Modern Army Combatives Program: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

Two Soldiers competing in a MACP tournament.

Introduction:

In 1995, when the Commander of the United States Army’s 2nd Ranger Battalion ordered a reinvigoration of Combatives training within the battalion, it didn’t take long for serious problems with the techniques taught in the Army’s existing Combatives manual to surface. There was a general feeling among the Rangers that they would not work and that it was a waste of valuable training time.

The Army had a Combatives manual (FM 21–150, 1992) but had no program to produce qualified instructors or any system for implementing the training in units other than the vague approach of leaving it to the local commander’s discretion. Unit instructors inevitably ended up being whatever martial arts hobbyist happened to be in that unit and the training progressed along the lines of whatever civilian martial arts those people had studied in their off-duty time. In most units, however, there was no training at all.

A committee was formed and headed by Matt Larsen to develop a more effective program. J. Robinson, a Ranger combat veteran during Vietnam and the head coach at the University of Minnesota wrestling program, came out to evaluate the emerging program and gave some valuable advice. He pointed out that any successful program must have a competitive aspect in order to motivate Soldiers to train and that it must include “live” sparring in order to cultivate a growing Combatives culture. The committee began to develop a program based around wrestling, boxing, and the various martial arts they had experienced such as Judo and Muay Thai. Initially, Russian Sambo was the art that the committee wanted to adopt. Realizing that there were not enough Sambo instructors available, though, the Rangers sent several men to train at the Gracie Jiujitsu Academy in Torrance, California.

The style of Jujitsu taught at the Gracie Academy fit many of the battalion’s needs. The Gracie’s had been originally taught by Maeda Mitsuyo who was a representative of the Kodokan but had added the concept of a hierarchy of dominant body positions which gave both a strategy to win fights and an organized framework for learning. It was therefore easy to learn. It also had a competitive form and was proven effective within the realm of one-on-one unarmed arena fighting or challenge matches. It did, however, have the major problem of being principally designed for the venue that had made it famous.

Rorion and Royce Gracie made three trips to the battalion over the next couple of years and a few Rangers made the trip down to Torrance to train on their own. During this time, Larsen was developing a drill-based training program that became an essential element in the “Modern Army Combatives Program.”

As the system matured, he began to realize what it was about the techniques of Jujitsu that made them work, such as the ability to practice them at full speed against a fully resistant opponent. With this approach, techniques that do not work are quickly abandoned for those that do. He also began to draw from other martial arts that share various levels of this “live” training to fill in the tactical gaps of the Jujitsu learned form the Gracie’s, which primarily focused on unarmed ground grappling.

- History of Army Combatives, United States Army Combatives School

The Good

While no martial art is perfect, MACP was developed critically by leading experts in the field of martial arts. It is a mixed martial art comprised of many disciplines that have been adapted to meet the need of a Soldier equipped in full combat gear in warfare.

Introduction to Martial Arts

MACP is designed (keyword) to be taught during Basic Combat Training (BCT). Like any other martial art, a foundation is laid to build upon. This is supposed (again, keyword) to start with a history of the Army’s Combatives program and how MACP ultimately came into existence. If you read the Introduction above, I can guarantee you that you now know more than 50% of the Army in regard to the how the program came into existence. The history of the program explains the “why” which any adaptive leader knows is a critical question to answer. Prior to the introduction of the new POI being introduced in the Army’s Basic Combat Training, it was the expectation that every Soldier graduated from BCT with a Basic Combatives Course (BCC) Training certificate. This requires 40 hours of instruction, drilling, and testing. However, as a prior Drill Sergeant, I can tell you exactly why this did not happen: To certify a Soldier as having graduated BCC, the instructor themselves has to have graduated from the Army’s Master Combatives Instructor (MCI) course at Fort Benning, GA. There were exactly zero MCI certified Drill Sergeants within my BCT’s brigade. Alas, back to the good stuff. Soldiers learn everything from proper warm-up exercises, to fighting stances, to the dominant body positions of Jiujitsu, to the basic takedowns of Wrestling, to Boxing strikes. A solid foundation to build upon and basic knowledge of the various martial arts that make up MACP is introduced. Additionally, Soldiers will be able to easily identify which martial arts are their favorites and know which direction to head if they choose to pursue martial arts in their off-duty time.

