The Art of Training and Operating with Counterparts

By Leon E. Sharon

As stated in my article ‘SPECOPS/Private Contractors’ in the December 2008 issue of Soldier of Fortune magazine, “The face of contract work has changed forever.” The invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq created a vacuum that was quickly filled by Private Security Companies (PSC), all eager to cash in on the “big bucks” being paid for reconstruction efforts there. These security companies sprang up like mushrooms and heavily armed westerners buffaloed their way throughout the streets of Baghdad and, very quickly, the rest of the country.

Armored vehicles were uncommon as six-foot tall, blond, bearded westerners wearing sun glasses (not to mention short, fat, and sloppy ones too) attempted to fly under the radar by driving unarmored Mitsubishi Pajeros, BMWs & Mercedes while wearing a variety of Arabic head dresses with no regard as to the color or style indicating Sunni or Shiite affiliations. Local Nationals (LN) were only utilized as drivers, interpreters, office staff, and static security for some relativity secure sites.

The horrific images of the burning, hanging bodies of security contractors in Fallujah in 2004 was the catalyst for every Iraqi armed with an AK-47 to begin attacking the soft under belly of these security contractors. Surviving clients and security personnel started to demand that their security companies provide them with armored vehicles and many under financed PSC fell by the way side. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution thrust itself into the world of private security contractors. Specific equipment, personnel, and lo and behold even rules and regulations began to appear in contracts. Competition for coveted Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of State (DoS) contracts remains keen, even as the use of PSC and the controls placed on them continue to evolve.

In one form or another we have all had to experience the effects of “the low bidder takes the contract.” Pejorative remarks such as, “when you pay peanuts you get monkeys” may help to alleviate the pain of losing contracts to that low bidder, but more and more security companies are being forced to hire larger percentages of both LN (sometimes referred to as Host Country Nationals of HCN) and third country national (TCN) security personnel in order to remain competitive in the bidding process for high risk environment security contracts. The experience and skill levels of these security personnel will vary from zero to fine operators. Regardless of their backgrounds, however, it is highly unlikely that they will have one common, past training model and this lack of common training philosophy will be compounded greatly by both language and cultural differences.

Welcome to the world of counterparts (noun: a person or thing that corresponds to or closely resembles another, as in form or function). The art of training and operating with counterparts was historically the role of U.S. Special Operations Forces and few, if any, regular military forces have had this privilege. Yet, literally every security contract being awarded in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Africa today will require functioning with counterparts that the inexperienced person may confuse with (and treat as) spare parts. This confusion, mistrust, and on occasion abuse of these vital assets will frequently lead to mission failure.

Keep in mind that when your element is in enemy contact, being heavily “brassed” from multiple locations, the English language runs out faster than your ammunition. Even the best interpreters will fall back on their native language and all personnel will revert to the muscle memory of their last training, regardless how effective or ineffective it may have been. Otherwise simple tasks such as magazine changes, stoppage drills, and any form of fire and maneuver that come as natural as breathing to some people, will be impossible for our counterparts if they have not had recent, in-country training.

Examination of the typical security detail in Iraq exposes a team made up of Expats (individuals whose passport nation was a member of the coalition forces in Iraq), LN (Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite Iraqis), and TCN (individuals whose passport nation was not a member of the coalition, such as South Africans, Lebanese, Ugandans, New Zealanders, and residents of numerous former Eastern Bloc Nations). This mélange of cultures and languages, as well as former military training, exemplifies the leadership challenges faced by our Private Security Companies (PSC) on a daily basis. These challenges are compounded by mission tempo, “flash/bang time” (the startup/preparation time allocated by the contract), budget constraints, and the general lack of experience in handling counterparts that is necessary to form this melting pot into a cohesive security team.

The Foundation of team building will be the training received by all members of the security team regardless of their mission(s). Training must be based on the unit training plan, which covers at minimum; pre-deployment, specialty, and continuation training. Lip service does not replace the hands on training required by individual security personnel, nor will any form of training that does not contain a task, condition, and standard, despite how sexy it may appear. The personnel assigned to conduct this training may well be the sharpest tools in the box, however, they often do not possess the formal instructor training or background required to both plan for and conduct professional training of personnel with varied backgrounds. All too often, any form of training is handed off as a secondary task with little or no command guidance to the designated “instructor.” The instructors should have not only the necessary operational experience, but also the instructional credentials and abilities to teach what they know to a mixed bag of students. Not to mention the need for incredible patience, flexibility, and an unwavering desire to make a positive difference. Just doing training for the sake of training, and not teaching the TCNs or LNs to conduct their own small unit training, will again lead to mission failure. “Train the Trainers” and “Force Multiplication” should be the end state for all Private Security Companies that want to last and their dividends will be apparent further down the road as they continue to outperform their competitors and win more contracts.

