Have Soldiers Forgotten How to Use a Map and Compass?

Pennsylvania Army National Guard soldier using a lensatic compass.
Pennsylvania Army National Guard soldier shoots an azimuth using a lensatic compass during a land navigation event April 23, 2022 at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Shane Smith)

About seven months after the Army reintroduced land navigation to its Basic Leader Course, or BLC, half of the soldiers in that pilot program have failed the training.

BLC is a 22-day school for the Army's junior leaders to rise to the rank of sergeant. Land navigation was brought back after a roughly four-year hiatus. The school is supposed to teach young noncommissioned officers about the service's policies, including legal authorities, processing paperwork for awards, and sexual assault and prevention efforts.

Service leaders have been aiming to add fieldcraft and combat tactics to the training, part of a larger effort to get non-combat arms troops up to snuff on basic soldiering skills. At the center of that push is land navigation, which tasks soldiers with plotting points on a map with a protractor and finding spots in the woods using a compass during both day and night. No GPS, which has become ubiquitous in combat with an approximation on just about every smartphone, is allowed.

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But of the 914 soldiers who have been through the training, half have failed that portion of BLC, according to Command Sgt. Maj. Daniel Hendrex, the top enlisted leader for the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, or TRADOC.

As of now, passing isn't required to graduate. But the high failure rate is a troubling sign as the service gears up for conventional warfare, with future conflicts expected to see the wide use of cyber weapons, which can knock out the GPS tools soldiers relied on during the Global War on Terror era.

"Land navigation is a critical military skill; it doesn't matter if you're not combat arms," Katherine Kuzminski, the senior fellow and program director for military, veterans and society at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, told Military.com. "Soldiers need to know how to navigate, especially in a degraded environment. It's increasingly going to be an issue for the military. This generation grew up with GPS."

While the troops in BLC serve as something of a sample of the general rank and file, shallow land navigation skills haven't impacted the service's elite schools to the same extent. In Ranger School, only about 6% of students fail navigation tests, according to Army data.

Land navigation skills extend beyond going from point A to point B. Soldiers, especially leaders, need to be able to communicate their own coordinates and understand distances, skills that could play a major role in how missions are planned and how logistics such as fuel and time are calculated.

Schools with the land navigation pilot program include Fort Stewart, Georgia; Fort Drum, New York; and Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.

Hendrex said that all active-duty BLC schools will soon be required to test land navigation skills. While failing the course will not impact whether a soldier graduates, it will be taken into account for the commandant's list, which sorts the top performing students and can lead to awards, beginning around summertime next year. Integrating land navigation and other events into National Guard and reserve schools is still being planned.

Army planners hoped land navigation's reintroduction to a must-pass school would spur units to spend more time training on that task, though non-combat arms units can have difficulty finding the time to add that training on top of their normal duties. However, Hendrex said the failure rate is spread across all military occupations, including soldiers from combat arms units.

Within the next few years, BLC will have to grow beyond 22 days in length, Hendrex said, to properly accommodate land navigation and other combat-related training. Adding more field time to BLC is partly based on feedback from the service's National Training Centers, such as in Fort Irwin, California, where soldiers often go through prolonged training events meant to mimic a combat zone.

A key part of that feedback shows that soldiers are struggling with navigation, which can not only get a unit lost but can be dangerous for units if they are in a real combat zone.

"If you're light infantry, you're going to stick to roads more," Hendrex said. "And so the more you stick to the roads, the more you put your unit and organization at risk, and we get to see that played out in our centers."

But contemporary soldiers have heavily relied on GPS, both during training and day-to-day life, making maps seem unwieldy.

"It just isn't intuitive. Understanding how numbers correlate with a random spot in the woods doesn't make sense to a lot of the new [soldiers]," one Special Forces noncommissioned officer who helps prep soldiers for the Army's Special Forces selection course, told Military.com on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

The Army has made several major recent efforts to make combat skills training a higher priority, especially for soldiers who are not in combat roles, including a rollout of a much more dynamic and difficult marksmanship test all soldiers must pass. The service also introduced the Expert Soldier Badge in 2019, which is the same test infantrymen have been taking for years to measure proficiency in basic combat skills such as land navigation and weapon competency.

Earning those expert badges will also become much more important for promotions next year.

-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.

Related: 2,000 Expert Soldier Badges Have Been Awarded in 3 Years. But Do Non-Combat Units Want It?

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