November 2014

Combat Hunter

The vernacular of future conflicts or lessons forgotten?
Volume 98, Issue 11

Capt Scott A. Kates
Figure 1. The ALERT acronym can be applied to a variety of situations.

While the skills taught by Combat Hunter are weightless, low-cost, perception-enhancing abilities that provide Marines a deeper sense of how to preempt a threat, promulgation of this training is being significantly reduced and the overall program remains at great risk of being discontinued.

Combat Hunter training and its vocabulary give young Marines the intuitive ability to identify and explain anomalies in all environments. In the current uncertain and unstable security environment and in a time of fiscal constraint, the affordability of Combat Hunter and unparalleled dividends it pays in survivability and lethality make it a program that should under no circumstances be cut. Enriching Marines’ inherent abilities to observe and detect threats—the lifesaving ethos of this program—nests within battalion-driven training and ultimately provides valuable options to thwart potential adversaries, in addition to improving Marines’ abilities to locate, close with, and destroy them.

The following scenario is a description of the major learning points emphasized by Combat Hunter training and vernacular.


The American Embassy in an American-allied country has been attacked twice. Protesters have wounded four Marines and the ambassador has requested immediate assistance. The regional special purpose MAGTF–crisis response force is unable to respond due to a previous commitment. The MEU has been tasked to reinforce the Embassy immediately and prepare it for evacuation.

Bald Eagle Company’s average age was 21. They had little to no combat experience and only a handful of NCOs from the previous deployment. Regardless of the lack of significant experience, the platoon faced the task to reinforce the besieged American Embassy and prepare the staff for evacuation. The platoon was briefed that an al-Qaeda-aligned local revolutionary front was responsible for the unrest and recent attacks in the city.

At 0632, the airspace was deemed untenable to fast-rope in directly over the Embassy. It was decided the company (minus) would insert in two adjacent landing zones at a park 2 miles distant from the Embassy and proceed along the same axis of advance with platoons coordinating movement until linkup. While unmanned aerial systems identified men in the area carrying AK–47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, the rules of engagement clarified over the radio required positive identification of hostile action or intent to engage. At 0645, the platoons landed, established security, and oriented east. The company commander received accountability and confirmed his platoon’s movement toward the Embassy.

0700: The 1st Platoon leader signaled his squads to halt. The platoon was less than one kilometer from the location where they would establish the outer cordon on the south side of the Embassy. The protesters were located to the west and north. 1st Platoon was to establish the outer cordon and conduct a linkup with 2nd platoon.

0705: 1st Platoon’s squads, hard-targeted to conceal movement, immediately took up positions south of the Embassy, adjacent to the outer diplomatic buildings. The platoon leader radioed the company commander and let him know they were set. The captain indicated 2nd Platoon had been delayed by a large group of people. 1st Squad leader, moving to recheck his squad’s position, noticed a trail leading south directly behind the platoon’s position. As he inspected the ground, he noticed a cluster of rocks and a small white strip of cloth tied to a branch. Upon further inspection he saw what looked like footprints and scuff marks. Suddenly, a woman 100 meters north of the squad’s position started screaming. The leader rushed back to his squad.

0710: The platoon oriented toward the woman and the Embassy. People started gathering in the street. The squad leader identified a man, normal height, skinny, with dark hair, blue jeans, and a loose white t-shirt walking backward and talking on his cell phone, then swiftly turning around and running down an alleyway west of the Embassy.

0718: The crowd of locals continued to grow. Maintaining standoff, their faces were a mix of curiosity and deadpan. The 2nd Squad leader identified a group of men walking directly to the platoon’s position. They were headed south from the direction of the Embassy on the other side of road. The platoon leader inquired how many men. The reply from the corporal came back: six. The lieutenant then asked if they were hostile. The squad leader replied that the military-age males had no weapons. A junior Marine spontaneously declared he had identified a spotter. The squad leader asked him why he thought the man was spotting. He replied the male was just standing at the corner of the road being “shady.” The corporal told the Marines to keep an eye on it, but if he did not have a weapon then he was not a threat.

