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.

Nightly At­tacks

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.

Hello, in­sur­gents!

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.

Les­son Learned

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.

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