Structured Program

MACP is a structured program. It is comprised of Basic Combatives Course, Tactical Combatives Course (TCC), and Master Combatives Instructor Course. It is the standard that every Soldier in the United States Army is BCC certified. TCC is the standard for all combat-arms MOS’. MCI is the requirement to create instructors who are able to certify BCC, TCC, and future-fellow MCI’s. While my personal opinion states that 3 courses alone aren’t enough and that simply having the certificate in-hand of the previous course should not be enough to enter into the next phase of training (I firmly believe there should be an almost “entrance exam” type practical exercise that displays mastery of technique), the approach of having a structured martial art is highly beneficial. As stated above, BCC lays the foundation for TCC to build upon. To add to what was stated above, Soldiers also learn basic submissions in BCC such as the bent arm bar and straight arm bar (MACP uses standard names for submissions rather than the traditional verbiage used in Jujitsu such as kimura and americana). In TCC which is an 80-hour course, Soldiers learn these basic submissions from additional positions as well as more complex submissions. As long as Soldiers understand the basic principles of a straight arm bar from the mount in BCC, then learning how to transition from side control into a straight arm bar is a natural progression within the realm of Jiujitsu. Adding to the Wrestling takedowns learned in BCC, Soldiers will also begin to learn takedowns in the style of Judo such as the Judo three-step hip toss. When Soldiers graduate TCC, they earn the ability to referee MACP matches, a key aspect identified by J. Robinson when creating MACP. Ultimately, Soldiers will have the ability to attend MCI at the home of MACP in Fort Benning, GA. MCI is a grueling, physically demanding, month long course. It ensures that MCI students have the ability to train other Soldiers to be more lethal and defend themselves while eliminating enemy threats in close-quarters combat. A significant difference between MACP and most other martial arts is that other martial arts prioritize self-defense. Lethality is a by-product. In MACP, lethality is prioritized making self-defense the by-product. “The defining characteristic of a warrior is the willingness to close the distance with the enemy” has long been the motto of MACP. Another common, though not official motto adapted by MACP has been “Finish the Fight.” MCI focuses both on technique mastery as well as teaching techniques to others and developing an effective MACP program in order to force multiply. It is fairly common for professional mixed-martial artists to show up to MCI and assist in training the students.

Teaches Self-Defense

As stated above, MACP places emphasis on lethality and self-defense becomes a by-product rather than the primary objective. However, the two still go hand-in-hand and MACP teaches ample self-defense techniques. For example, you cannot teach a student the straight arm bar without first teaching them how to obtain a position that allows them to execute the technique. You cannot teach a student the positions in which a straight arm bar can be executed without teaching them the foundations of each dominant body position and ultimately, how to remain in that position rather than finding themselves into non-dominant position. But what happens if they fall into a non-dominant position? Well, transitions back into dominant body positions are taught as well otherwise we couldn’t teach them the straight arm bar in the first place! Additionally, Soldiers are taught takedown defense at the same time takedowns are taught so that the takedown drill can be build up to a near-full speed exercise between the Soldiers. The standing fighting position differs from traditional martial arts as a Soldier’s head will be covered by an ACH in combat meaning Soldiers no longer have to guard specific portions of the head and face. Add to the fact that a ballistic vest will also be worn in combat, and you can begin to see why self-defense takes a backseat to lethality. An opponent might land a lucky kick in your liver but will destroy their shin bone or foot in the process against the corner of a ballistic plate. Again, ample self-defense is still taught in MACP both in stand-up fighting and ground-fighting that will carry over into off-duty hours.

Integrated Into The PRT Program

MACP has it’s place in daily physical training (PT) programs. This will come as news to most Soldiers reading this article, but MACP is designed to be integrated weekly into your PT regimen. Additionally, anybody who practices martial arts will tell you that the workout a martial arts class will give you is often worse than anything you typically do in a Tuesday morning PT session.

Specialization Training

MACP itself as a whole is also a foundation to be build upon. Military Police Officers can build upon MACP and transition into Mechanical Advantage Control Holds (MACH). In MACH, emphasis is placed on controlling a non-compliant subject by utilizing body positioning, movement, momentum, and joint manipulation. It places special emphasis on using a subject’s resistance against themselves. Judo! The end goal of MACP is eliminating a hostile enemy while the end goal of MACH is safely making an arrest. I’m not going to act like I know a whole lot about SOCP because I do not. SOCP stands for Special Operations Combatives Program and not being a member of the Special Operations community, I know minimal about the program. What I can say is that it has build upon the foundation of MACP as well and probably involves much higher level and efficient techniques to end fights quickly in order for the operators to carry on their mission.