0726: The 2nd Squad leader then declared that the group of men he was watching had vanished. The lieutenant surveyed the entire area and noticed the crowd was getting smaller. The company commander communicated that he was 250 meters behind 1st Platoon’s position and would soon make linkup. The platoon was retasked as the inner cordon and instructed to secure the road adjacent to the Embassy. The lieutenant gave a quick frag order and told 1st Squad to take point. The platoon was going to strongpoint the corners of roads directly south of the Embassy. “Watch high to low and remember the rules of engagement,” the lieutenant reminded them. 3rd Squad would make linkup and provide a guide on the road when the other platoon arrived. The remaining locals quickly departed the area as the Marines moved into position.

0730: 3rd Squad leader observed a man walking south down the road toward first team’s position. He reported the man was approximately 250 meters from the squad’s left flank. The corporal thought it was a guy seen earlier walking near the park. The squad leader reported it up. “Suspect is normal height, skinny, dark hair, blue jeans, and a white sweatshirt.” The squad leader believed he was suspicious as there was no one else in the street. Suddenly, the ground opened up, and air and dirt was propelled past the squad. The sound of an explosion followed from behind. A cloud of smoke raced through the sky and debris fell all around the platoon.

0733: The Marines were in awe of what had just happened. They remained motionless for what seemed like minutes as debris continued to rain around them. Once time restarted, the platoon sergeant yelled for the corpsman to be ready to move casualties. The lieutenant took a deep breath. He told 3rd Squad to follow him and ordered 1st Squad to hold firm. The Marines moved back toward the flames. The lieutenant could see nothing but black smoke and debris. Then he heard his fire team leader yell from behind, “Stop! Stop or I will shoot!” Suddenly he was pushed to the ground. As he fell, he twisted on the ground and looked back. He saw nothing but fire and black smoke.

Combat Hunter Decoded

This scenario represents a mission that could be executed by a company landing team during a MEU deployment. The Marines involved did not have the intuitive ability to understand and communicate what was happening in their operational environment. Had they been trained in Combat Hunter, they would have had more proactive observation skills and subsequently more speed in making decisions to counter threats. Additionally, they would have been enabled further by vernacular to make faster decisions due to the increased awareness. For example, Marines are taught to establish a baseline, which is an initial set of critical observations to confirm the norm of an area. From the establishment of a baseline, a Marine can then ascertain an anomaly. The introduction of the platoon to the area created an atmospheric shift. An atmospheric shift signals that an event has caused a change in the baseline. Atmospherics are the “read” of an area that indicate the collective attitude or mood. When the Marines were discovered in the park, the people focused and stared at the Marines. The Marines identified this, but could do nothing with the information.

When the squad leader identified a small rock pile with a white rag near a trail and sign on the deck, he was unable to make further interpretation on its significance. Trails and paths that deviate from a designated route of travel are called “natural lines of drift” and are blazed by human or animal movement around obstacles in the most convenient fashion. Marines are taught in combat tracking and combat profiling how to read tracks or signs in the spoor and can better determine their freshness. This would further allow them to predict a possible attack by enemy targeting prey along a natural line of drift, and possibly lead to a backtrack or enemy overwatch position. Additionally, Marines are taught once an anomaly is identified, no matter the significance, it should be communicated immediately.

Combat Hunter identifies a woman screaming as a change in the baseline resulting from an anomaly. The anomaly—the screaming woman—created a proxemic pull within the immediate area. Attraction, need, curiosity, relationship, and associations create proxemic pulls. Proxemics can also communicate if someone is viewed as a threat. The enemy will sometimes purposely create situations to initiate a proxemic push or pull in order to exploit a response and gain the advantage to attack.

When Marines identified a group of six men walking toward the squad’s position, all they could do was report numbers and appearances. Combat Hunter gives Marines the vernacular to identify leaders based on kinesics (body language) and proximity. The key leader indicator acronym is MADE—mimicry, adoration, direction, and entourage. Humans mimic (mirror/match) each other’s body language to establish similarities. Adoration is the outward sign of affection toward individuals and is often displayed toward leaders. Directions may be subtle, overt, conscious, unconscious, verbal, or gestures, and the pace and direction of movement can indicate a leader. When in groups, people tend to show subordination or submissive behaviors toward leaders.

