Can We Improve Outcomes in Close Quarter Battle?


Urban warfare and Close Quarter Battle (CQB) are becoming more prevalent in military engagements and create highly charged situations in which it is almost impossible for the warfighter to anticipate every possible outcome. These challenges have become more evident through collaborations with elite forces such as U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and prove highly demanding in terms of warfighter performance and controlling outcomes. Yet, positive outcomes in CQB are recognized as key indicators for mission success.

Room clearing in urban areas is particularly demanding, because encounters are rarely ever the same. Soldiers are unable to envision and prepare for every possible outcome, so the ability to adapt rapidly to unpredictable circumstances is essential. Increasing the psychological pressure is the independent command structure created by urban warfare. Leadership must be highly fluid, and, in some instances, autonomy is essential because there is no time to  communicate before making critical split-second decisions on actions. A breakdown in communications, an inaccuracy interpreting the situation, or an overly impulsive decision can easily lead to casualties.

Challenges of CQB

In a dynamic, unique and unpredictable environment, warfighters must understand their environment on extremely short timescales and adapt their reactions with speed and initiative. As a result, making snap judgement calls in the heat of the moment is paramount.

However, high stress and unpredictability in close quarters can cause  errors. In fact, in an urban CQB environment, even with well-trained soldiers, the casualty rate can often be higher than 50 percent. This is dramatic compared to most military operations, but perhaps not surprising.

When faced with highly stressful and chaotic environments, even elite soldiers can make errors in judgment that go against their previous training. This is highly problematic, as a single decision-making failure of one individual within a unit can quickly collapse an operation.

So how can you avoid these risks? It’s clear that strong cognitive abilities are important to mitigate these risks; however these kinds of mental skills are known to be very difficult to train. SOCOM sought a new approach based on training fundamental cognitive capacities that could augment traditional training protocols.

Mental and Physical Preparedness

To enhance soldiers’ operational performances, both physical and mental readiness is required. In this particular study, warfighters trained on 3D multiple-object tracking tasks, which involve spatial awareness, fluid and rapid visual processing, as well as dynamically changing scenes. A speed-threshold methodology was used and adapted to each soldier’s attentional limits for accelerated learning. The technique has been established in the literature for quickly training up high-level cognitive abilities, leading to measureable increases in executive function, working memory, processing speed, attention and inhibition.

In pre-post trained assessments, each soldier’s performance levels were assessed in CQB simulations, which revealed positive effects from the cognitive training program. In short, this form of cognitive training was found to impact a warfighter’s ability to perform a situational assessment and react accordingly on very short timescales, with increased effectiveness. This was seen after just several hours of distributed training.

This makes sense from a neuroscience perspective, because when speed and efficiency of processing at very high levels is needed, fundamental cognitive capacities become critical influencers of performance. A non-military parallel for this effect was also seen in sports science study, where the same 3D multiple-object tracking intervention was used with soccer players and led to a 15-percent gain in passing and decision-making accuracy in competition.

The effects in the field of on-going cognitive training programs should be expected to deliver soldiers who are able to better anticipate immediate outcomes and act in a way that maximizes chances of success. By achieving cognitive dominance, injuries and death should be averted through greater readiness and autonomy when needed.

Future Role

The field of neuroscience has made great strides in recent decades and appears to be an accelerating trend. However, harnessing that knowledge takes time, both in the development of practical technologies and in terms of institutional change. That being said, the initiatives now underway with military leaders and Special Forces suggest that a range of genuinely effective cognitive interventions may soon be coming.  CQB is an example of how such training paradigms can grow directly out of performance needs in the field.

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Jean Castonguay is the NDIA representative to the US Department on the requirements for the Human Systems Integration, and co-chairman of the Protection, Sustainment and Warfighter Performance subsection. Jean is also Co-founder, President and CEO of NeuroTracker.