Note: This is part of a series. You can read parts one, two, three, four, and five here.
In 2001, the Army opened the Combatives School at Ft. Benning, Georgia, and began formulating training and protocols for this new mixed martial arts-based combatives system, further analyzing and preparing the soldier for close-quarters battle. In 2002, the U.S. Army officially adopted MACP and issued the first Army MACP FM manual, FM 3-25.150. This was a major step up for the Army and allowed major improvements. MACP is modular and adaptable to unit needs and training time constraints. MACP instructor selection is unique to each unit and is based on who is on hand and what they know. Although still lacking in the way of standardization, this was still much better than what existed previously. But, as good as MACP is, in time it became clear to Special Forces that MACP was a good fit for the Army, but not for SF. Not completely.
The story of Army combatives manuals offers some insights. FM 21-150 COMBATIVES was first published in 1954 and last published in 1992. It had evolved over the years, but still retained its traditional influences of bayonet (Repeat after me: “Parry! Thrust!”) and e-tool, pit construction, obstacle courses, pugil stick training, and some new and old judo and karate influences and techniques such as punches, throws, pressure points, and even a six-foot pole many martial artists refer to as a “Bo.”
“Stick with what we know,” must have been the dominant logic. A major problem with 21-150 was that it was too vague in the training of qualified instructors or to serve as a system for fluid implementation across all units, and relied too much on the “commander’s discretion.” It did not put everyone on one sheet of music.
FM 3-25.150 replaced 21-150, was first published in Jan 2002, and was last published in April 2009. The current manual is TC 3-25.150 and is, essentially, the FM without the competition rules. It is not available for public access. Army military police have their own combatives manual, which derives much from the influence of MACP. It is known as ATP 3-39.35.
SOCP hand-to-hand combatives
In 2007, SWC officially adopted MACP. A year later, in 2008, the Special Warfare Center (SWC) officially dropped LINE, adopted MACP, and Matt Larson was put in charge of that effort. Around that same time, Greg Thompson was training various units on Bragg in combatives. Matt and Greg met and discussed adapting MACP to fit SF. Greg had already developed many of the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) that would become SOCP. Matt took many of those back to MACP. Karl Haskins also entered the picture around this time. Karl had been teaching combatives to various SOF units on Bragg using the SPEAR system, a system devised by Tony Blauer in Canada in the 1980s, based on natural human reflex actions.
It was this collaboration between Greg, Karl, and Matt that led ultimately to SOCP, which was fine-tuned MACP for SF. The SOCP evolution and development out of MACP persists to this day, as the two systems, and their instructors, share a mutually beneficial relationship which allows them to cross-pollinate and improve one another. Also in 2007, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) issued a concept of operations (CONOP) stating, “The CSA (Army chief of staff) has directed that every soldier will experience actual hands-on combatives training prior to deploying.” USACS, U.S. Army combatives school, had been instructing 20,000 soldiers per year since 2001. That number was about to escalate dramatically.
In 2008, AFSOC picked up LINE. They never officially adopted it, but some AFSOC units did use it for several years. They dropped LINE when that system’s gaps and shortcomings came to light in public and military reports. In light of that, the Air Force chief of staff shut down all Air Force combatives training and formed a review committee to determine how training should move forward.
Eventually the Air Force came out with AFCP, which derived from MACP. It was adapted for their culture and units, particularly for their spec-ops units. Two Air Force personnel recently told me that they have seen it and trained with it, but only rarely. Their SOCOM units train with it regularly. Ground game was lacking in previous combatives programs of the SOF and across the entirety of the military. They had not taught operators to go to and grapple on the ground. Throws allow for the soldier to take his enemy to the ground, but no one ever allowed for inevitability of the soldier and his enemy both going to the ground in a jumble of arms and legs, weapons and equipment, and the tactical chaos this presents.
Matt Larson and Greg Thompson did one key thing in their program that no previous combatives program did, as far as I can tell: They did a lot of talking and listening. From thousands of post-deployment interviews with soldiers, SOF, and other units, they gathered information and insights that helped them to constantly improve their programs, just as they expect their soldiers and students to do—to adapt and innovate. Previous systems and programs—possibly with the exception of Sykes and Fairbairn—relied on instructors and masters in traditional, non-military systems to build their systems.
