Words: Chris (E27D)
Pics: Snook Snaps
In March, I was fortunate enough to be invited to attend a counter-terrorism (CT) training event in the Midlands, run by ITAS. Held in May, it would be conducted in the manner of Exercises Final Encore (August 2016) and Spartan Shield (February 2017).
Having attended both of those events, as part of British UKSF impression group E27, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. A fictional scenario where terrorists, demanding the freedom of political prisoners, a sizeable ransom or something similarly transactional, had taken civilian hostages, and were threatening to hurt them if their demands weren’t met. In response, the event attendees, assuming the role of Special Forces, would engage in intelligence gathering, observation point (OP) work and close-quarter battle (CQB) training, before conducting a full-scale assault with the intention of rescuing the hostages and either arresting or neutralising the terrorists.
Oh, and waiting. Lots of waiting.
If the idea of doing a good number of ‘stand to’ and ‘stand down’ drills, sitting in your vehicle whilst fully kitted up with nowhere to go, and the consumption of brew upon brew while waiting for the ‘go’ doesn’t whet your appetite, stop reading now. These events require a huge amount of patience, which may or may not be tested to its limit, depending on your nature. Similarly, if you’re the type of player who wants to raise hell, fire thousands of rounds and lob flashbangs like they’re going out of fashion, your money would be better spent elsewhere.
Now, please don’t mistake this for elitism. These CT events make no room for hubris. They are not designed for the wannabe SF coolguy, decked out in a grand’s worth of kit, too busy believing he’s some sort of ninja/Viking/crusader to actually get on with the mission at hand.
That being said, I won’t lie. These events do expect attendees to meet a certain standard in terms of kit, weapons, and most importantly, mindset. Generally, it’s assumed that attendees will come with some sort of kit based on SF, whether it’s black Cryes and Multicam for UKSF, black Cryes and armour for police or grey C2R and Arc’Teryx for CTSFO. Why? Because it adds to the realism.
However, getting the most out of these events largely comes down to having the right attitude. One that says, ‘Ok, so I’ve just returned from the third false ‘stand-to’ in an hour, and it’s starting to get annoying – but I’ll keep my cool and get on with it, because that’s what the real guys do. They don’t throw their toys out of the pram just because they’ve been training to kick doors in all day, then get sent to the target location, only to be stood down before being given the ‘Go’ and sent back to HQ for whatever reason.’ Frustrating though it can be, it’s part of the experience. It’s what the entire weekend – the training, the intel gathering, the assault planning – leads up to, and the rush you get before, during and after you hit that building with the rest of your team is incredibly satisfying.
Trust me, it’s worth the frustration.
Still here? Good. Read on.
Along with myself (E27D), several other members of E27 were in attendance at this event: E27A (Gaz), E27G (Tom), E27M (Matt) and E27R (Jay W).
On a bright Saturday morning in May, we gathered at a predetermined RV point in the Midlands at around 11am. We then proceeded in convoy to the event location, a short drive away, passing through site security and heading to the billet/ops/intel area. After getting ourselves set up, all police, CTSFO and SF teams congregated for a safety and intel briefing with Gaz (in overall charge of the event) and his staff.
Initial intel was that a school had been overrun by terrorists, and at the time of the takeover, only adults were present inside the building; no children were involved. Police negotiators had established communications with the hostage-takers with the aim of talking them down, while SF would plan and conduct an assault on the building if these negotiations were unsuccessful. It’s worthwhile to note that this scenario isn’t particularly special or out of the ordinary, as it’s nothing that hasn’t been acted out a thousand times before at airsoft sites up and down the country. The organisers were clearly following the KISS model when designing this event: Keep it simple, stupid.
We got to work. The attendees on the SF contingent split themselves down into Red and Green teams, each with a roughly even split of members from E27, who had the most experience in these events. Each team had an IC, a 2IC, and two callsigns: Alpha and Bravo. In total, this allowed for four SF callsigns, each one with its own IC, 5-6 assaulters and a vehicle, with CTSFOs mixed in for good measure. The police were there to maintain overall control of the operation, conduct negotiations and exchanges with the terrorists, and, during the assault, secure a cordon around the target location and facilitate the safe withdrawal of hostages.
