Welcome to Gearhead Wednesday, a regular gear review column by Chief Kristin Beck (ret.), a decorated veteran of the Naval Special Warfare Development Group and all-around badass. Send pitches and suggestions to email@example.com
I want to give a shout out to U.S. Air Force security forces who just competed in the 2018 Air Force Defender Challenge, an international competition that tests our airmen as well as our allied forces. Fourteen teams competed in a grueling combat course pushing their combat effectiveness, interoperability, and teamwork. The week-long event was a resounding success thanks to the hard work by Headquarters U.S. Air Force Security Forces led by Brig. Gen. Andrea Tullos. You can read the full list of winners at the bottom of this article.
This competition has not run since 2004, what with the whole Global War on Terror and all, but many of us in the special operations community hope this competition runs at least every four years and that more of our Allies are able to compete in coming years. We all know the only way to build camaraderie is by boozing hard at the pub or hard corps competitions; the further truth is that peace is built on strong allies and partnerships.
But more importantly, a little-known detail of the competition serves as an important reminder about navigation on the modern battlefield: no matter how sophisticated your tech is, a map and compass will never, ever fail.
The Germans go old-school
U.S. Air Force/Johnny Saldivar
2018 Air Force Defender Challenge competitors, from Germany, pose for a team photo at Joint Base San Antonio-Camp Bullis, Texas, Sept. 10, 2018. Fourteen Security Forces teams from U.S. Air Force major commands, Great Britain and Germany test their skills in realistic weapons scenarios, simulated dismounted operations and grueling combat endurance events as part of Defender Challenge. The team with the most combined points wins the coveted Defender Challenge Championship Trophy.
The 2018 Defender Cup Challenge Champion was U.S. Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), with the U.S. Air Force taking the shooting and dismounted patrol events, the German Air Force won the combat endurance portion, and the United Kingdom clinching the Outstanding Defender in this multi-event competition. But according to a highly-trusted source within the Pentagon, the German airmen are the most “spec ops” of the bunch. Frankly, the Germans should have gotten a golden compass or something awesome.
So why such accolades from a special operations grunt?
These types of combat endurance challenges always have a navigation portion running from a few miles (Air Force) and up to twenty miles (Rangers). You navigate through extremely messed-up terrain from a start point to a hidden ammo can which contains your next navigation point. These types of courses are difficult, and a few meters off will have your team searching hours for that damn green ammo can under a bush somewhere. These courses are timed and the winner has the fastest time after hitting every nav point; some teams simply never finish.
Last week, in the middle of Texas, the fastest team did the three-mile course in around three hours. The slowest team took over six hours with the German team in the middle of the pack. Yup: this Navy SEAL says the middle of the pack is the best and should get a huge Bravo Zulu.
Why’s that? Every Air Force team except the Germans used a GPS to run the course. Three miles with ruck and equipment, using a DAGR (military GPS) for this kind of event is cheating as far as I’m concerned. The German team used a map and compass as their sole means of navigation, which means they did their navigation course the old-fashioned way and still beat half the other teams.
Think about that for a second. This is badass if I ever heard of badass.
BZ to the German Air Force for showing us how it’s supposed to be done. Hold your heads high: you’re the real winners, and if you ever see me at the Biergarten, the first Kölsch is on me.
The map and compass
U.S. Air National Guard/Sgt. Joshua C. Allmaras
Airmen from the Air National Guard Air Force Defender’s Challenge Team 2018 run to the finish line of the dismounted operations portion of the competition at Camp Bullis, San Antonio, Texas, on Sept. 12, 2018. The team finished third in this component of the challenge.
And now, onto the gear stuff. For my first installment of Gearhead Wednesday, I opted to introduce the column with a little bit of humor. But now, I want to just give you some details on how I want to proceed with these gear reviews and build a rhythm or format that will make sense and be easy to utilize.
I plan on reviewing single pieces of kit through thoughtful comparisons. There will be some science and rigor, but mostly I will base my recommendations and criticisms on my 30 years of special operations and engineering experience. For each piece of gear, I’ll frame my evaluations will on the following scale: Awesome, Great, Good, Poor, and FUBAR.
In the following example, we’ll be comparing two navigation devices.
A Silva Ranger compass
Ease of use: Medium
A Silva Ranger compass is, dollar for dollar, the best compass on the market and, in my opinion, the best way to navigate for one simple reason: unlike GPS, it will not fail you and cannot be detected or hacked. However, it is only as effective, accurate, or easy-to-use as you are trained; if you want to get the most out of it, you must practice and challenge yourself on some navigation courses before you go into the deep wild.
The Garmin eTrex 20x
Ease of use: Great
Limitations: software and batteries.
The Garmin eTrex 20x is a really good GPS, but it is not using the encrypted signals and can be hacked and fail or even run out of batteries. It has maps, but they need to be loaded up manually. The screen is bright enough to use in daylight and can be dimmed for night time use. This is a really good GPS for this price and the best of the eTrex family. The eTrex 10 doesn’t have maps, which sucks, and the eTrex 30 has a wireless function, barometer, and compass but not worth the higher cost for most users. So, I would go for the eTrex 20x if I were you.
The Silva Ranger vs. the Garmin eTrex 20x
The Garmin is a great navigation tool and anyone backpacking in the wilderness wouldn’t get lost using this device. The Silva Ranger is a great compass, probably the best compass on the market today. Comparing the two is like apples and oranges because I like both and would take both on an outback adventure. I would bring the GPS because it's super easy, but I would also bring the compass with a map of the area because a map and compass is 100% never fail.
If I had to choose one or the other I would bring the compass with maps of the area I am navigating. In a worst case scenario, I would know some major rally points or major terrain features in the area and you can use the compass to get you back home. The compass is the best last resort.
Of course, navigating your way home is always possible without a compass. If you don’t have a compass or anything and you’re lost, just walk downhill (if flat terrain, walk in one direction using the sun or a star). When you get to a stream, walk downstream until it reaches a river and keep walking downriver. Eventually, you will reach a bridge. Now walk on the road until it reaches a house or town. Bam: you’re out of the wild and on your way home.
Comment below with your best map and compass story or that one time you got lost and cried behind that tree until a Boy Scout helped you. If you have any ideas for future reviews or your company wants something reviewed email us: firstname.lastname@example.org
2018 DEFENDER CHALLENGE CHAMPIONS
1st: U.S. Pacific Air Forces
2nd: Air Combat Command
3rd: Air Force Materiel Command
1st: SSGT Benjamin Rodriguez, AFDW
2nd: SRA David Hightower, AETC
3rd: A1C Curtis Covington, PACAF
Winner: LCPL Adam Butler, RAF Regiment
Nominated: SSGT Oscar Gomez, PACAF
Nominated: OR-6 Robin Schwab, German AF
1st: German AF
SADLER CUP (Dismounted Ops)
COLEMAN CUP (Weapons)