MACP and SOCP, LINE and MCMAP, they all continue to have critics. The most common criticisms are that they do not teach enough striking, especially hands and feet, and that they teach soldiers too much ground fighting—that in combat one does not want to go to the ground too easily—and that none of them include dirty tricks in their training, such as eye-gouging, biting, hair pulling, groin attacks, throat/trachea strikes and snatches, etc.
When I went through Special Forces training in 1982, we were taught three primary hand-to-hand strike zones: the eyes, throat, and groin, and we were to use them in combat only—not in bars. Traditional martial arts systems are indeed focused on fighting and self-defense. But most assume and train for one-to-one scenarios. Combat hand-to-hand is another animal entirely, not like being in a ring or on a mat, and is often not one-to-one. You don’t have time to slug it out or have a wrestling match with an opponent. You have to quickly and efficiently prevail over your opponent, meaning restrain or kill him, until your guys show up, or before his do.
In combat, he who gains or maintains control of the weapon, or weapons, even if the struggle goes to the ground, usually survives. In how many karate dojos have you seen that particular insight taught? Senseis in traditional systems such as karate and TKD rarely seek their student’s input and insights in improving, changing, their system. Karate does not traditionally provide for gaining control of a pistol or rifle because when karate originated, there were no pistols or rifles.
(Note: I realize that many karate instructors do include weapons drills, to include knives and pistols. But that is outside traditional protocols, and when done, it is only because someone within that lower chain of command recognized the need. And most karate dojos still teach their students in the use of antiquated weapons, such as sais, kamas, and nunchaku, for the sake of tradition. But, never take a nunchuck to a gun fight, and especially not on a combat deployment.)
There are still many non-sanctioned systems being taught throughout SOF units, to units that have connections to instructors—guys who are often former SF, SEALs, or whatever. That will not change, and some do not like that. But, if the goal is to get all soldiers, Marines, and special operators acquainted with and trained up in some sort of hand-to-hand or combative system that will help them to survive and prevail in the battlespace, then one has to wonder if it matters all that much just what system each operator is trained in, as long as he is trained and has the requisite skills.
Read Next: Special Operations hand-to-hand combat: Modern Era
There is also the logic that combatives are like languages: The more languages you speak, the deeper your understanding of languages in general, and the use of words in particular. Traditional systems have not typically seen it in their interest to open up their houses to innovation and change, to provide for modern combatives. (This is ironic since all were devised out of necessity, intended to be combatives in their inception.) Therefore, they are deficient in providing the necessary skills for modern combatives.
Traditional martial arts systems, just like traditional cultures, are not concerned with adapting. They are concerned with preservation. They do not want change. They want control. This is, to a great extent, responsible for the proliferation of hybrid systems throughout U.S. martial arts and throughout the U.S. military and SOCOM. All of the SOF martial arts and combatives instructors who I know and have talked to for this article have developed their own system.
There two reasons for this. One: Traditional, older systems did not fill the needs of the modern warrior, not entirely, and thus needed to be adapted to do that. And, two: When one masters an art, whether it be music or martial arts, at some point that individual is driven to create or develop his or her own style or system in response to the weaknesses or shortcomings of the systems or styles from whence his or her skills were trained and formed. The needs of the current battlespace require operators and all soldiers to be masters of CQB, which requires solid combatives skills, without the training process taking many years. In CQB situations, even with rifles and pistols hot, there will be some putting of hands on the enemy, and it doesn’t always go the way the soldier hopes or plans. So, he or she needs to be ready, mentally, to adapt and respond to whatever happens.
Thus, creativity and adaptation are keys to effective combatives training—the freedom to innovate and adapt, to go outside the training and find what works. Most traditional systems do not allow for that. They demand obedience and control. The reason? Most of them are more interested in building business and retaining clients than they are in teaching students to survive. This has given rise to a large community of SOF instructors and systems, both officially sanctioned, like MACP and SOCP, and unsanctioned, and that list is long. There are also those who are training SOF units and operators across the SOCOM spectrum, some of whom are, of course, critics of the sanctioned systems.
No system, instructor, politician, movie, or song will ever please everyone. The key is to touch and train as many as possible, effectively. So, current SOF combatives programs, SOCP, MCMAP, AFCP, MACP, and whatever else is brewing out there, continue to adapt and evolve to fit the current battlespace, and will continue to do that until some new weapon, tactic, or factor requires a new set of tactics and techniques, such as the robot or cyborg apocalypse. Have any ideas on how to effectively engage a robot in hand-to-claw close combat? Really? You do? Hold onto that, because Matt, or Greg, or their successors, may someday want to talk to you.
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