A word on assault plans. Two plans were jointly formulated by Red and Green team leaders in the intelligence (int) room: an Emergency Response (ER) plan and a Direct Action (DA) plan. The ER plan was a contingency, a last resort, and would be the one used if SF had to move at very short notice, perhaps if shots were fired, a hostage was executed or things escalated beyond the point of no return. The DA plan would be more considered, more finely tuned, and would draw upon intel gathered from OP teams, police negotiations and other means. This plan would be executed on our terms, and would be the preferred course of action in every instance.
Skills and drills
A schedule was drawn up which detailed the times at which Red and Green teams would be either on standby for a CT response, or on observation point (OP) work and intelligence gathering. Green, starting off on CT, ran through some CQB drills whilst Red began with OP/intel. Though it might seem obvious, the purpose of these was to get everyone singing from the same hymn sheet in terms of movement, weapon handling and room entry. People at these events bring along their own techniques, experiences and opinions, and some think their way works better than others. Having ‘John’ on board made things a lot easier. A guest instructor with ITAS, John was a particularly knowledgeable individual and well-versed in the relevant skills. He showed Green (and later, Red) how to move through a corridor, how to effectively use three men to enter and clear room, how to use non-verbal communication to make your intentions clear, and how to tackle single and multiple open doors, among other things.
If nothing else, John will be remembered for one thing at this event, and it was a concise and straightforward line that quickly became the catchphrase of the weekend: “Head up, gun up, looking for work.” It really is as simple as it sounds. During an assault, if you aren’t occupied with something, your head should be up, your weapon should be up, and you should be looking for something to do.
John repeated the line so often that it almost became a mantra. So often in fact, that soon enough, we began to continuously ask ourselves whether we were being useful or useless. Though in reality it happens in a fraction of the time that it takes to read this sentence, a typical scenario might see you think, ‘My head is up, my eyes are open and my weapon is poised and ready. I’m at the back of the stack as the three guys in front of me effect entry in to a room. They don’t need a fourth guy, so I need to look for work. I need to be useful. I need to ‘take the long’, which means moving myself to the other side of the doorway my team have just entered, and make sure I’m defending against frontal assaults from down the corridor while they’re all occupied in the room.’
The line is a quick way for assaulters to remember to keep the pace of the operation going and increase the likelihood of it being a success. John reminded us that not paying attention to blind spots, not keeping up with the rest of the team and lapsing in concentration can cost lives in real operations. Though obviously not applicable to airsoft, the principle was the same. We were there to do a job, and, within the scenario at least, lives were at stake. We had to get it right. If nothing else, it’s a good principle to work from in airsoft, particularly in CQB – how effective are you really being at a particular moment in time?
Jay W’s command echoed throughout the garage, and the guys on CT rotation began to move. Plate carriers were thrown on, helmet straps were buckled, and vehicle engines started. Doors slammed closed and drivers gave thumbs up to each other to signal that they were ready to head out. This is it, we thought. We’re launching an assault.
Bewildered, we switched our engines off and debussed. We hadn’t even left the garage; it was a drill.
From the first shout to the last, it took around 4 minutes for us all to be ready. “That’s three hostages,” Jay reminded us. Three lives lost, in the time it took us to sort ourselves out. It transpired that some people weren’t even in the garage at the time the shout went up, as they were perhaps in the toilet, or up at the kitchen making a brew. This slowed things down considerably – not great when you’re meant to be getting ready for an assault. We didn’t need telling again. From that point onwards, if we were on the CT rotation, we remained in the garage at all times, kept our plate carriers on, kept our rifles loaded and in the footwells of our vehicles, and our helmets on the roof of said vehicles. If we needed the loo, we would sprint there and sprint back. If we needed a brew, we’d ask someone who wasn’t on CT rotation to get it for us.
The next time ‘Stand to!’ was called, our response time was cut down drastically, and again a third time, eventually settling at around 40 seconds. We came to expect the command at any moment, so we kept ourselves primed and ready. This was how it needed to be. We were playing the role of a rapid response element, so our response needed to be rapid, not lethargic.
