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Combat Engineer Sapper Squad Qualification Course

CPT John Lock

July 1988 ENGINEER


Realistic, motivating, and challenging training is extremely difficult to conduct successfully in a garrison environment.  The 16th Combat Engineer Battalion, 1st AD, Nürnberg, Germany, overcame some of these garrison training problems with the development of a Sapper Squad Qualification Course (SSOC). 


This course was developed and implemented to instill a sense of competition among the line squads and to evaluate their level of proficiency on sapper squad tasks.  The SSQC consisted of the following tasks: Catamount Course, Squad Defense, Buddy Aid/Crew Extraction, NBC Reaction, Squad Maintenance, Point Minefield Battle Drill, Hasty Breach of a Minefield Battle Drill, Deliberate Road Crater Battle Drill, Breach an Antitank Ditch for APC Traffic, and an Engineer Assault Course.  These 10 tasks were chosen for their General Deployment Plan (GDP)-related skills and tested during an intense two week evaluation phase.

Each event was designed to solidify small unit cohesion and strengthen troop-leading procedures.  The Catamount Course was a specially designed obstacle course.  The course, run one soldier at a time, assessed time penalties for failure to negotiate obstacles correctly.  An average time per man was then calculated for each squad to determine a final score. 


Squad Defense dealt with marksmanship and fire control.  With the aid of a pop-up target range, each squad was placed on line with 100 rounds of 5.56mm.  Then within two minutes, 100 targets in a preplanned sequence were raised and engaged by the squad.  Good marksmanship and fire control were necessary if a squad desired to do well.


The Buddy Aid/Crew Extraction drill was designed to increase a squad's ability to provide immediate medical assistance to fellow soldiers on the battlefield.  With two simulated casualties (medics) trapped in an APC, this site was evaluated by the battalion's physician’s assistant and provided some very realistic medical training.  This type of training is similar to that taught by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to its soldiers; training that has, for them, resulted in a number of lives saved that would otherwise have been lost. 


The NBC Reaction drill consisted of individual and collective NBC tasks: Put On and Wear Protective Clothing, Drink Water While in MOPP IV, Restore Breathing Using the Back-Pressure Arm Lift Method of Resuscitation, and a MOPP Gear Exchange.  This site was conducted and evaluated by the battalion NBC NCO. 


The Squad Maintenance portion of the SSQC was run and evaluated by BMO warrant officers and senior NCOs.  Squads went through this event with all their assigned equipment: M113A2 with trailer, caliber .50 machine gun, communications, and mine detectors.  If its equipment was deadlined for other than organizational deficiencies, a squad was authorized to use a corresponding piece of equipment from the platoon leader's assets.  If equipment was dead lined for organizational deficiencies, this constraint provided an excellent incentive to get that piece of equipment off the deadline report.  Each squad brought its vehicle into the evaluation site and conducted before, during, and after PMCS, during which time the BMO evaluators asked specific questions in reference to the equipment.  Upon the completion of this event, the squad had no doubts, whatsoever, how to properly conduct maintenance on its equipment and the BMO had first-hand knowledge about that squad's level of training and the status of its equipment. 


The Point Minefield, Hasty Breach of a Minefield and Deliberate Road Crater tasks were all standard engineer battle drills developed by the unit.  The Breach an Antitank Ditch for APC Traffic was more of a team-building task than a realistic mission.  Faced with breaching a very real tank ditch, the squad had to get its APC across with only the use of picks, shovels, and physical stamina to assist them.  With time as their enemy, these squads worked until they dropped. 


The final and most challenging event was the Engineer Assault or "Rambo" course.  MILES supported, this course combined the combat engineer's primary role of combat multiplier with his secondary role of infantryman.  To successfully complete this course, the engineer squad had to negotiate a playing field nearly 200 meters long, by 50 meters wide to destroy an enemy machine gun bunker located at the far end.  Moving onto the field of play in their track, the squad was forced to dismount and employ a Bangalore torpedo to open a passage through a triple standard concertina wire obstacle.  While crew-served weapons provided supportive fires, the squad breached this obstacle and a subsequent linear "minefield.” Moving forward, the squad was once again forced to dismount from its carrier when it encountered an antitank ditch filled with concertina.  From this point the squad had to fire and maneuver through the tank ditch, a second wire obstacle and a trench network to destroy the bunker with a satchel charge.  The M60 machine gun firing from the bunker and two armed enemy soldiers, randomly located on the battlefield, taught our soldiers many valuable lessons.  Armed with smoke, practice hand grenades, and simulated demolitions, the sapper squad faced an exceptional challenge. 