Combat Hunter teaches Marines to identify kinesic and proxemic cues associated with persons conducting surveillance (spotting). Typically, insurgents and terrorists are inexperienced operatives and have little training. They often loiter or lurk with no identifiable business purpose for being in an area and no logical beginning or end to their pattern of activity. Enemy surveillants often move and/or communicate (cell phone, signal, gesture) when their target moves. Combat Hunters are taught to make eye contact to burn spotters or, when applicable, make additional contact to break enemy pattern of collection and force them to restart their intelligence and collection operation.

When the Marines were fragged to establish the inner cordon and started to move, they noticed people had left the area. This can be considered both a proxemic push and an atmospheric shift. A proxemic push can occur because of fear, desire for safety, perceiving a threat, distrust, disinterest between parties, or avoiding because of lack of familiarity. The Marines communicated that the villagers had departed the area, but did not understand the meaning or why it occurred.

The Marines then identified a suspicious man as he walked directly toward the squad’s position. The Marines observed him, what he was wearing, and what he looked like, and tried to determine if there was hostile intent or hostile action. Combat Hunter teaches Marines to identify threat behavior more precisely using an acronym to identify suicide bombers called “BAD ALERT.” “BAD” stands for “baseline plus anomaly equals a decision” (B+A=D). A Marine will quickly observe the operational environment and create a baseline. From the baseline assessment, a Marine may correctly identify an anomaly. To make a decision, Marines use several determinants such as dominant or submissive/passive, interested or disinterested, and comfortable or uncomfortable. These clusters are designed to simplify the language and terminology used to classify and communicate the behavior of individuals.

The acronym “ALERT” can be applied to a suicide bomber, terrorist, insurgent, or even a potentially suicidal Marine. (See Figure 1.) “ALERT” stands for “alone and nervous, loose or bulky clothing, excessive fidgeting, rigid midsection, and tightened hands.” Combat Hunter uses this acronym to identify specific individual threats when in close proximity with hostile individuals. Had the Marines known what behavioral clusters and cues to look for, they could have prevented this individual from getting too close. The Marines should have first tried to assess the individual’s hands, as hands are the weapons of the body, and from there tried to identify fidgeting, mission focus, increased situational awareness, hip checking, exposed wires, etc. The man in question was alone, had a rigid torso, and loose clothing, which should have resulted in an increase of the Marines’ security posture as they identified suspicious and possibly threatening behavior. The ability to make faster decisions comes from experience, which is why Combat Hunter training focuses on intuitive decision-making models that force Marines to make complex decisions based on moral, legal, and ethical dilemmas, with the result being enhanced situational awareness and a proactive hunter mindset.

Versatility and Proven Success

The above explanation of the example scenario reveals just some aspects of Combat Hunter training. The program’s comprehensive effects of sharpening perception and improving proactive decision making are best communicated by those who have participated in the training and have applied the skills to great success. While recently observing Combat Hunter training, LtGen John Toolan, CG, former CG I MEF, stated, “All Marines must know and use this language.” He recognizes the inherent benefit of Marines knowing and utilizing Combat Hunter language to increase situational awareness while giving depth to lethality and survivability.

Numerous individuals credit our Marines’ tactical success in Afghanistan in part to training they received in Combat Hunter. Maj Zachary Martin, Senior Advisor, Police Advisor Team, who trained in Combat Hunter in 2012 stated its techniques enhanced his Marines’ situational awareness and were applied to countering insider threats. SSgt Jay Baldino, a Combat Hunter instructor and later squad leader with 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, led his squad on more than 130 combat patrols in Sangin District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. His squad patrolled more than 1,800 miles and accounted for several enemy killed in action/wounded in action, 9 cache finds, and 13 improvised explosive device (IED) finds without suffering a single IED strike. Sgt Zach Fuller, chief scout turned provisional rifle squad leader, Alpha Company, 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, found numerous IEDs and over 50 weapons caches during his deployment to Afghanistan from October 2011 to May 2012. His squad was not ambushed and never suffered a single IED strike during its tour.

