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The Combat Tracking Team
Marine Corps Gazette | Lt Col Matthew A. Day | January 23, 2007
Today’s high-tech battlefield often resembles, what was once in the not so distant past, science fiction. Quantum leaps in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) technology have armed American strategic, operational, and tactical commanders with a wide range of tools to execute their missions. These technologies enhance the commander’s ability to find, fix, and destroy an adversary in mid- to highintensity conflicts.(1) Consider Operations DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM. American technology enabled coalition forces to seize operational and tactical momentum, quickly exceeding the capability of the Iraqis to react. Ironically, and despite American technological superiority, the former Iraqi Ba’athist regime members are now using guerrilla tactics to challenge coalition forces in Iraq -- sometimes exceeding American capability to react.

American technology allowed the United States to prevail easily in DESERT SHIELD/STORM. The United States demonstrated that if it can find an adversary on the ground and identify him, the ability to destroy him is above 80 percent. Locating (or finding), the first step in the sensor-shooter relationship, is an easy task when the targets are tanks and static defensive positions in the desert.(2) Future adversaries will seek to adapt and to avoid the overwhelming capability that the United States brings to the fight. Future adversaries will not mass until moments before they act, thus avoiding being “targets.” Additionally, adversaries will take advantage of places where America’s technology does not work -- in the cellars of buildings or in caves, where technology cannot find or identify them. In Iraq we see insurgents employing many of these techniques -- techniques that the United States last saw in Vietnam.

In Iraq the United States faces an insurgency that uses guerrilla tactics and acts of terror. Guerrilla tactics have long frustrated counterinsurgent forces. Chief among these tactics is the ability of the adversary to strike and then disappear into the indigenous population. C.E. Callwell posited in his work, Small Wars, “In small wars the field intelligence department is often greatly hampered by this difficulty in eliciting correct information from the people of the country.”(3) Previously, forces that lacked human intelligence capabilities developed organic scouting and tracking capabilities to locate and destroy guerrilla forces. The U.S. Army maintained combat tracking teams (CTTs), units designed to track enemies on the battlefield, until 1975. The CTT consisted of soldiers trained in visual tracking coupled with a tracking dog.

Currently, the military tracking program uses visual trackers without augmentation by tracking dogs.(4) More often than not only special operations forces and reconnaissance elements of the Army and Marine Corps practice visual tracking. It is a skill not taught in basic military schools. Unit commanders frequently develop tracking training on their own, seeking assistance from contractors, in contrast to Vietnam where CTTs served alongside regular infantry formations and military schools taught tracking.(5)

This article proposes that the Marine Corps develop and retain a CTT capability in support of ground combat element (GCE) operations. Such a capability permits the counterinsurgent to gain intelligence on insurgents quickly without having to rely on indigenous sources or technical means. The article will also review the current requirements that the CTT could fulfill along with rival tactical and technological solutions.

Signs and Tracking Defined

A sign is any physical indication that is left on or in the environment by an adversary. A sign could be a mark left on the ground by the passage of a person or object. Examination of signs reveals information about the enemy. Tracking is the effort to close with and apprehend or destroy a fleeing adversary. Inherent in tracking is the ability to locate, identify, and pursue by interpreting a series of signs. Simply put, tracking is following and interpreting signs.

The Requirement: The Security Environment -- the ‘Long War’

Since 2001 the United States has been at war. This war is different from previous American conflicts. It is characterized by operations in which the adversary is not the regular military force of a nation-state. In many cases, actions occur simultaneously on many continents in countries with which the United States is not formally at war. The adversaries are not nation-states but dispersed nonstate networks -- a global insurgency. The United States has been engaged in many countries, fighting terrorists and helping partners to police and govern their nations. To succeed in such operations, the United States must often take an indirect approach, building up and working with others. It is a struggle that may last for many years to come.

The March 2005 National Defense Strategy acknowledges that the United States maintains considerable advantages in traditional forms of warfare. However, the strategy also states that traditional warfare is not the only, or even the most likely, manner in which adversaries will challenge the United States. Some, such as nonstate actors, will choose irregular warfare, including terrorism, insurgency, or guerrilla warfare, in an attempt to break our will through protracted conflict. Many states will seek capabilities designed to disrupt or negate traditional U.S. advantages. Consider the insurgents in Iraq.

