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 ATMOSPHERICS by MAJOR R.D. LEWIS

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PostSubject: ATMOSPHERICS by MAJOR R.D. LEWIS   Tue 18 Aug 2015, 11:07

Atmospherics
By Maj. R.D. Lewis

Situational awareness continues to be one of the fundamentals when dealing with the subject of combat- be it personal or unit level. Situational awareness and mindset are two areas that feature heavily in the sphere of personal development especially when related to personal security. It is an area that I have personally dedicated a large amount of time and research to. Through my studies it has become clear that a good/developed mindset combined with a realistic situational awareness puts you in the best possible position to survive confrontational situations. I had the opportunity to put the theory in to practise in the summer of 2008 when I commanded a Parachute Regiment rifle company on operations in Northern Helmand, Afghanistan.




With an open mind, good feedback and a determination to develop tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) I studied this topic closely and developed what I felt was a more efficient way of conducting operations. Through a demanding summer which saw continual CQB engagements within the green zone the company began to develop a new theory and practise. I realised that almost subconsciously we had adopted a new TTP and I think that it is one worth sharing. My premise is that situational awareness- in my mind the capacity to observe or detect fine detail-is a key function for combatives but, it is only one part of a number of wider ‘observational’ functions and factors that contribute to our ability to go in to harms way. In Afghanistan we called this collective of functions ‘atmospherics’. In every set of orders I gave I used the phrase ‘the atmospherics will dictate the posture’. Ultimately the posture is going to dictate the response. I think that this is as relevant to personal security as it is to unit level tactics, hence why I want to share it with the wider tactical community. As always the aim is to stimulate debate and what I am about to describe was developed over 4 months of intense pre-deployment training and 4 months of close combat.

Situational awareness is one part of a number of sub-systems that come together to form the atmospheric. The other areas are: training, environment, experience, interaction/feedback, intelligence, observation (of which I would argue situational awareness is a part) and feel. I intend to expand each one in turn but it is important to remember that it is the fusion of all of these factors together that is going to enhance the effectiveness of ‘atmospherics’ as the advanced warning that a situation is escalating in to ‘condition red1’.

It is the quality and intensity of our training that is really going to prepare us for going in to harms way. Quite simply there is never enough time to train. Train every day, in some shape or form- go to the range, carry out dry drills, do physical exercise, watch a training DVD etc. I am also a strong proponent of training the mind so case studies, presentations and map exercises should not be discounted. There are often a myriad of reasons for not training- time, resources external pressures- but don’t succumb. The real warrior trains as much as he can. My Company was fortunate to run through a fairly well developed range package as part of its pre-deployment training. It was designed to put us under pressure (especially the commanders) as well as stretch our ability to shoot. I cannot stress enough the importance of pressure based training. Going on a static range is useful but the actual event is going to be dynamic, high pressure and fluid. How do we replicate this in training and induce pressure? Through scenario based training. A realistic scenario, a realistic battle picture combined with a burst of activity at the beginning of the range (we’ve all been there-in the drainage ditch, wet, confused with an instructor bellowing in our ear to ‘get going’-if you haven’t been there, you need to!), all serve to put the individual under pressure- get the heart rate pounding, feel your heart beat in your ears and your peripheral senses closing in. Why is this important? Because, that is what is going to happen on the day. Training should be realistic, dynamic and challenging. Physical and mental resilience are inextricably linked. The strong mind is invariably accompanied by a strong body and a dynamic situation is going to challenge an individual’s determination, resilience and willpower. How does it contribute to atmospherics? It is our training that gives us our foundation, our baseline, our benchmark to carry forward in to harms way. It pushes us both mentally and physically in order that we develop. There is also the simple reality- you are going to do in combat, what you do in training. Unfortunately not what you did on your best day; it will probably be all the bad habits and practises that you have picked up on the way, so more like how you have performed on your worst day!  It can only be this way. So train hard. As the Special Forces say, it is all about the basics done well.

A thorough knowledge of your environment is crucial and this will come with time and experience. No amount of map studies and aerial photo evaluations are going to prepare you for the subtle nuances of the ground that you have to cover but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do them. Study everything that you can get your hands on and allow the reality to overlay the theory. A thorough knowledge of the operating environment allows you to notice the changes that imply that something is potentially going to happen. The most useful phrase I have seen regarding this is ‘presence of the abnormal, absence of the normal’. You have to develop a ‘feel’ (I will cover this later on). I was amazed how quickly we learnt our patrol areas. My tactical experience is within the green zone in N Helmand but the knowledge of your environment and the impact it has on your ability to operate is applicable wherever.

Beware self fulfilling prophecies! The ‘dreaded green zone’ in Afghanistan has developed its own ‘urban myth’. 8 ft high corn that swallows British soldiers. Engagement ranges reduced to 1m and bayonets fixed in case opponents are stumbled upon. As the corn grows, so does the dread. The reality; as is often the case, is somewhat different.
Yes the corn is 8 ft high and it significantly reduces observation and engagement ranges. But it hinders the enemy as much as it hinders you. The enemy are stumbling around, telegraphing his presence as much as you are, if you take the time to stop and listen. Using the ‘silent watch’ method we were often able to ambush groups of Taliban who were attempting to flank or sneak up on us.