Some of the most powerful indicators of Combat Hunter training are from 7th Marines’ deployments to Afghanistan. In fiscal year 2013, 3d Battalion, 7th Marines trained 54 Combat Hunter trainers and 64 Combat Hunter users via the Combat Hunter Mobile Training Teams from School of Infantry–West (SOI-W). During their deployment, Marines identified insurgent networks in villages in every area of operations to which they were sent. Before patrolling, Combat Hunters would use a ground-based operational surveillance system, aerostat, and other observation devices to enhance squads’ and platoons’ situational awareness in areas of operation. Postdeployment, Maj Christopher M. Chisolm, 3d Battalion, 7th Marines’ operations officer, stated, “It is impossible to calculate how many lives and limbs were saved because of Combat Hunter training.” Gunner Ronald Hathaway stated that the Combat Hunters improved the command’s ability to support squads and platoons because they had a clear picture with concise information pertaining to what was happening.

Moving beyond the combat aspect of Combat Hunter, SgtMaj Paul McKenna, 3d MarDiv, is currently working with the Combat Hunter cadre from SOI-W to utilize Combat Hunter profiling in a new way. He too recognizes the innate value of Combat Hunter and is adapting its principles to enhance Marines’ situational awareness when in garrison and on liberty, specifically to reduce sexual assault, suicide, and other behavioral issues. Combat Hunter gives young NCOs and Marines the ability to recognize behavioral shifts, anomalies, and threats, enhancing their overall situational awareness when encountering conflict, drug and alcohol abuse, or suicidal ideations. It gives Marines increased ability to recognize a negative situation and make the right decision.

The Highest Form of Flattery

The successes of Combat Hunter since 2007 have earned recognition from the Department of Defense, other U.S. Services, and allied militaries. The British Armed Forces created “Soldier-First Combat Hunter”—a program almost identical to the Marines Corps’ version. In contrast to the Marine Corps, the British Army offers this training exclusively to officers at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. Their first week of officer training is dedicated to Combat Hunter, while the program is continually emphasized throughout the 44-week training package.

In 2011, the U.S. Army created the Advanced Situational Awareness Training (ASAT) program using the Marine Corps’ combat profiling domains, behavioral and environmental pattern recognition, and analysis. The Army has institutionalized ASAT in its basic and advanced courses offered to the infantry, cavalry, and armor soldiers, and throughout the training continuum at the Maneuver Center of Excellence, Fort Benning, GA. ASAT is also taught at their Officer Candidate School and Infantry Basic Officer Leaders Course. In comparison to both the British and U.S. armies, the Marine Corps eliminated Combat Hunter training for officers, reduced training for enlisted Marines, and is on a glide path to cancel the Marine Combat Hunter program.

Affordable Enhanced Warfighting Skills Remain in Jeopardy

While many appreciate the value of Combat Hunter, others still see the amount of any program beyond “the basics” as too costly a burden. Yet the total sum to teach 650 Marines, creating proactive thinkers and situationally enhanced leaders via the Combat Hunter Advanced course at SOI-W, is approximately $462,000, just over half the price to send one servicemember to Afghanistan for one year.1 Three hundred and twenty-five of those 650 Marines trained are qualified Combat Hunter trainers and can execute a basic Combat Hunter course for their units. As an example, in October 2013, after 8 Marines from 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, attended the Combat Hunter Trainer Course at SOI-W, they subsequently trained 50 Marines from every company in the battalion over the next 2 months.

A Combat Hunter survey released in June 2013 gathered from 1st and 3d MarDivs found that a majority of trainers conducted platoon-sized Combat Hunter training, both formal and informal, and that the training was conducted monthly after graduation. Marines stated that Combat Hunter provided them specific skills to use during their deployment, aided in IED detection and threat indicators, and 100 percent of those surveyed stated that their overall situational awareness improved. These testaments to the promulgation and validity of the overall program are what should be considered in keeping the program alive.

Combat Hunter is the only formal school instruction that provides mitigation of insider threats, which directly relates to the theater security cooperation mission our Corps is increasingly assigned to conduct. Combat Hunter-trained Marines get 38 times more training in ground sign awareness than they do if they conduct their yearly counter IED course.2 The costs are minimal when compared to other programs or courses offered in Training Command, yet in this current fiscally constrained environment, Combat Hunter hangs in the balance.