The Bad

While there are many things that MACP does right, there are also a healthy number of things that MACP does wrong. However, it is important to remember that while MACP itself could use a bit of updating, a lot of the bad comes from the program build around it rather the martial art.

The Army’s Jujitsu

In all stages of MACP, Jiujitsu is the most heavily used discipline. This could be because it is the only discipline where elite members of the community such as the Gracie Family came to train and built a positive relationship with the United States Army. It could also be because it was simply viewed as the most effective martial art for the program. The issue with the Jiujitsu portion itself is that the Army takes a martial art that is very simple to learn (yet hard to master) and does the traditional Army thing where they make it simply ignorant. For example, in BCC a Soldier is taught how to pass the guard. I can think of a dozen different ways I have learned to pass the guard across various Jiujitsu academies across the United States, and not a single one has taught me do it the Army way. The Army turns passing the guard into a 13-step process complete with ensuring the Soldier executing this drill leaves their head and arm wide open for a triangle choke during the most time-consuming portion of the drill. And 13-steps for this basic drill for a Soldier who is likely learning Jiujitsu for the first time to remember? This is simply one small example of how the Army got Jiujitsu wrong.

No Sustainment

Remember up above when I stated that MACP is designed to be integrated into the units’ PT programs? That will come as a shock to most Soldiers reading this because they likely aren’t tracking this. Their leaders probably aren’t either. Additionally, most Soldiers probably aren’t tracking that every Soldier, regardless of rank or MOS (except probably Chaplains), are required to be BCC certified. I’m not entirely sure how squared away the Active Duty component is on MACP requirements, but it is nearly a lost cause in the Army Reserves. It is very rare to see a Soldier volunteer to attend BCC. Most Soldiers don’t even think of it as a course to attend because they never hear of it. Why is this? We could go back to the fact that J. Robinson stated above in the introduction: If there is no competitive atmosphere or culture, then there will be little to no motivation for Soldiers to pursue MACP. The Reserves has zero competitive culture within the sphere of MACP. Due to this, there is no sustainment training or drills being offered. Soldiers quickly forget what they learned in BCC and TCC as they are not afforded the opportunity to practice it during duty hours. Trying to convince a Commander to add MACP to the training schedule is like pulling teeth as they have tunnel vision of potential injuries that might occur. More on that later!

Quality of Instruction

While there are really, truly solid instructors across the Army teaching excellent MACP courses, there are even more that are simply there for their own egos. It is far too common for instructors to simply let their egos do the teaching while they dominate the ones they are supposed to be teaching. Granted, many of these instructors aren’t even all that good at martial arts. They simply know more than the Soldiers they are training in their entry-level course. A lot of instructors have turned their courses into smoke-fests where they put them through the grinder in situations where minimal knowledge can be gained. For example, the TASER knife is an infamous stable of MACP. A good instructor will wait until Soldiers are ground fighting in a neutral position and throw the TASER knife on the ground next to them to see how each Soldier reacts and test their knowledge and instinct. A bad instructor will wait until a Soldier is in a non-dominant ground fighting position and begin to electrocute them endlessly while they struggle. Keep in mind, this is by no means a high-powered TASER. The closest thing I can relate it to is a tattoo gun. More of an annoying, swat it away type of shock. Regardless, there is little to no training value in the approaches that many egotistical instructors take and they simply should not be training others in MACP either due to their own egotistical tendencies or their inability to lead effective training.

Length of Courses

The actual MACP classes are entirely too short. Nobody learns a martial art in 40 hours. Especially not a mixed martial art comprised of many disciplines. Especially Soldiers who are brand new to the martial arts arena. In 40 hours, Soldiers haven’t even drilled one technique long enough to get comfortable with it. The regular Soldier will not successfully enter the MCI course. It is the only course where a Soldier must “test in” to the class by displaying their master of various techniques. For a Soldier to successfully enter the MCI course, they must practice martial arts in their off-duty time because the Army simply doesn’t place enough emphasis on MACP to sustain Soldiers in between courses. The Army is infamous for half-way teaching Soldiers how to do a specific task or assignment and then the Soldier eventually learns it on their own through their own trial and error unless another Soldier takes them under their wing and shows them how properly. I’ll never forget learning how to be a Wheeled Vehicle Mechanic when I first joined the Army. 4 out of 5 days a week I was taught how to complete various tasks such as dropping a transmission via PowerPoint. Then they graduated me into the force and I had to figure it out mostly on my own by reading Technical Manuals.

