Sunday 18 July 2010

Slow is smooth, smooth is fast - lessons from Commando training

This is one of a series of articles on lessons from Commando training.  Here is the full list.

On Friday 16th I visited the Commando Training Centre Royal Marines (CTCRM) just south of Exeter to Meet the Marines.  I was one of 30 guests of the C Group, an organisation that is building bridges between the business commmunity and the Royal Marines.  During the course of the day I was introduced to the latest developments and techniques used in Commando training.  It was 12 years since my last visit to CTCRM and in that time the trainers have developed many new capabilities that are valuable to both Royal Marine and civilian alike.

The day started with an introductory run around the assault course and a competitive shoot on the live firing range, followed by an unarmed combat demonstration.  Since I left the Royal Marines in 2000 attitudes to unarmed combat have evolved to cover the range of arrest and restraint techniques that are required in Afghanistan, and to reflect the fact that the traditional punch and kick moves are hard to carry out when carrying as much as 120lbs of equipment.  Several of the ladies in our group in particular were very pleased to discover some of the techniques they could use to restrain or discourage an assailant.  The key theme highlighted by our instructor was "simplicity".

Next we moved to the Coaching Advisory Team, who introduced us to the visualisation and memory techniques they use for training elite and special forces.  Alexei, a very impressive coach explained the effectiveness of linking and visualising (as soon as I have further reading on this subject to recommend I'll reference it here), and confirmed that this new element of the Commando training system has helped turn around 85% of borderline students by unlocking their mental capabilities.  That delivers savings of millions of pounds per annum.  After the presentation many of us queued to ask further questions!

After briefings on the unfolding situation in Afghanistan (where 75% of all Royal Marines will be deployed over the next year), and demonstrations of mine clearance and building entry, we were introduced to Modified Urban Combat - the process that the Commando units now use for attacking and clearing buildings.

Urban combat has always been considered among the most challenging phases of war - communications, resupply and command are all exceptionally difficult, and the close-quarters nature of the fighting requires aggression and control in equal measure.  We watched a demonstration of building clearance in which a team of Marines cleared a weapon factory using the dictum "Slow is smooth, smooth is fast".  The team worked steadily through a complex checking each room systematically, marking cleared areas, casualties and arrested suspects while minimising the dangers of friendly fire with methodical and simple procedures like waggling the muzzle of their weapons around the corners of walls.

True to the guiding principle, each Marine moved slowly, but the overall effect was a smooth progression as the whole compound was cleared as if a liquid was flowing through it (I was watching from a gantry above).  To ensure that the process was robust, the communications between the individual Marines was very simple and based on practiced routines, so problems and setbacks (one Marine's weapon jammed as he cleared a room) were easily overcome.  In this simple yet effective assault there were many lessons - simple procedures, interoperability, measured investment, delegated leadership and of course, the quality and courage of the team members.

Since I completed my Commando training in 1996, the intellectual and technical framework for training has expanded dramatically to include the lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I was truly impressed by the rigour and adaptability of the Royal Marines.  Enthusiastic knowledge sharing was very evident - during the course of the day I met Americans, Australians and Saudis comparing experience and testing assumptions.  By combining the expertise of educational psychologists, elite sports trainers and anthropologists among many other disciplines, the Royal Marines are staying at the forefront of their profession.  I was one of several guests who determined to borrow from their hard-won lessons.

As we left CTCRM we passed the memorial wall where the 100 Royal Marines who have been killed since 2000 are remembered.  Many more have been greviously injured.  Our host, Colonel Jim Hutton, invited us all to join the Corps family and get involved with the support of those who are unable to continue to serve - giving mentoring, career advice and introductions where appropriate.  Count me in!

If you would like to find out more about the Royal Marines and experience some of the challenges of Royal Marines training, check out the Commando Spirit challenges. The Commando Spirit Appeal is part of the Royal Marines Charitable Trust Fund.

This is one of a series of articles on lessons from Commando training.  Here is the full list.

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