In addition to the effects of our austere Marine Corps budget, the Combat Hunter program is also in jeopardy due to lack of awareness or misinterpretation of what it provides. (See Figures 2–2A.) Now that it has been cut from the The Basic School curriculum, officers are not briefed or aware of program benefits unless they personally know a graduate of the course. Enlisted Marines are more likely to know of the program by word of mouth or from positive reviews from their peers, but the advanced and intermediate courses taught at the SOIs are less attended by unit leaders who often associate the training with predeployment training program requirements.

Recommended Way Ahead

Combat Hunter was created out of necessity. Millions of dollars were spent and thousands of hours in research were conducted to change every Marine’s mindset to that of a proactive thinker—a more informed decision maker and a hunter. One of the clearest benefits of Combat Hunter is that it provides a tactical edge by improving Marines at the human level; it does not require expensive gear, equipment, or special weaponry. Simply by training Marines to more effectively use their inherent powers of perception and deduction, we inexpensively enhance our greatest asset’s decision making, lethality, and survivability. And yet today, the service that created Combat Hunter is in the process of reducing and possibly cancelling it. In this choice, we risk repeating the same mistakes of postwar periods past when the hard-learned combat lessons are forgotten or dismissed and the next cohort group of crisis responders pays the price in blood.

Expeditionary Force 21 indicates that force protection is “an integrated aspect of MAGTF operations,” and that “aggressive action produces a form of protection.”3 This is exactly what Combat Hunter training provides, enabling Marines to proactively identify threats in any and all environments. Combat Hunter epitomizes “expeditionary”: a weightless skill that increases readiness, gives our Marines a tactical and human advantage in any clime and place, and allows us to more effectively and with greater confidence move from fighting to humanitarian operations or vice versa. Beyond the combat aspect of this program, its training gives Marines the ability to police the barracks, proactively recognize anomalies within their squads, and make ethical, legal, and moral decisions. The comprehensive value of Combat Hunter training is too great for this program to become a forgotten lesson. The following prioritized recommendations are provided to best prepare our Marines at the tactical level of crisis response:

  • • Reintegrate Combat Hunter skills into The Basic School curriculum, to include basic and intermediate skill levels.
  • • Training and Education Command should reverse the decision to reduce Combat Hunter advanced and intermediate training to one coast.
  • • A table of organization and equipment change request should be approved to reconstitute the Force Structure Review cut of one officer and eight enlisted Marines at SOI-W in order to continue to promulgate the Combat Hunter advanced and intermediate programs of instruction.
  • • The existing low-cost contract with General Dynamics Integrated Technology should be renewed to provide experienced combat profiler and combat tracking subject matter experts to both coasts.
  • • Training and Education Command and Plans, Policies, and Operations Department, HQMC, should consider requiring Combat Hunter advanced training for a minimum of two NCOs per company for special purpose MAGTF–crisis response, MEU, and unit deployment program units.
  • • Identify Combat Hunter advanced trained personnel with a secondary MOS.


Infantry battalions will remain the Marine Corps’ standard unit of deployment; however, company landing teams may take on a larger role in crisis response and may form the GCE component of a SPMAGTF. . . . Company landing teams provide a means to engage forward in more locations and respond to crises.

1. Shaughnessy, Larry, “One Soldier, One Year: $850,000 and Rising,” February 2012. Under Secretary Robert Hale, in February 2012, reported in a budget hearing that it cost $850,000 per soldier for a one-year deployment to Afghanistan. In comparison, the average cost to train 650 Marines, the average yearly graduation rate, in Combat Hunter is $12,000 in training resources, $150,000 travel costs (mobile training teams to Marine Corps Base Hawaii and Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms), and $300,000 in contractor salaries.

2. Combat Hunter–trained Marines conduct over 20 kilometers of ground sign awareness training throughout the 3-week course, which is approximately 38 times the amount of ground sign awareness than a year of counter-IED training.

3. Headquarters Marine Corps, Expeditionary Force 21, Washington, DC, June 2014, p. 15.

LtCol Clark is an infantry offcer. He has held leadership billets at the platoon, company, and battalion levels; served on inspector-instructor duty; and taught at the Army’s Maneuver Captains Career Course.