As the United States attempts to locate insurgents at the tactical level in Iraq it is challenged in three respects. First, the vastness of the country inhibits the ability of coalition forces to observe everything at once. Second, particularly in the densely populated cities and towns, insurgents can move from house to house through back alleys and underground passages. Insurgents are constantly on the move and are particularly careful about using mobile phones and other means of electronic communications. Insurgents skillfully manage to evade detection eluding even the most sophisticated coalition electronic surveillance. Third, as Werner Heisenberg and Col John Boyd, USAF(Ret) observed, the process of observation changes what is being observed.(6) Insurgents study coalition forces’ tactics, techniques, and procedures in order to evade detection.(7)

The United States faces a protracted conflict and an adaptive enemy in Iraq. The Department of Defense (DoD) has recognized this fact in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review. The report specifically highlights the need for persistent surveillance to find and precisely target enemy capabilities in denied areas as well as capabilities to locate, tag, and track terrorists in all “domains.” There is no single technology that will render a comprehensive solution to locating insurgents. The United States must develop capabilities that allow it to locate insurgents by methods other than technological surveillance. It will require the pooling of intelligence and surveillance assets with improved capabilities on the ground that will yield success against insurgents. To that end, Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 2 (MCDP 2), Intelligence, states:

Sources of information must be appropriate to the nature of the particular intelligence requirement; that is, the collection method or capability used must be appropriate to the aspect of the enemy or the environment about which information is needed. For example, electronic intelligence will likely be of little use against a technologically unsophisticated enemy; human intelligence sources will generally be more valuable. We must tailor the sources to the requirement, ensuring that we exploit both the observations of units in direct contact with the enemy and our more sophisticated sensors.(8)

The challenge then is to develop the capability to locate, tag, and track a technologically “unsophisticated enemy.” The CTT is one such capability.

A Solution: CTTs

Latency is the largest problem in locating a fleeing enemy. The delay in reporting and communicating through various levels of command contributes to latency. The way to negate latency in an organization is to have a “like” capability at every level. This capability speeds the process by which the observer is able to orient and act to destroy his target. The joint surveillance and target attack radar system provides the joint force commander the ability to conduct airborne surveillance and target acquisition. The Marine airground task force commander possesses organic unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) and reconnaissance units with which to conduct surveillance and target acquisition. However, at the regiment and below, this capability becomes limited. Introduction of CTTs into the battalion or below would give the commander a tracking capability he currently does not possess. The CTT concept is efficient and proven. Of course, there are disadvantages to the CTT, but due to the lack of alternatives, the CTT should be implemented within the Marine Corps.

CTTs: Concept

The Marine Corps should develop and retain a CTT capability in support of GCE operations. The primary missions of a CTT would consist of gaining information about the enemy in order to provide useful intelligence to commanders. In addition, if required, the second mission would be to locate the enemy in order to destroy him.(9)

The CTT should consist of a tracking dog, a dog handler, and a team of four Marines trained in visual tracking skills.(10) It is important to note that the tracking dog is not a weapon. The tracking dog is a sensor that allows the handler and tracker to increase their radius of perception. As such, the handler and tracking team must be capable of scouting and tracking in order to make the CTT concept viable.(11) The CTT would fulfill its missions by identifying and acquiring a track from sign or scent. Tracking dogs are trained to follow only one scent on the ground. Dogs acquire a scent, usually by sniffing an enemy footprint or blood trail identified at an incident site. The dog then follows this scent picture amid hundreds of other odors on the trail. This scent is as unique as a person’s fingerprint or written signature.

The use of a tracking dog coupled with a visual tracker is the preferred construct of a CTT. Employment as a team enables both the dog and visual tracker to work to their fullest potential; their skills complement one another. A dog can follow a specific scent on the ground or in the air but cannot read visual signs left behind by those it is tracking. The dog often follows a circuitous route when tracking via scent. However, it can maintain a track over many surfaces that a visual tracker cannot, particularly in urban or rocky terrain were there is less chance of visual signs. In that regard a tracking dog can continue to track while a visual tracker may not locate any sign to track. Conversely, a visual tracker is trained to read signs through reduction and deduction, obtaining valuable information from signs. By deductive reasoning, the visual tracker can aid the dog in using visual clues from signs. The tracking team can then work ahead and take shortcuts to shorten the gap between the team and the enemy it is pursuing. The team concept is not limited solely to the CTT.

Attached and employed in support of a combined arms team within the GCE, a CTT can speed the supported commander’s efforts in tracking the enemy. Once given the primary direction of travel by the CTT, the supported commander can employ his organic ISR assets in order to close the gap in pursuit of the enemy. For example, once the CTT gives the commander the enemy direction of egress from an ambush sight, he can then employ a UAS along the projected enemy route. Conversely, if a UAS is tracking an enemy vehicle in which the occupants stop, go to ground, and elude surveillance, the CTT can pick up the track from the vehicle location and continue the pursuit.

The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) employs tracking dogs and teams in support of its operations.(12) The CTTs are a critical link in the sensor-shooter cycle against infiltration operations along the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Israeli Security Authority provides realtime intelligence through its channels that is then verified through Israeli Air Force UASs and other aerial platforms. Sometimes an infiltrator’s track will be lost by electronic surveillance, particularly if the infiltrator enters an urban environment. Field commanders then employ CTTs to regain the pursuit. The IDF centrally manages its military working dog (MWD) program by maintaining a battalion consisting of MWDs, the Oketz Battalion.