There is a great deal of planning and coordination that must take place to ensure the success of this squad qualification course.  Local training areas (LTAs), ranges, ammunition, training aids, schedules, and digging assets must be coordinated.  Site OlC/NCOlC selection is extremely important.  Tasks such as NBC, Maintenance, and Buddy Aid have their own specialists on the battalion staff.  Line company officers and senior NCOs should be selected as evaluators for the remaining events.  The experience and knowledge of each evaluator is extremely important, for he will have a tremendous impact for his particular event upon the training standards of every line squad in the battalion.  For the good of the battalion and the individual soldier this impact needs to be positive and constructive. 


For each event, a task, condition and standard must be developed and provided to the chain of command, down to squad level to ensure that no doubts exist as to what is expected for each task, performance standards explain in a step- by-step manner exactly what is to be evaluated.  These performance standards should be produced in draft form, first, and circulated among the commanders and site evaluators to correct any doctrinal problems or errors.  Once finalized, these standards must be provided down to squad leader level in a timely manner.  All squads must be given enough time to train to standards.  Rewards and recognition serve as very powerful motivators for any soldier.  The results of all squad evaluations were posted in the mess hall for all to view.  The four squads with the highest point scores and all "GOs" were selected as Distinguished Sapper Squads with the squad attaining the highest score designated as the Top Sapper Squad.  Each member of the Top Sapper Squad received an Army Achievement Medal (AAM), a trophy, a four-day pass from the battalion commander and a specially designed pennant for their APC.


The other Distinguished Sapper Squad members received a three-day pass from the Battalion Commander and a specially designed pennant for their APCs.  Of the remaining squads, those that received all "GOs" were designated as Expert Sapper Squads, while those receiving one "NO GO" out of the 10 events were designated as Qualified Sapper Squads.  All qualified squads have a specially designed logo stenciled on their APCs designating their level of qualification.  Those squads with two "NO GOs" or more were deemed unqualified.  Of 36 squads, only 18 squads met the standards for expert or distinguished, while four squads were judged unqualified. 


Evaluators should be flexible but should not compromise on standards.  Equity in scoring and evaluating can be difficult, at best, when an event spans two weeks and involves 36 line squads.  But with stabilized evaluators and standardized score sheets, these difficulties can be kept to a minimum. 


As the developer of this course, I hoped to provide the best and most realistic training possible under peacetime constraints to the soldiers of my battalion.  In Men Against Fire, S.L.A.  Marshall states, "The fundamental purpose of all training today should be to develop the natural faculties and to stimulate the brain of the soldier." I believe this course served that purpose and after-action reviews by evaluators were critical to achieving that end.  Feedback on performance is needed immediately after the completion of any training, while the images are still fresh in the soldier's mind.  Nothing is more important than the correction of training deficiencies or the reinforcement of positive performance. 


This course offered a bit of something for everyone.  It provided the soldier with the best and most challenging training he had had in many years, and he enjoyed doing it.  This course also proved to be valuable to the commanders for they got a realistic "snap shot" of the status of training and maintenance within their units.  This "snap shot" proved to be a real eye opener to the deficiencies and strengths uncovered.  


Finally, one of the best features of the course is that it is branch independent.  With a few changes here and there, any branch can operate this course successfully, in a number of variations.  Run twice a year, this type of course will rejuvenate any garrison training program. 


CPT John D.  Lock is currently the commander of C Company, 307th Engineer Battalion, 82d Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, NC.  He was enlisted for four years prior to receiving his commission at USMA.  CPT Lock's duty positions with the 16th Engineer Battalion, 1st Armored Division, FRG, included platoon leader, company XO and Assistant S3.  CPT Lock is also a graduate of IOAC.

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