Later on in the afternoon, we amassed in a training building to conduct… Well, training. John accompanied us, and helped us to rehearse our movements within rooms and corridors, entering a room depending on whether the door handle is on the left or right hand side (and what the other members of your team should be doing during this process), the correct deployment of distraction devices, the correct deployment of chemlights, the treatment of injuries and extraction of hostages, the arrest of downed opponents, and numerous other elements that all comprise a ‘typical’ assault. Some of us even rejigged our kit to make it easier for us and for teammates to use – there’s little point in having loads of bangs across your front, for example, if the person deploying them is going to be the guy behind you.
It was by no means comprehensive, but it was intense and it was designed to be as demanding as possible. At the back of your mind throughout these training packages is the thought that, eventually, you are going to be putting all this into practice in a live operation. It is a lot to remember, and for those players who may not be used to such a sustained tempo of operations at your usual Saturday skirmish, it can be difficult to keep up with. After all, most of us don’t do this on a daily basis, like the real guys do – we’re teachers, students, office workers, people with normal day jobs. Things are going to go wrong. We’re going to panic and suddenly freeze when our gun stops working, or at the sight of a screaming, injured civilian with blood pouring from a gunshot ‘wound’. These events are designed to simulate real-life scenarios, so we can forgive ourselves for not being consistently slick, 100% of the time.
The rotations continued throughout the afternoon and into the night. In the mid-evening, we received information that known associates of the hostage-takers had been spotted in a nearby village. Our team leaders gave us taskings to head into this village to get ‘eyes on’: determine their exact location, record physical descriptions of these individuals and get ourselves into a position where we could monitor communications or conversations.
This work – ‘blue skills’ – was completely different to training for an assault. I’d done it before, at Exercises Spartan Shield and Final Encore, but this time we had guys along with us who were completely new to it. Some of them had to be told what to wear, and how to carry themselves. It’s actually pretty easy to spot certain people when you know what to look for; if you wear the wrong things or walk in a certain manner whilst you’re trying to be the ‘grey man’, you might end up giving the game away.
We had to remain as covert as possible. There was absolutely no point wearing obvious ‘mil’ gear as we would mark ourselves out instantly to the targets, and to the civilian population of the village who were genuinely there to enjoy their Saturday nights. It wasn’t unusual to find people wearing hiking gear in this particular village, but multicam ballcaps and desert boots were out of the question. Jeans, trainers and a civilian jacket were ideal.
We drove into town, armed only with camera phones, radios and notepads, and took up positions outside places we thought the targets might be: pubs, restaurants, busy shops. In teams of two, we would either walk up the high street, occasionally stopping to look in a shop window or make a phone call to make it less obvious what we were doing, or remain in vehicles, with a good line of sight on buildings of interest. Some people had less success with this than others – they had to be asked to retreat to a vehicle, as they’d made too many passes past a building and therefore began to look out of place. (Not that I’m an expert on this either: on a previous Exercise, myself and [fellow E27 member] Jay B were conducting blue skills in a pub, sat on a table five feet away from our targets. The actors playing the targets later told Gaz that they had clocked us almost immediately, as we’d sat down with our drinks and barely said a word to each other, instead looking at our phones or at the football on the TV – we were too ‘different’ to everything else that was going on in the pub.) We’d spotted a few individuals of interest and took discreet photos or notes, relaying this information back to command. After around an hour of this, we headed back to base and disseminated any new intel to head shed and to our teammates.
From around 2200, teams were at reduced strength as people began to tire and the pace of operations began to slow. During the night, no CT response was required – a decision made, I suspect, on the part of the organisers to allow attendees to catch up on some sleep. The next morning would be a busy one, with further OPs to set up, intel to gather, and an assault to prepare for and conduct, not mentioning the drive home afterwards (which in my case took around 4 hours, which made it important to get adequate rest the night before).
On Sunday, teams slowly began to wake up, get some breakfast and get themselves ready to resume operations. Though we hadn’t been given a set time to be out of bed and ready to go, attendees were generally all present and correct in the garage by 8.30am. We were briefed on the night’s events: whilst most guys had their heads down, a small strike team had conducted an operation on a building that was suspected of being a terrorist IED production facility. Though the house was empty, the intelligence had proven correct, as the team discovered an array of bomb-making equipment and documents that generated further names of individuals of interest. Not wanting to alert anyone to their presence, the team exfiltrated before the terrorists arrived back home. This operation allowed command to follow up on the names that were generated, scouring social media for any snippets of information that might serve to further flesh out the overall intelligence picture.