CTTs: Disadvantages

There are disadvantages to creating and maintaining a CTT with an MWD. Disadvantages are well known, thus militaries can reduce them. The use of MWDs does involve a significant investment in training time and veterinarian support. Most militaries, such as the IDF, centrally manage large MWD programs to mitigate disadvantages and gain efficiencies.

The complexity and challenges associated with training dogs and handlers cannot be overstated. The time required to train a combat tracking dog may vary from 180 to 260 days for a dog that is capable of backtracking. Training methods must be tailored to the individual MWD and its handler. Each MWD is unique and possesses its own personality. Some are quick to learn and others are slow-witted. Some cooperate and others are stubborn. Trainers frequently do not know what to expect until the MWD and handler start working together.(13) Additionally, it is the consensus of most MWD trainers that it is best to keep the same MWD and handler together throughout the initial training and employment.(14)

The Marine Corps does not possess organic veterinary support and relies on the Army for such support. Veterinary support includes physical examinations, vaccinations, and weekly weight monitoring to ensure a proper diet. At its major U.S. installations, Army veterinarians support the Marine Corps. However, once deployed it becomes a challenge for Marine MWD teams to receive proper veterinary support. This challenge affects MWD employment if a deployed Army veterinarian does not directly support them. Potentially, MWDs may spend less time performing their missions if they require care and need to be transported to a veterinarian. However, a well-thought-out employment plan -- that is, one that creates a rotation plan that allows MWDs to train, work, and refit -- can mitigate this disadvantage. There is an investment in resources required in order to establish a CTT with an MWD. The investment appears less significant upon the realization that there are few alternatives.

CTTs: Alternatives -- the ‘Four-Footed Radar’

Technology cannot, for now, replicate the unique sensory capabilities of an MWD. The olfactory capability in particular is the subject of many industry studies. Most studies indicate that industry is at least 20 years away from creating a similar technological capability. For a human, the olfactory center in the brain is about 1/2 square inch in size, compared to 20 square inches of tissue for an average dog. Researchers know very little other than that. They do not know how or why a dog uniquely processes scent the way it does.(15)

There are attempts by industry to develop other technological methods of tracking. Efforts are underway to refine the joint surveillance target attack radar system (JSTARS) capability; however, when adversaries enter urban areas where there is a great deal of clutter and masking, they challenge JSTARS’ ability to locate them. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is providing support for several projects that do show promise. Change detection using imagery is one such project. DARPA is also seeking to develop a system that would recognize chemical vapor signatures from a moving vehicle.(16) All of these capabilities, while promising, are still many years away from fielding.


At present, the United States finds itself in a new security environment, facing a protracted and adaptive global insurgency. As highlighted in the DoD 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, this new security environment will require persistent surveillance to find and precisely target enemy capabilities in denied areas, as well as capabilities to locate, tag, and track terrorists in all domains. The vastness of the requirement inhibits the ability of American forces to observe everything at once. Insurgents skillfully manage to evade detection, eluding even the most sophisticated American electronic surveillance. Human intelligence will become a premium in such an environment. However, the United States is handicapped in this regard as it has primarily focused on technological means for gathering intelligence.

Previously, when nations found themselves similarly challenged in facing guerrillas, they developed tracking teams in order to obtain much needed intelligence. The United States developed and maintained such a capability from the Indian Wars through the Vietnam War. Many of our allies have developed and continue to maintain a combat tracking capability using tracking dogs. All have enjoyed success, particularly when employed in conjunction with other ISR assets. The CTT that includes a tracking dog can provide a vital link in an integrated sensor-shooter loop that is otherwise thwarted when an enemy evades existing electronic detection and tracking means.

The Marine Corps should develop and retain a CTT capability in support of GCE operations. The CTT concept is efficient and proven. Centrally managed in support of the GCE, the CTT can provide an improved capability to the commander at a modest cost to the Service.


1. These capabilities require the fielding of an extensive intelligence network, integrating all types of ISR operations including persistent sensors (operating continuously), satellite imagery, aerial reconnaissance, elevated standoff aerial observation by long-range telescopes, and close-in views by UASs, mast mounted or aerostat tethered imagers, radars, and forward-looking infrared, etc. Other sources include unattended ground sensors designed to monitor suspected enemy locations and report on enemy activity and movements before an operation. Other means used to collect information include signals intelligence; surveillance systems, such as tracking radars; and infrared scanners and acoustic sensors, which can determine the location and concentration of suspected enemy.

2. The six-stage target cycle of find, fix, track, target, engage, and assess, also known as F2T2EA, sensor-to-shooter or, more simply, the “kill chain.”