Command Guidance, such as “Mike, take your team to the range for AK training today,” just doesn’t cut it and will more often than not result in wasted time, material, and assets. Instead, leadership direction should be, “Mike today is Monday. Wednesday I want you to present to me your written lesson plans to include any supporting material such as PowerPoint presentations, personnel to include translators, equipment, and ammo requirements for teaching AK-47 weapons familiarization, handling and safety, basic rifle marksmanship, dry fire and live fire. I want those same materials completely ready by Friday to conduct AK-47 zeroing fire on Saturday at Range Zulu from the 25 meter line and at the end of your training every student must have his individual weapon zeroed to the minimum of three rounds in a one inch circle. I’ll be present to observe your training.” This example of true command guidance has a far better chance of achieving the desired results, providing that Mike is an experienced weapons instructor.

By this point in this article it should be obvious to even the most casual observer that effective training will require dedicated professional instructors operating under competent command guidance who clearly understand the mission and training requirements necessary to form a cohesive, well trained team. Formulation of a unit training plan and designation of one Chief/Lead Instructor capable of implementing that plan are the first steps in assuring security personnel will be mission effective.

The challenges of conducting effective individual and unit training, even within the rigid, uniform environment of the armed forces, are staggering. And the military has been involved with such training since its inception. PSCs do not have the privilege of operating with a full complement of Staff Officers and experienced Non-Commissioned Officers whose sole mission is the formulation, conduct, completion, and measurement of their unit training plan. DoD and DoS security contracts do not frequently provide for the overhead costs of such “un-paid” positions and PSC must normally eat the cost of any personnel and material related to training. This frequently results in a lot of “magic pencil” targets and “check the blocks” training to demonstrate compliance with the training required in the deliverables section of these contracts.

Some PSC bit the bullet and met this challenge head on by hiring both former Military Staff Officers and qualified instructors. Like cream, these PSC have risen to the top and remain well respected in the high risk environment security community. Unfortunately, the majority of PSC seem to have chosen the magic pencil style of training, resulting in the loss of material and lives, both their clients’ and their own.

There are a select few PSC that understand the complexities involved in truly working with teams of security counterparts stemming from such a wide variety of backgrounds. These companies have wisely chosen the route of hiring Mobile Training Teams from companies with an international background that specialize in the training of teams consisting of operators from various nations, languages, and cultures. Therefore, they are capable of molding them into effective units, capable of performing the wide variety of missions assigned to PSC security personnel today.

The continuous morphing of the uses and roles of PSC has resulted in bringing them under the umbrella of control of both the U.S. DoD and Ministry of the Interior of the Republic of Iraq by including in their contracts General Orders, FRAGO 08-605 (guidance and requirements for incorporation in all contracts that will arm employees), and the new SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement between the United States of America and the Republic of Iraq). Every PSC currently operating under or bidding for DoD and DoS contracts should read the writing on the wall and lean forward in the saddle to assure they have all of their employees trained to the standards required, as this will rapidly become the new unit of measure in deciding the awards, extensions, and compliance of these contracts.

Leon Sharon, a resident of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, retired from the U.S. Army at the rank of Captain after a long and distinguished career that included service as a Delta Force Team Leader and Instructor. In addition to many other combat and high risk environment missions in both the government and private sectors, he served in Iraq from 2004 to 2008; first as Country Manager for the Steele Foundation and then as Falcon Group’s Project Manager at the Abu Ghraib Warehouse complex where he was responsible for the recruiting, training, and operations of more than 500 Expats, LN, and TCN. “Lee” is currently a Senior Consultant for ITG Consultants, Inc. and a Subject Matter Expert for its training arm, the International Training Group.

Image courtesy of Mister GC @


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About Michael Nossaman 39 Articles
Michael Nossaman is the Protective Security Council founder.

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