There’s cool, and then there’s ‘leaning out the side of my Corolla popping off rounds in the snow’ cool. This photo of Green Berets with 1st Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne), falls into the latter category.
Despite looking like it was plucked from the set of a John Wick or Jason Bourne film, it’s an actual shot of a very real and undeniably awesome training event. The photo, one in a series of 10 uploaded to the military’s imagery database on April 22, shows Special Forces soldiers during Low-Visibility Force Protection Training in Dalton, New Hampshire.
The Special Forces soldiers in the images are wearing everyday clothes and carrying sidearms and M4s as they engage targets from behind, and sometimes inside of run-of-the-mill cars: There’s a Land Rover, the aforementioned Toyota Corolla, and even a hot red Ford Fiesta.
The captions for the photos offer little context about the exercise, which is described as training for “low-visibility operations in hostile urban environments” with the word “lethality” tossed in for good measure. However, in conversations with several former special operators who were familiar with these operations, we were able to get a better sense of what’s going on in those photos, what the training is for, and why it’s important.
First off, let’s clear up some of the jargon: The phrase “low-visibility operations” refers to those missions that require a bit of subtlety, and low-visibility force protection refers to the measures that troops need to take to stay safe in that environment.
By contrast, an example of a high-visibility force protection area would be one with an established military presence, like the forward operating bases that dotted areas of operation across Iraq and Afghanistan during the height of both U.S. campaigns there. That means HESCO barriers, guard towers, C-wire, armed and uniformed military personnel, and a range of other defensive and offensive measures that come with a heavy troop presence.
For low visibility operations, troops tend to operate out of bases that are a bit less conspicuous than sprawling overseas installations — that could mean an embassy or a house in a city that doubles as a unit’s tactical operations center and a barracks — and service members deployed there usually make an effort to blend in, often by wearing everyday clothes.
“Basically it’s operator or SOF-speak for a relatively simple concept: This is what SOF guys do, they go into places around the world, including urban environments where they do close target reconnaissance,” a former Army Ranger told Task & Purpose. This might involve “doing drive-bys of buildings and taking pictures,” or escorting a VIP, like a diplomat, he said.
The Ranger, who spoke on the condition his name not be used, added that a “hostile urban environment” refers to cities where folks may not want to see uniformed and armed U.S. troops rolling by in armored vehicles. “Outside of Iraq and Afghanistan, you’re not gonna be in an MRAP or a Stryker, you’re gonna be in a little car; preferably in a vehicle that’s pretty common in that city,” he said.
Low-visibility operations are about remaining inconspicuous, which is why the Green Berets in the photos were in plain clothes. That said, “plain clothes” might be a bit of a misnomer, seeing as most people don’t head to the office wearing plate carriers, operator hats, and jeans with knee pads.
“You do not look like you’re about to grab a coffee and work remotely, you look like you’re about to go on a very aggressive elk-hunting trip,” explained Benjamin Bunn, a former Green Beret who served from 2000 to 2016 and deployed in support of the Global War on Terror to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Baltic Region.
This extends to the vehicles that operators drive as well, explained a former Marine Raider who also declined to be named. Depending on where they deploy, U.S. special operations forces may drive around in “rinky-dink cars” in one region and “up-armored land cruisers” or a Toyota Hilux in another, he said. It’s not completely inconspicuous, but it is better than driving around in a Humvee, he added.
Training like the kind seen in the photos helps prepare service members in the event that things go very wrong, very quickly, in an environment where immediate outside assistance might be limited.
“People are most vulnerable during travel,” Bunn said.
“It’s very important to know how to fight in and around a vehicle,” Bunn said, though he did pause on the photo of the Green Beret “straight hanging out of a window,” saying that it was “a little wild,” given that if the vehicle were to roll over, it could end disastrously. In a real-life situation where you’re driving through a potentially hostile environment you “want to stay may moving and stay buckled up,” he said.
Still, there could be more to the image, Bunn said, speculating that maybe the soldier was simulating how to disembark a vehicle after a crash, or if it had been rammed, in which case the doors might be inoperable.
Other aspects of low-visibility operations training include offensive driving techniques, like learning how to crash through barricades, and how to fire from within a vehicle, Bunn said. “When you’re shooting in a car, you will always get brass in your clothing, so you have to be ready to have hot brass on you,” he said, referring to the spent shell casings that eject, hot as hell, from your weapon after firing.
And of course, the training covers what to do and where to take cover in the event you’re forced to abandon your dinky, potentially bullet-ridden, car.
“Bullets will go right through a door, or skip under the vehicle, bounce up and hit you in your breadbasket,” Bunn said, referring to the possibility that a round could ricochet upward and strike someone in the junk if they’re not covered properly.
“Get behind the wheel,” Bunn added — which is what the Green Berets in several of the photos appear to be doing. “It has a rim, a gigantic axle, and can stop rounds.”
On the whole, this kind of exercise is “a normal facet of SOF training,” Bunn said. As for why it might help Special Forces soldiers to learn how to do all this in the snow, Bunn suggested that may have been to prepare the unit for an upcoming deployment, or just to round out their skills.
“Green Berets are very good at adapting to a variety of different environments. You will train on anything from a pack mule all the way up to an MRAP with a mine roller on it. That’s part of the job.”