back for lunch.

image038-1000A fragless artillery round could be designed to frighten enemy into hiding after an attack. We often take fire on the bases, but the fire comes from populated areas. Wolfpack guns could fire noisemakers while Wolfpack boards the helicopters. After an IED, fragless rounds could be fired within minutes into the area, to pin down or drive the enemy while the Wolfpack assembles.

The Rhodesians and Namibians sometimes tracked cattle because the enemy stole cattle for food or money.  Guerrilla armies often steal flocks and herds.

image040-1000The medic on the right was a good man. He saw much combat. Greater tracking skills would reduce his workload.

Some Rhodesian pilots became especially good at picking up sign from the helicopters, which normally is best done in early morning or late afternoon.

image042-1000Most Afghans have few electronics, which can be good and bad for SIGINT tracking. They often have small radios.

Strong tracking skill forces the enemy to use track discipline, which wastes his time, and also forces him into areas that he may not want to go, which helps with sensor placement.

The Rhodesians used electronic tricks, such as the “road runner” commercial transistor radios.  They distributed the road runners by various means in likely areas.  When the enemy heard helicopters, they would turn off the radios, which turned on the hidden transponder.

image044-1000The excellent Air Force JTACs wore different boots than the Army Soldiers. This is a common clue for trackers that they are specialized forces or attachments.

The Rhodesians had a handful of worn-out aircraft, and “Faced with an insurgency in sparsely inhabited African bush in a country the size of the State of Montana, limited their ability to field more than 1,500 fighting men on any one day in the years 1966–1980… ” (Counter-Strike from the Sky: The Rhodesian All-Arms Fireforce in the War in the Bush, by J.R.T. Wood)

CT was a force multiplier.


image046-1000During a firefight, an enemy tracer ricocheted into the compound we were in, and set this man’s hay ablaze. The farmers worked to extinguish the blaze.

image048-1000After the fire started, this Soldier saved this child. The boy had hidden in a building from the fire or the firefight, and likely would have died from smoke inhalation. This Soldier saw the problem and took action.

image050-1000That night, the fire rekindled and destroyed all the hay. We were surrounded by spoor, and followed none.

With what the British Army combat tracking school taught me in only three weeks, it was frustrating that we were not tracking down and killing these Taliban.  We did get at least one kill the day the hay burned, courtesy of the Air Force.

A Predator was covering us and spotted an enemy.  I heard the Hellfire shot but did not see it until back on base, where I saw the video.

The Taliban target heard the Hellfire launch.  He bolted like a deer.  He was jumping the string.

Normally, after you see them bolt, they have seven or eight seconds to live.   The Hellfire launch is loud. The missile climbs, arcs, and dives to the target, so the sound gets there long before the missile.

The Air Force keeps the laser on him.  The man was running and then took a direct Hellfire shot.

To avoid being killed in Hellfire strikes, the enemy uses the same method that is used in anti-tracking.  They “bombshell.”  They did this often in Iraq, and so our people found ways around it.  This has been a normal enemy combat drill in Afghanistan for at least three years when I first saw it there.

The Hellfire is not powerful.  It is like a gigantic hand grenade, laser guided.  So the enemy bombshells and everyone runs in different directions.

Dropping flat is great during small-arms contacts, but in a Hellfire strike you must RUN.  Laying flat means a Hellfire in the back.

The missile can follow one target.  The Predator people are watching before firing.  They try to determine the leader, so that when the enemy bombshells, the Air Force (or CIA) can keep the laser on him.

The sad part is that those Predators have perfect coordinates to the tracks of any survivors, and a Wolfpack could finish the job, but we never do.

image052-1000Mission in Afghanistan. Every step is a word in a story.

image054a-1000Photo credit US Army.

When I was in Special Forces, we trained that only two Soldiers would go to fetch water for the team of twelve men.  More people down at the creek left more sign where the enemy is likely to cast for spoor, or to catch it by chance.

So the water crew would go around and fetch everyone’s canteens, which you tied to parachute cord and filled.  Every time they walked to the water, they took a slightly different route to avoid tramping down an obvious path.  Trackers cast along water.

image056-1000Kiowas could find many start points. Kiowa Wolfpacks could finish many of them without need of ground Wolves.