Each type of terrain will share a number of common constraints/opportunities. These fundamentally revolve around observation and engagement ranges. The jungle limits observation but the cover it provides can work as much in your favour as it can work against you. There are similarities between the urban and jungle environment- varying engagement ranges, obscured views, plenty of cover etc. The arctic has wide open expanses that make covered movement challenging; it also allows you to identify your opponent a long way out. This is also applicable to the desert, farmer’s fields or large car parks. Learn the basics where you can- in your own environment, spot the constraints/opportunities/similarities and work out how you can apply them to wherever you are. Keep an open mind. Don’t drift in to the trap of ‘all my training/experience is urban’. So what? Use it to your advantage.

We are all victims and beneficiaries of our own experience. It can be empowering but it can also cloud your judgement. Apply your judgement but always remind yourself that your view may be biased. Fight the war you have to fight, not the war you want to fight There are a number of factors that come in to play but the more experience you have and the more experience that you can draw on, the more efficient you will be. You or those around you may have previous operational experience either where you are deploying to or in a similar environment (see paragraph above- a lot of the British Armies COIN activities in Iraq and Afghanistan are based on experiences from Northern Ireland). There will be those that you are taking over from or those that may have been there before. There is also the ability to study. Do case studies, read books, watch films. Learn from others mistakes. Try to talk to veterans; someone who has been there and then carry that experience forward.

Building an intelligence picture is going to enhance your situational awareness. The information may be from a formed Intelligence Cell or it may be something that you develop at a personal level for your own security. Intelligence can come from anywhere- formal briefs, local papers, covert sources or the good old fashioned way- by talking to people. The desired end-state with both intelligence and environment is the ability to spot when something is out of place. Spot the patterns then spot the anomalies in the patterns. Once you have spotted the anomaly you will be able to ramp up accordingly. Even if the enemy initiate, it is still better to be ready for it. Don’t be fooled in to thinking that intelligence is only for the military. Everyone indulges in it in some shape or form- at a personal level it is called gossip! Knowing who your neighbours are and a rough idea of their routine will allow you to spot the unfamiliar face who is in the neighbourhood at an inappropriate time. Intelligence gives you options-cultivate it. Remember- ‘the absence of the normal, the presence of the abnormal’


[Intelligence and experience. The Afghan Army’s intelligence was very good. The ANA commander drinking tea on the left was a veteran of the Soviet-Afghan War and was a warrior in every sense of the word.]

Observation is our ability to receive information and then process it. As mentioned earlier we are trying to build a mental picture so that when something is out of place, it is noticeable, preferably obvious. I think that situational awareness sits within this sphere. The better the observations, the better the situational awareness, the better the picture we will be able to construct. The finer the detail the more an anomaly is going to stand out and the better the position you will be in to react. Your observations will allow you to enhance your situational awareness. You will know when to ramp up and prepare yourself. As time progressed through our tour all of our situational awareness increased exponentially.


[Intelligence. Built the old fashioned way- by talking to people! Here a Parachute Regiment soldier trained to speak Pashtu converses with a local].

A Company level patrol was conducted 3-5 times a week. This would involve 70-90 men (2 Platoons, Fire Support Group and Commanders Tactical Group) on foot, patrolling out in to the green zone (GZ) and clearing specified objectives. Each man would be carrying between 70-90lbs and the patrol would last 6-8 hrs.
In order to achieve tactical surprise and to make the most of the cooler periods of the day most insertions were conducted early in the morning on NVGs.
After a while a contact at Company level took on a degree of predictability.
A covert insertion on NVGs would see us deep in the GZ before first light. The first call to prayer from the numerous mosques would eerily reverberate around the pitch black jungle. We would go firm at this stage and take the time to sort ourselves out- stow night sights, take on water and energy bars. The second call from the mosques would indicate prayers were over and the local people would now start going about their daily business. This occurs at daybreak.
The Company is a big beast and no amount of effort can disguise that amount of men on the ground. Within 30 mins of prayers ending we would invariably be ‘compromised’. A farmer or child would have spotted us and we knew that the clock was now counting down before the enemy were informed and would come to take us on.    
I remember one occasion when a patrol had followed the familiar format. By this stage in the tour the Company had been in contact on numerous occasions and everyone’s ability to read the ‘atmospherics’ was well advanced.
We had been spotted and intelligence on the enemy’s activity was building.  Locals were leaving the area at speed and fighting age males were seen arriving. At one point a known enemy precursor was intercepted [for security reasons I cannot go in to any more detail]. The private soldier in front of me turned and said ‘here we go again, how long do you reckon until we are in contact’? ‘1 minute’, I replied. 45 seconds later the point section came under contact. By this point the whole company was already in cover and ready for the enemy.
I don’t think it was a lucky guess. The precursors were there; I was reading the atmospherics. The situation fitted the template so I knew with some degree of certainty that we were about to get contacted. I took the facts presenting themselves, added experience and came to a conclusion.
On that patrol we were ready and the old adage ‘in a gunfight he who shoots accurately first invariably wins’ applied. We took no casualties. The Taliban had 2 killed and 6 injured.