The standby / OP rotations carried on for the rest of the morning. At around 10am, myself and Matt donned our ‘green kit’ and left to set up an OP on the north entrance of the target building. We founded a thick area of woodland and set up shop, using a DSLR and binos to gather intel on enemy numbers, armaments, and potential routes and methods of ingress. We fed this back to command, who used it to flesh out the assault plans. Around an hour later, we were recalled back to base, so we exfiltrated unseen. This reconnaissance exercise was one of the most enjoyable parts of the weekend for me, as it provided a calmer alternative to the intensity of the CT rotations. It is worth noting here that dedicated recce / green skills events are something that are on the organisers’ radar for the future, so if this sort of thing interests you, be sure to keep an eye out.
Early in the afternoon, negotiators had been locked in talks with the hostage takers, with seemingly little progress being made. Police OP teams then reported hearing a gunshot and witnessing a body being thrown from a balcony. At this point, it was abundantly clear that nothing more could be done; the time for talking was over. Control of the operation was handed over to Jay W, who gave the assault teams the order to ‘stand to’ in preparation for an Emergency Response assault. With this, all assault elements loaded themselves into their designated vehicles before proceeding in convoy to a staging area, around 200m short of the target location. Once there, we debussed and stacked up in our callsigns, with SF aiming for the north entrance of the building while police maintained the perimeter around the west entrance. It was a short walk to the target through some dense woods, so we made our way to a wall a few metres away from the doors of the north entrance. The last few guys closed up the rear. We kneeled, and waited for the signal to go.
This was it. The training, the drills, the false ‘stand to’ alarms, the intelligence gathering, the team-building conversations over a brew during downtime, the covert observations in the village – every aspect of the previous 24 hours culminated in this moment. Once it ‘went loud’, there was no turning back. Everything had to be slick. There was little room for error.
Our radios crackled into life with the words we were waiting for.
‘Go, go, go!’
Our guns raised and our hearts pounding, we stood up and moved at a clip towards the doors, when suddenly one of the guys in front of me crashed to the floor. I stopped to see who it was. It was E27G – Tom. My teammate. He was lying motionless on the deck, his eyes closed. Had one of the terrorists in the building seen him, taken a pot shot from an open window and got lucky? Was the assault compromised before it had even started? We had around 15-20 guys on our side who were continuing towards the doors, so I stopped to see what was wrong with Tom. I squeezed his shoulder and shouted his name. No response. I shouted again. Nothing. Either he was very good at playing dead, or something was genuinely wrong. Someone signalled for Matt (E27M), one of our medics, to check him over. It turned out that Tom, in one of his clumsier moments, had simply lost his footing during the approach, fell forwards, and had genuinely knocked himself unconscious for around 10 seconds. His helmet almost certainly stopped things from being much worse than they could have been. Mercifully, he was fine, and re-joined our callsign for the second assault. Luckily, Tom’s mishap was documented by Snook, the event photographer, for the rest of E27’s amusement. We make sure to place him at the back of the stack these days.
The assault continued, with bodies pouring into the foyer of the ground floor of the three-floor building. The ER plan, meticulously drafted and redrafted by the ICs of the assault teams back at base, finally came into effect: Green team commenced their assault on the ground floor, whilst Red team ascended to the first. Once these stages were complete, both teams would converge on the second floor. The police, maintaining the cordon and securing the west entrance, would deal with any ‘squirters’ (terrorists looking to make a break for it), as well as any panicked hostages who might be fleeing during the chaos.
As we entered, one of the first things we heard – along with ear-splitting building attack alarms, explosions and blank rounds going off – were the distant, piercing screams of a female hostage in duress. Whether this was in response to our assault commencing or to the actions of a hostage-taker inside, we weren’t sure. Whatever it was, we had to push on. Her ‘life’, and those of numerous others, was in jeopardy.