Last year, in Nimroz Province, Afghanistan, there was an ambush which might have been meant for our small group.  I was not with the military.  We are unsure who the ambush was for, but it was suspicious with place and timing.

image059a-1000Area of the Nimroz Ambush.

When the ambush kicked off, I was not there.  The Afghans tracked and chased the enemy for about fifty miles, as memory serves, before killing most of them.

One was bleeding and got away.  The Afghans said he went the direction of the desert, away from the water, and so he would surely die.

I visited the ambush site because it was on the way to a water project I was researching.  We are preparing the Afghans to cut off water to a part of Iran, which could lead to a water war.  That is a story that I never told.  It deserves a major piece.  As for combat, it was a perfect situation for a Wolfpack response.

The enemy cone of travel was known.  They headed south, in the opposite direction of the ambush.

To their right (east) was the Iranian border.   They could not cross there.  To their south and west was desert.  It was an easy track and pursuit.  Afghan forces finally pushed the enemy into a firefight.

That was a great track that I sadly missed, and only got to see the evidence, photographs, and hear the accounts.  Unfortunately, the Police chief who was in charge was killed last week (December 2012) in another ambush.

The Afghans Wolfpacked them with Toyota pickups instead of helicopters or jets.

image060-1000Trackers can often determine some of the gear that is being carried. Natives often do not make good combat trackers. For example, even a great native tracker will not know what weapon made the marks on the ground. CTs should be combat troops.

Some of the most interesting contacts unfold when skilled trackers are hunting other skilled trackers.  When CTs are hunting men who know nothing about tracking, the stories are less interesting.  It is more like following cattle.

image062-1000Ammo resupply after a deadly firefight last year.

Tracker against tracker can read more like Tom Clancy submarine warfare.  Every trick has a counter, and a counter-counter, and often the roles reverse and the hunter becomes the hunted.

It does not matter how stealthy the hunter/quarry.  Both still leave sign, and when they go “active,” such as firing or launching a torpedo, action speeds up.

image064-1000Shot in the ribs and saved by body armor. Another Soldier was killed in this firefight. The enemy was close but we had no way to track them.

The US military can remain in denial about the criticality of combat tracking.  For many of our enemies, is as common sense as marksmanship.

Stay tuned for Wolfpack 106

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jacob Theodore · 6 years ago
    In the Vietnam war, a lot of men and material came south along the so-called Ho Chi Minh trail. Of course, it wasn't a single trail, that would have been instantly interdictable. Instead, there were networks of routes through almost impenetrable jungle. What was done to track the enemy was both interesting and could not be turned around on us. If you take a certain kind of glass and reduce it to particular size particles, it will selectively reflect back particular wavelengths of infra-red light. You then fly over that jungle and spread it over the vegetation where it coats it. People and vehicles moving down through these areas disturb the particles which fall off the vegetation to the ground. Planes flying over with infrared searchlights and infrared imaging devices, will capture imagery that shows where glass particles were dislodged a men and vehicles passed. Subsequent rain would 'clear the screen' and new glass particles would be laid down for new travelers to disturb.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    tarawa1943 · 6 years ago
    Jacob, outstanding! Trip wire has worked for decades.....just hide it well.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jacob Theodore · 6 years ago
    Maybe I shouldn't have mentioned that bit of information. I'm pretty sure it was classified at the time, but that was what, forty years ago?
    • This commment is unpublished.
      tarawa1943 · 6 years ago
      hmmm 49 years for some of us.... declassified long ago.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jacob Theodore · 6 years ago
    .... works so well that it's usefulness outlasts its automatic declassification and then goes into a sort of routine, low profile practice under the radar and remains effective because generations have passed and the present generations never heard of it, and don't practice any counter measures. I'm sure there are people who are not friendly, who monitor this and other forums, who would pick up on that 'ancient' technique and be on the lookout for it. I made the possible error of mentioning something that I unconsciously thought of as obsolete, but upon reconsideration might just not be.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Craig · 6 years ago
    What's the story behind that boot in the first photo? Pretty arresting image, there.

    These posts are fascinating.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Nani · 6 years ago
    What I'd like to figure out is how to grow pot in a rainforest, without Green Harvest spotting your plants, or trail.

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