The Army is rolling out a new Combatives Master Trainer Course as part of an ongoing overhaul of the hand-to-hand combat program.

The creation of the new four-week course likely will mean many of the service's top trainers will have to be re-certified. Soldiers also can expect changes to the other combatives courses, officials said.

The new master trainer course is expected to be official in the spring.

The Maneuver Center of Excellence has completed one pilot course with two more scheduled, one in mid-November and the other in January, said Command Sgt. Maj. Timothy Guden, the senior enlisted soldier for the Maneuver Center at Fort Benning, Georgia.

The new course combines the former basic combatives instructor course and tactical combatives instructor course, also known as Levels III and IV, respectively. Each of those courses was four weeks long.

"Quite frankly, we're all about looking for efficiencies," Guden said, explaining the impetus for the change. "We've gone through a lot of efficiencies with a lot of courses with the merger of the armor and infantry schools here at Fort Benning since 2011."

The combatives program was just one of many programs looked at, Guden said.

"How can we make this efficient and not lose but continue to gain the expertise we need out in the field?" he said.

The goal was to "continue to keep that same level of intensity and standards, producing the same quality instructors," Guden said.

Upcoming changes to the combatives program will focus more on tactical skills applicable to the battlefield.

Photo Credit: Timothy L. Hale/Army

The first pilot took place Aug. 25 to Sept. 22, Guden said. Thirty-two students started the class; 29 graduated.

Recommendations and feedback from the course will be used to refine the course curriculum, he said.

"We'll listen to what the students have to say, we'll listen to what the field has to say," Guden said. "We'll do our best to incorporate that to make the course the best possible course we can."

The next pilot is scheduled to begin Monday at Fort Benning, while the third will start Jan. 6 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

The first master trainer class is scheduled for Feb. 23. A mobile training team of instructors from the combatives schoolhouse at Fort Benning will run the class at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

A lot of work went into laying out the new master trainer course, Guden said.

"There was a lot of shuffling, talking about the pros and cons of some of the techniques taught to the old Level III and Level IV courses," he said.

One primary focus was the tactical application of combatives, Guden said.

"We want to focus on … getting a good grasp of those tactical combatives tasks that we expect the force to know," he said.

This includes fighting while wearing body armor and a helmet and armed with a rifle while in a closed room, he said.

"All of this together continues to support the fact that we want our soldiers to be confident and competent when it comes to understanding the basic lifesaving combatives skills," Guden said. "We don't want it to just be a circle on a grassy field. We don't want it just to be in a gym with pads. We want it to be everywhere where soldiers train."

Because two four-week courses are now being merged into one, some blocks of instruction likely will be eliminated while others will be filtered down to the basic and tactical combatives courses, also formerly known as Level I and Level II training, Guden said.

For example, some basic striking techniques likely will be moved down to the tactical combatives course, said Staff Sgt. Brandon Sayles, a senior instructor at the combatives schoolhouse.

"Having students go through some striking combinations and takedowns make it a better transition for when they do come to the master trainer course," he said.

The schoolhouse is "in the process of transitioning some of the techniques," and changes are expected in the basic and tactical courses, Sayles said.

"There will be changes to the program of instruction for all the courses," he said.

Officials also likely will require previously certified trainers to be recertified, he said. Based on when the soldier was certified and the level of his ongoing involvement with the combatives program, he will either have to complete the whole four-week course or attend a shorter refresher, he said.

Right now, officials are considering this requirement for soldiers who were certified before 2012, Sayles said.

"We want to make sure any changes to our POI, they're updated with and understand the ins and outs and the add-ons," he said.

Staff Sgt. Colton Smith, the senior instructor for the III Corps and Fort Hood, Texas, combatives program, said he sees the value of the old four-level training regimen.

"I think doing a Cliffs notes version of the combatives program, there's a possibility of having undertrained instructors," he said. "It's a perishable skill. The extra hours we had going through Levels III and IV separately, people that couldn't hack it didn't hack it, and those who could hack it are the trainers we have today."

However, Smith also said he has confidence in Sayles and the other instructors at Fort Benning who build the new master trainer course.

"There have been a lot of changes over the years, but there were a lot of good minds that went into this," he said.

It's critical for the program to train soldiers to standard, not to time, Smith said.

"We don't train to be [mixed-martial arts] fighters or be in the [Ultimate Fighting Championship]," said Smith, who fought in the UFC from 2012 to 2014. "We train to save lives on the battlefield. We make better soldiers."

So far, the schoolhouse has gotten mixed reviews of the master trainer course, Guden said.

"It is a more rigorous course both physically and mentally," he said. "Some [soldiers] have been waiting for a course like this because not everybody has eight weeks to come do this. Others have already gone through [the tactical instructor course] so they don't want to do it again."

The goal of the Maneuver Center was to find the best balance of safety, quality of the course, and the needs of the force, Guden said.

"Everyone has an idea of what they want," he said. "Being the proponent, we're looking at the big picture as far as every soldiers, not just an airborne unit or maneuver unit or whatever the case might be. We're looking at what every soldier should know and building instructors that are qualified."

Michelle Tan is the editor of Army Times and Air Force Times. She has covered the military for Military Times since 2005, and has embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Haiti, Gabon and the Horn of Africa.

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