We left Green downstairs whilst we pushed up the stairwell in near total darkness. Stacked up behind the door that led to the main corridor of the first floor, we waited for the pointman to throw a bang through the door before we followed it in. As we entered, the shouts of the hostage takers and screams of the hostages began to flood our ears. We eventually came across hostages who were injured, others who were scared, and hostage-takers who were armed and weren’t in the mood for talking. As assaulters, our job was to treat the first group, protect the second group, and neutralise the third. In high-stress situations like this, it would be easy to make a mistake and shoot someone you shouldn’t, simply because you weren’t thinking straight. That’s why we were told that every round fired would have to be accounted for at the end of the assault – the police would be conducting an investigation into the operation and would need to know which rounds were fired by which individuals, to ensure that assaulters were shooting the right people and weren’t simply trigger-happy idiots.
At one point – I think it was towards the end of the assault – I found myself outside a room whilst my teammates were dealing with a hostage or an IED inside. I was left alone outside the room, and had a temporary lapse in concentration. Perhaps it was the noise and the confusion of the events unfolding around me; even now I’m not entirely sure what it was. But from nowhere, John’s mantra came into my head: ‘Head up, gun up, looking for work.’ I immediately refocused – I raised my weapon and started moving forward. It’s true that your senses can become sharper in overwhelming situations like this, and I was sure I’d seen the elbow of an enemy combatant poking out of an open doorway. I moved forward a few feet and saw it again, this time followed by a hand with a weapon in it. I took a shot, but missed. Another assaulter appeared on my right and fired, and hit the guy, who retreated into the room, before the rest of my callsign re-joined me.
I was annoyed at myself for losing focus, but also fairly relieved that I’d overcome it as quickly as I had. In a real situation, this few seconds of inertia could quite literally have been the difference between life and death, but even in this scenario, had I remained static for a few more seconds, I could have been taken out by the guy in the doorway. I counted myself lucky and pushed on.
As planned, we conducted a joint assault with Green team on the top floor. The entire SF contingent had entered the building at the north entrance, with Green taking the ground floor while Red assaulted the first floor. On the top floor, Red team assaulted from the north stairwell to the halfway point – a connecting corridor – whilst Green did the same from the south stairwell. Once the pointmen from both teams could see each other through the glass doors in the corridor, they gave a ‘thumbs up’ and each dropped a green chemlight, to signify that they had cleared their respective areas and were preparing to egress out of the building. These pre-arranged communications made things a lot easier, and prevented us from straying outside our LOEs – limits of exploitation. We’d learned on previous exercises that LOEs were important, as with multiple assault teams moving through a building, it would be easy to stray into a corridor that wasn’t ‘yours’ and find yourself catching a round from someone on your side who wasn’t expecting to see you there.
On the top floor, I was shot in the leg by a hostage-taker, so I dropped to the deck and pulled out the CAT tourniquet in my left upper arm pocket. Injuries to the limbs were to be treated as non-life threatening, and simply required a CAT or bandage to be applied for you to get back into the fight. Hits to body armour or helmets were to be ignored, whereas hits to primary weapons would force you to draw down to your secondary. Though it might seem alien to those players who simply raise an arm and shout ‘Hit!’ when at a skirmish, in this environment it served to increase the level of immersion and realism – particularly when the guys behind you start dragging you out by the handle on your plate carrier so that they can continue the fight in your place. (Note: CATs, obviously, are real-world pieces of medical equipment, so I didn’t tighten the windlass rod. I simply wrapped the CAT around my arm, velcro’d the strap down and left it in place – that was enough to signal that I’d been hit and that I’d dealt with it.)
Things soon began to fall into place. Though it was rough and ready, it was fairly consistent. We stacked up on doors in the way we had been taught, and we were cautious of which way we opened the door depending on which side we were on. We began to mark rooms that were clear with green chemlights, and drop red ones on the bodies of combatants, IEDs or outside uncleared rooms to aid identification by other assaulters. We handled hostages firmly (but not aggressively, they were actors after all), and when our teammates shouted ‘Need one!’ when outside a room, we were right there behind them with a shout of ‘Got three!’ to let them know how many bodies they had in their stack. It was fast, it was fluid, and it got the job done.
Freed hostages were escorted to a holding area downstairs, and were laid face down on the ground to await processing by the police. A few of us stood guard, whilst others returned to continue the assault. Eventually, the organisers shouted ‘Endex!’ and the assault teams began to make their way out of the building and back to the staging area where we had left our vehicles. We returned to HQ to take part in a debrief.