3. Callwell, Col C.E., Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice, University of Nebraska Press, Bison Books, 1996, p. 49.

4. Today the United States makes use of a variety of MWDs, but none are tracking dogs. The Marine Corps is currently experimenting with a prototype tracking dog initiative that is funded by the technical support working group. The current U.S. MWD inventory consists of patrol/explosive dogs, patrol/drug detector dogs, explosive detector dogs, drug detector dogs, and specialized search dogs that search for explosives “off leash” at some distance from the handler.

5. A common source of contractors is the Tactical Tracking Operations School run by David Scott-Donelan, a former Selous Scout. This school is one of the only schools in the United States that teaches tracking skills. In late July 2005 the U.S. Army Intelligence Center conducted a 1-week pilot tracking course that was developed in large part by David Scott-Donelan. The Army has since created a formal combat tracking school at Fort Huachuca, AZ.

6. Werner Heisenberg is perhaps best known for the “Uncertainty Principle,” advanced in 1927, that states that determining the position and momentum of a particle necessarily contains errors. Robert Coram, in his biography of Col John Boyd, USAF(Ret), Boyd: the Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (Little, Brown and Company, 2002), offers a simplified example of the observer-observed relationship based on Heisenberg’s theories. People in a crowd, knowing a television cameraman is observing them, might wave, shout, or begin spontaneous demonstrations. The same crowd, knowing security officers are observing, might become subdued and decorous, or it might become confrontational. If we are aware that these changes take place we assess and recalculate our relationship with whatever it is we are observing. In other words, the process not only shapes what is being observed, but feedback reshapes the observer’s outlook. The television cameraman searches out people who are not waving. Security officers become more vigilant because they know people in the crowd are disguising their behavior. Thus a cycle begins that repeats again and again.

7. Hammes, Col Thomas X., The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century, Zenith Publishing, St. Paul, MN, 2004. “Combat Darwinism” also contributes to this phenomenon. As Hammes noted, coalition counterinsurgency operations kill the stupid and unlucky insurgents and, in doing so, improve the quality of those still fighting. Those who survive are smarter, more careful, and more effective. They have learned from the mistakes of others. As the elements of the insurgent network observe the action-reaction-counteraction cycle, they are learning what works and what doesn’t when it comes to fighting the U.S.-led coalition.

8. MCDP 2, Intelligence, Headquarters Marine Corps, 1997, p. 55.

9. The mission essential task list includes tracking enemy personnel who survive intelligence information, such as age of track, direction of travel, and composition of party; and identification of a specific individual out of a group.

10. The reason for the inclusion of four Marines is twofold. First, using four men enables the team to operate in a “diamond” formation. This formation allows the team to move more quickly and efficiently. Instead of stopping and reorienting point men, flankers, and trailers, the formation can simply rotate in a new direction of travel with either one of the flankers assuming the role of point. Second, four Marines provide additional protection. Historically, and more often than not, CTTs move more quickly than supporting infantry formations. Thus, they find themselves in contact with the enemy until the supporting unit can assist them.

11. Currently MWD handlers are military policemen (military occupational specialty (MOS) 58XX). This is due to the military law enforcement community assuming DoD Executive Agency responsibilities for MWD post-Vietnam. (Law enforcement was primarily interested in the MWD drug and explosive detection capability.) In Vietnam, U.S. Army CTTs consisted of infantrymen (MOS 11B and 11F). Interviews by the author indicate that the DoD MWD program manager and respective Service program managers are not resistant to infantrymen being trained to be MWD handlers. In fact, they all strongly encourage it.

12. Many countries maintain a CTT capability that includes tracking dogs, including (but not limited to) Great Britain, Israel, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

13. Lemish, Michael, War Dogs: Canines in Combat, Brassey’s, Inc., Washington/ London, 1996, p. 185.

14. The Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory and Auburn University are currently conducting a feasibility study that would ascertain whether it is possible to train an MWD in the continental United States with one handler and then ship the dog overseas. Once overseas, the MWD would be assigned a new handler and then would undergo a 10-day orientation period where the MWD and handler would familiarize themselves with one another. This program would allow the MWD to remain overseas while units would continue to rotate into and out of the theater. It is the consensus of most DoD MWD program managers that this concept is flawed due to the unique relationship and bonding between an MWD and handler gained through initial training. An MWD may respond during initial training and learn to track with one handler but then, when assigned a new handler, would not respond to tracking tasks. Toward the end of Vietnam a similar rotation concept was initiated within Army CTTs. The concept reduced the capability of the teams and proved inefficient as a significant amount of training time had to be rededicated to the MWD and its new handler.

15. Lemish, p. 218. 16. DARPA, accessed 17 February, available at http://www.darpa.mil/.

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