Own the Night
Surefire Steps to Proficiency with Night Vision
Surefire steps to proficiency with night vision
“We own the night…”
Ihave heard that mantra repeatedly over my career in Special Operations. Our ability to operate under the cover of darkness translates to total domination of our objectives against fully armed terrorists—and no casualties for our team.
I have conducted the containment of an objective by surreptitiously surrounding it, and due to our nighttime capabilities, I came within a few feet of an armed insurgent who had no idea we were there.
The ways in which the technical and tactical aspects of nighttime warfare have turned the tide in the global War on Terror are numerous. I will not go into them all, but we must consider night operations to be a crucial aspect to mission success. Understanding the importance of nighttime operational proficiency needed to “own the night,” you would think that the training cycle in the months leading to combat would be saturated with nighttime training. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
In 2005, I was in a remote American fire base in Afghanistan. We were attacked nightly by nasty and destructive 107mm rockets. I was a young 18B or Special Forces Weapons Sergeant, and I was on a “mountain team” in 3rd Special Forces Group.
Lee, my bunkmate, and I were thrown out of our beds by a rocket that was danger close—fatal range for most. Lee was the 18C Special Forces Engineering Sergeant. Our entire room shook violently. The sandbags surrounding my bunk shifted and emptied; our room filled with a thick, brown cloud of Afghan sand.
I was exhausted, and my mind was cloudy, but repetition of immediate action drills in the event of something like this drove me to search for my gun. It is as if I operated on muscle memory alone—full autopilot. I threw on my kit (plate carrier, helmet, etc.) and grabbed a 240B Machine Gun. On my gun, I mounted a thermal scope with the ability to differentiate heat signatures in the darkness. It displayed them, bright white against the cold black background.
Our fire base had a battle drill for such an event, with priority being to prevent a direct attack from the ground. From where we were on the base, the second story of our mud hut would give us the best advantage to keep overwatch and prevent such an attack. Lee and I made our way up to the rooftop with night vision mounted to our helmets. Along with the thermal scope on my gun, there was nothing we could not see. As I set up, I looked through my scope and I tried to identify the Point of Origin of the rocket attack—the POO. Yes, the POO.
The 107mm rocket has advantages, depending on which end of the projectile you find yourself. It can be launched off a rock shelf and stabilize itself for a flatter trajectory, which is great for a shoot-and-run style of attack. Therefore, typically, POO sites were unoccupied; but I was hoping for the best. In a gunfight, you want the high ground; yet as I traversed our surroundings under night vision, I saw we were surrounded by mountainous ridgelines.
I saw a heat source that looked like a potential launch site. I began to communicate its location to Lee so he could “paint it” in order to provide me with an infrared (IR) beam leading me to any potential insurgents at the site.
Thermal and night vision are very different technologies, so this was problematic to say the least. The IR beam on Lee’s gun was not able to translate into anything visible within my scope. I could not track the IR beam without giving up the thermal sight picture. I could see the IR laser through my helmet-mounted night vision, but that turned everything green, which meant no heat signatures. I had to raise those up to then look through my thermal scope. I moved back and forth between optics until I built up the confidence that what I saw through each was the same and I had a valid target.
“let us say you want to learn how to shoot with night vision and an IR laser… Although it seems like two separate and simple tasks, it is complex.”
Once I was satisfied with my sight picture, I let off a short burst of 7.62mm rounds at the target. Some of these were tracer rounds, rounds mixed with a very small amount of organic fuel that causes an incendiary effect. The round is then traceable from the gun to the target with the naked eye.
As we shot into the pitch-black Afghan night, it occurred to me that from the enemy’s perspective it would be relatively easy to identify my location by following the tracer back to my gun, with me behind it—a potentially fatal scenario. Though our enemy had no night vision capabilities, tracer rounds were now a potential danger. Every time I fired a burst of rounds, the trajectory of my rounds was not only clear, but I became a visible POO to the enemy who would eventually do to Lee and me what we were attempting to do to them. As I was formulating that conclusion, I heard a loud WOOSH as a 107mm rocket roared over our heads. Before Lee and I could react, the rocket impacted into the rear of our base—again danger close.
“That was close!” I screamed over the explosion to Lee.
With such a large kill radius upon contact, had that rocket impacted anywhere in front of us, it would have meant certain death. I looked at Lee; we did not need to say anything for us both to know it was time to get off the roof ASAP.
In this one isolated situation, I gleaned some very indispensable knowledge about modern, nighttime warfare. I quickly learned what would work, what would not, and that there is a comparative relationship between you and the enemy which must be understood to succeed.