Although the E27 guys had done this before, the new attendees had not, and needed this time to decompress and reflect on what they had experienced. The organisers had arranged for the assault to be run a second time, which gave the crisis actors and terrorists time to reposition themselves and any IEDs or weapons they might have used, and either re-do the makeup for the ‘injuries’ they had sustained or apply new ones. It also gave us time to rethink our assault plans and to make changes to our kit or tactics.
(Note: I checked my kit over in the garage – I had one half-empty rifle magazine in my dump pouch from when I’d cleared my weapon after Endex. The other 3 mags on my rig hadn’t been touched, and neither had the Glock on my belt. As I mentioned earlier, if you’re hoping to attend a future CT event expecting to fire hundreds of rounds at a crowd of bad guys, forget it: it just isn’t going to happen. The E27 guys – particularly Tom and Matt, our team medics, who often stop to deal with casualties – don’t normally fire more than a magazine’s worth of rounds anyway. Some guys don’t fire any rounds at all. There are far more assaulters than there are bad guys, so it naturally follows that targets are going to be in short supply. It’s something to bear in mind if you’re interested in coming along next time.)
On the second assault run, we were able to make use of the more methodical DA plan. This run went better than the firs, primarily because things were on our terms, but also because everyone now knew what to expect. It took us less time, and we took less casualties. The bangs, the flashes, the smoke, the screams, the wounds – these things were no longer an unknown quantity to the assaulters. The sense of disorientation, of confusion and of panic is very real when you step into that target building for the first time, so it is easy to see why the men who make up the special forces (and police CTSFOs, who conduct similar operations) are so small in number. It takes a completely unique sort of individual to be able to contend with all of those variables and to come out alive on the other side. Hostage rescue, even when using plastic ball bearings and crisis actors with pretend injuries, is a true assault on the senses, so you can imagine how much more difficult it is when the ammunition is real and when lives really do hang in the balance. As glamorous as it might appear when depicted in the movies, it’s undoubtedly a very difficult job to do and it’s not one I’m sure I could undertake.
“So this all sounds awesome, but when’s the next event, and where do I sign up?” I hear you cry. Well, the main thing to stress here is that if the event organisers don’t get enough people attending next time round, they would have to seriously consider whether they are a viable enterprise to run again.
With that in mind, I’d like to explain my reasons for writing this report.
The first reason is that I’d like to provide people with a greater insight into the level of realism that can be obtainable for airsofters who want a little (or a lot) more from their sport. Maybe they’re bored with Saturday skirmishes. Maybe they’re fed up of being hosed with BBs from over-enthusiastic players every weekend. Maybe the milsims they’ve been to haven’t quite satiated their taste for hyper-realistic scenarios where skills, drills and patience are pushed to the limit. Rest assured that these events provide solutions to all those things.
The second is that, pure and simple, I want more people to come along because I want to do this all over again. I want more people to experience what I did, and I know that the event organisers do too. I’m being pretty upfront about the fact that I hope this report serves as a recruiting tool to get more bodies to the next event. But it’s important to stress that there can’t be a next event if people don’t sign up in the first place. Running these events costs money, time and goodwill – the first of which, as I’m sure you know, is in short supply these days. The organisers have to cover their costs, and if they are losing money because of low numbers of attendees, rather than breaking even or making a profit, then there is simply no point in doing it all over again. I know that when it comes to airsoft, there is nothing else in the country like this at the moment, and if it were to cease to exist, it would be a huge loss for our community.
So, if this report has piqued your interest even slightly, then keep an eye out for the next CT event, sign up, and come along and see what all the fuss is about. Join the ‘UKSF Airsoft Impressions’ group on Facebook, if you haven’t already, and keep your eyes peeled for details of the next event.
Take a risk. Give it a go. You won’t be disappointed.
Note: At the request of the event organisers, some details (such as the precise location, certain training elements, identities of support staff) have been omitted from this report. Though I have tried to maintain the accuracy of events as they happened, any mistakes or inaccuracies with the details contained herein are mine and mine alone. The contents of this report should be published as they appear in full, and may not be altered, redacted or reproduced without my express permission.