A recent piece in MilitaryTimes stated that many of the young sergeants in most infantry and close-combat units don’t know how to maneuver their squads or do basic land navigation. For “soft skill” MOS’ that isn’t necessarily a show stopper, but for the infantry and combat arms types, that is a very bad sign that units aren’t doing proper training for their soldiers and leaders. For Special Operations troops, this lack of training will have a trickle-down effect.  

Last week we posted a piece about a soldier who was akin to “Ned the Navigator” and got lost on a Land Nav course. This, however, is no laughing matter.

If conventional infantry units aren’t doing proper training for their soldiers, when they become junior leaders, fire-team leaders, and squad leaders, then they, in turn, can’t properly train their soldiers. And it snowballs.

According to the same Military.com piece by Matthew Cox, the Army’s Noncommissioned Officer Academy is seeing sergeants routinely show up for courses unable to pass a basic land navigation course using a map and compass.

Those courses are a piece of cake compared to what they’ll see in Special Forces. The “Star Course” that SF candidates must pass is easily the toughest land navigation course in the Army and arguably the toughest in the military as a whole.

The majority of Special Forces candidates that fail at Selection and Assessment (SFAS) do so at Land Navigation and it requires every candidate to be on top of his… or her game. And if the E-4s, E-5s, and E-6s can’t do basic navigation at an NCO Academy they have next to zero chance of passing the Star course in Hoffman.

An example of this was back in the day when I went thru the Warrant Officer’s Candidate Course. There were a handful of Special Forces NCOs, a couple of CID NCOs and a whole bunch of high-school to flight school kids who wanted to fly Blackhawks. The CID guys didn’t have much practical experience with maps and compasses, so it was up to us to help out the class.

The cadre played up the difficulty of the course and told horror stories of so many candidates getting lost out in the forest and getting dropped from the course. The SF guys looked at one another and we knew there was no way this could be anywhere near the difficulty as we experienced at Camp Mackall. It wasn’t.

If memory serves right, we had a five-hour window in which to find all of our points and successfully return to the start/finish point. In less than an hour, the SF guys started trotting in. I arrived seconds before my best bud Wade Chapple, who was a frequent target of our Senior Tac Officer. “Are you lost Chapple?” the Senior Tac yelled. With a shit-eating grin, Wade answered, “no sir…just done.”

They checked over our scorecards where we had to mark down each of the points we found. “How is it you finished so fast,” the tac asked. “We’re trained to move out much farther and much faster with a ruck on our backs,” Wade said. “We ran to our points.”

The cadre seemed incredulous that someone can run thru the woods and navigate at the same time…they shouldn’t have. Thousands of SF troops who passed Land Nav at Camp Mackall have done just that. This was nothing more than a glorified compass course which most NCO Academy’s are.

According to cadre at the Henry Caro NCO Academy at Ft. Benning, GA, home of the Army’s Infantry, stated that 30 percent of the NCOs that show up can’t pass the diagnostic dismounted Land Navigation Course. That course is geared toward Skill Level 1 tasks. Many of the NCOs who failed to find the requisite 4-out-of-5 points said that they hadn’t practiced with a map, compass, and protractor for years in their units. That is flat-out wrong.

After my active duty career was over, I worked as a contractor and saw that the troops headed for Iraq were far too dependent on GPS and there was a definitive lack of map reading training taking place.

While that is fine in a  counter-insurgency environment in Third World countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, for example, but with the military services transitioning now to a large scale conventional battlefield against a foe of equal strength such as Russia or China, the threat of them blocking or jamming our GPS signals is very real. What happens then?

The Big Army is not doing right by its soldiers and NCOs in this case. Brigade and Battalion commanders have to cut back to the typical ash and trash details and let combat soldiers go back to train to succeed in what they’re supposed to do.

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NCOs are the backbone of the military services; when their training and technical competence isn’t up to par, the entire unit’s tactical and technical proficiency will suffer. Get the troops back to the basics and teach them the old way of “Shoot, move and communicate.”

We’re not even going to touch on the fact that most NCOs couldn’t hit their targets with iron sights, as they’ve become too dependent on optics…

Who’s ready to go to Land Navigation this week? It may be time to revisit some of our basic Land Navigation and Map Reading tasks in the very near future.

Photo: US Army