Once you have undertaken some training, have a degree of experience, have a level of intelligence and have refined your observational ability you will be far better placed to be acting rather than reacting.

By interacting with others and gaining feedback you will be in a stronger position to refine your TTPs. The value of intelligence has already been discussed but you need to interact and you need to get feedback. This may be through local nationals, intelligence intercepts, other agencies, partners, OGDs or other units/operators. Seek feedback though and refine your approach based on this. You also need to conduct your own AARs.

After every patrol a formal debrief occurred, led by the Company Second in Command (2IC) with the Intelligence Sgt in attendance. This was our formal way of capturing tactical information but also a way of identifying best practice.
If an enhanced TTP was identified it would be passed to all commanders who had to attend a daily Company meeting (prayers) at 1800hrs.


The last part of our puzzle is instinct. It is the hardest to train for and probably the quickest skill to fade over time. But you have to develop a feel and then learn to trust it.

Two thirds of the way in to the tour we mounted a Company level operation to clear a power station 5km from our Forward Operating Base (FOB). The power station was being used by the enemy as a staging post.
We deployed early on foot and cleared the power station without incident. Once clear of the power station the atmospherics started to build quickly. Civilians sprinting to leave the area and young fighting age males casually arriving (sound familiar). We were quickly in contact.
Our battle drills were working well on that day. We were well positioned and I was able to utilise assets (artillery and mortars) quickly and efficiently. You could feel the Company’s ‘blood was up’- we were up for the fight.
We stared to follow up the enemy- effectively a rolling contact. It was going well but the direction of advance was taking us away from the FOB. The enemy contacts and firing points started to increase but we were moving well and conducting fluid drills. It felt like we were controlling the situation, so we kept rolling.
As I received more info on enemy firing points I kept mentally plotting them on my map. We still had momentum and the fire and movement was going well, but the number of contact points was increasing.
Suddenly a nagging crept in to my mind. Why is he allowing me to move easily in this direction whilst trying to squeeze my flanks? It didn’t feel right.
I immediately halted the Company and instigated a radical change in direction. We upped the artillery and quickly broke contact . Once we had a achieved a break clean we headed back towards the FOB. The journey back went without incident.
Once back in the FOB my 2IC showed me a map with all of the enemy firing points plotted on it. It looked like an inverted tear. On closer inspection of the map (a luxury you don’t often have in contact) the ground was perfect for an ambush- we were being led on to a piece of open ground surrounded by compounds. Subsequent intelligence confirmed their plan- allow us to advance whilst putting pressure on the flanks drawing us in to an ambush. There was in the region of 40 fighters waiting for us.
My decision on the ground was based on a hunch and proved to be correct. It just didn’t feel right. If it doesn’t feel right then you need to react.

I was happy to react to any of my commanders telling me something didn’t ‘feel right’. If all the other aspects of atmospherics are in place- we have trained so we know our strengths and weaknesses, we have developed a degree of local intelligence, we have studied and have an understanding of our environment and are able to notice when something is out of place, we have been receiving feedback and reacting to it then frankly you are in a position to say ‘something doesn’t feel right’. If that happens; do you know what? You are probably right! If all elements are there then trust your gut, realise something isn’t right and then get yourself in to a position that you can do something about it. Gavin de Becker’s book ‘the Gift of Fear’ is probably the best work on this subject that I have read.

Air Assault in to Musaqalah.


This is the Company firm on the high ground having fought through enemy positions. The poles in the background are antennas and the building was an enemy command and control node.

The Company air assaulted under cover of darkness and was immediately in contact. For 3 hrs we were under very heavy fire and constantly under threat of being outflanked. Come first light the enemy lost momentum (and manpower!) and backed off.

‘Atmospherics’ was developed the old fashioned way- in combat! There are tactical ‘universal truths’ that can be developed for any situation or environment; hence why an understanding of atmospherics is useful for the military, law enforcement or concerned civilian. Study them, adapt them, refine them and then use them. Find what works for you or your team and then practise. Remember ‘the atmospherics will dictate the posture and the posture will dictate the response’. Give yourself the best fighting chance and take your situational awareness to the next level.

The author is a major in the British Army, a former commander of a Parachute Company in Afghanistan, and a veteran of Northern Ireland, Kosovo, and Iraq. He currently serves in the Joint Services Command & Staff College.
He wrote the classic book on tactics in the  Afghanistan infantry conflict Company Commander

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Dennis Martin
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