“Our equipment versus theirs” is one relationship that must be understood immediately. How can you gain fire superiority? The rest is a learned ability to know who your enemy is and to guess what their reactions to your actions may be, always staying one step ahead. Luckily for me, I would spend nine more months that year in Afghanistan, where I would train, learn and fine-tune my combat skill set while serving with America’s finest warriors.
In my nearly 20-year career in Special Operations, I have been to almost every U.S. Army Special Forces school available. I have been to advanced close-quarters battle (CQB) training, Sniper school, and air controller school, where I learned to direct aircraft in the middle of a fight—which can be a crucial skill in large-scale nighttime warfare. I have attended advanced Military Free Fall (MFF) School and technical surveillance courses. Regardless of the curriculum offered, I had great leaders that kept me proficient by sending me to these schools and training me well. I honed my skills outside of combat. Every single school I have been to never really emphasized night training paired to that skill set. Nighttime operations were still relegated to something we learned on the teams— outside the schoolhouse. I remember thinking it was probably an administrative or safety protocol that kept us from doing a lot of night training, but whatever the reason, we were not capitalizing on the opportunity to become
Transition to Fieldcraft
When I separated from the military and transitioned into running Fieldcraft Survival, my business based in Durango, Colorado, I started to realize that civilians did not have a structured process to learn the proper mindset or technical skills needed to overcome what life throws at them. The skills were there to learn, but there was no readily available mode of delivering those skills to potential students.
I started my company keeping in mind that to effectively impart knowledge to someone and instruct them you must Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS). I came up with Isolate, Rehearse, Repeat (IRR). The premise behind IRR is that the end state in training is typically a culmination of several sub-tasks, smaller skills and specific training principles that must be mastered individually before the student can be considered proficient in the culminating event.
For example, let us say you want to learn how to shoot with night vision and an IR laser, much as you would during nighttime combat operations. Although it seems like two separate and simple tasks, it is complex, and you must understand how night vision operates, how your gun operates and how they operate together.
Therefore, you may start with learning the capabilities of night vision. I would suggest walking around with the night vision on to build your understanding of depth perception, loss of peripheral vision, how it reacts to different light sources, what familiar things look like under night vision, so you may begin to differentiate objects—and how all of this may hinder or benefit you. Once you have isolated any task that is to be learned, you will then rehearse the task until you are unquestionably proficient at it.
You are not done yet…
You will repeat the task until there is uninhibited muscle memory. Once you think you have completely ingrained that task into your memory, conduct an honest assessment of yourself—what we call an After-action Review (AAR). What can you improve on? Isolate those areas for retraining. What can you sustain when translating from training to operational environments? Every time you have a culmination exercise for a new skill, you must do this. It is the best way to constantly improve, and remember to go back to the drawing board with things that need work.
Value of NVD
Night vision is one tool of many that, when utilized with other equipment, can greatly increase your chances of operational success. When I was in Special Forces Sniper School, we were exposed to a few night iterations that were more for familiarization than perfecting a craft. The takeaway was that once you are given a taste of what right looks like, you need to take your own time to perfect your craft. Learning skills takes a great deal of personal responsibility and work ethic. You will never be spoon-fed proficiency.
I use this same concept when I teach survival tactics for Fieldcraft. I can philosophize and give you really great information in a class, but if I don’t give you the tools and wisdom on how to implement those Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPS) in your own environment, then I’m not doing you any good and you will not leave the class better than you came.
It reminds me of the old saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” That statement is at the core of my teaching philosophy and training methodology when I seek to mold others into becoming better trained and proficient modern survivalists.
The Army taught me that I could be trained in anything. I could be and would be a jack-ofall-trades, if I wanted to; however, if I wanted to perfect a skill set, if I truly wanted to be a master, then I would have to train on my own—when nobody is there watching. So that is what I did. Once I understood the concepts and familiarized myself with them, I was able to take the specific tactics and perfect them as it applied to my job in Special Operations. Likewise, for your own career or even hobby, you can follow those same steps to proficiency. Always repeating the tasks until they are innate actions. Because I was a Sniper, I started studying every type of optic, laser, and rangefinder I could get my hands on to understand how night vision could give us the upper hand in combat. I started to discover, as I evolved as an operator and shooter, that I was only scratching the surface.
Remember, once you receive a block of instruction from an individual, institution, or other entity, when you leave the classroom that was only the beginning of the process. It is what you take away from that experience and begin to train early and often that makes the difference in mastering that skill. You do not have to be a Special Forces sniper to understand the best way in which to tackle a problem. You just need to be teachable, and disciplined enough to commit to and trust the process.
proficient in such a crucial aspect of modern combat operations. Our training time, in my mind, was not being fully optimized.