The Abandoned Belt System

When Matt Larsen first initiated the MACP belt system in 2010, he promoted three Soldiers to the rank of black belt: Damien Stelly, Andrew Chappelle, and Tim Kennedy. I joined the Army in 2010, and since joining and immersing myself into MACP, I have never heard of belts being awarded. Nor has there been another black belt since the original trio were promoted. Not to my knowledge anyways. MACP used to have a level system that Larsen originally planned on pairing with a belt system. There was Level I, II, III, and IV. However, that was replaced with BCC, TCC, and MCI several years ago. Most Soldiers in the Army today still aren’t tracking this. As soon as a Soldier finds out that I enjoy MACP, they immediately ask which level I am. I have yet to come across another Soldier who is tracking the new system outside of those I attended the courses with. Furthermore, a quick search at MACP’s Wikipedia article shows it’s terribly outdated as well. The Marine Corps’ MCMAP fighting system utilizes the belt system and like most other successful martial arts programs, MACP should follow suit. It allows a more in-depth system to track Soldier progress other than a simple 3-course system. In Jiujitsu, it is very common for it to take you a full year of training go from white belt to blue belt. Usually longer even. And this is training 2–3x a week. In its current state, MACP earning your “blue belt” in MACP is a simple 40 hour course.

The Ugly

Now it’s time to talk about the downright ugly. It’s safe to say that I’m a fan of MACP otherwise I wouldn’t be writing about it. Similar to what I stated above, there is a difference (in my opinion) between MACP the martial art and the program that was build around MACP. In fact, please draw a big, bold line between the two.

Fear

It still astounds me to this day the amount of Soldiers I come across that, while they would never admit to it, are straight up afraid of getting hit in the face. I have heard every single excuse in the book as to why someone can’t do MACP. Drawing on my experience as a Drill Sergeant, I’ve seen first-hand the amount of MACP taught in BCT. While the absence of an MCI certified Drill Sergeant leaves a Company or Battalion unable to certify their Soldiers in BCC, thankfully I had a 1SG who put his faith in me to run a successful program anyways. All day Saturday, every Saturday. My favorite day of the week was MACP Day. I always find it amusing how the other Drill Sergeants would scatter like dust in the wind when MACP began. Some Drill Sergeants saw me as the babysitter for the Company and they took the day off. Other Drill Sergeants were terrified a trainee would ask them a question they didn’t know the answer to, therefore chipping away at their power base. As a Drill Sergeant, we are expected to know everything. This obviously isn’t possible, so we work hard to increase our knowledge by drawing on experiences from our fellow Drill Sergeants. However, in the realm of MACP there was no such drive. Trainees would get overconfident and ask a Drill Sergeant to roll with them in the PT pit and was swiftly met with remarks like “I don’t want to hurt you, Private” or “That wouldn’t even be a challenge for me.” In all reality, the Drill Sergeants were terrified of getting rolled up in front of the entire Company by a trainee. Guess what? I did. Dozens of times. And you know what? I never lost my power base. In fact, it increased as Soldiers saw me unafraid of going against a trainee twice my size and still holding my own instead of getting steam rolled. What I taught worked, and I allowed them to see this first-hand. At the end of the BCT cycle, rolling with me was always brought up as a highlight of the trainees’ time in training. It is my job to ensure my trainees are trained for war. I refused to allow my own ego and power base get in the way of potential lifesaving hand-to-hand combat for my trainees. Personal Courage is an Army Value and there are many leaders across the force who lack it. Too many leaders don’t want to be humbled by their subordinates in front of others and so instead of working on their weaknesses, they instead opt to eliminate the training as a whole. What type of leader sacrifices the training of their troops for their own personal (frail) egos? Ones who lack Personal Courage, a critical Army Value. If you’re reading this and the boot fits, then I implore you to work towards developing your weakness rather than ensuring your personal weakness is spread across your formation.

Injuries

Injuries. The bane of my existence as a fan of MACP. It is virtually impossible to get a Commander in the Army Reserves to sign-off on any MACP training at all. Let’s get something straight: I have four black belts, I have practiced martial arts for almost 26 years of my life, and I own Agoge Combat Arts which trains several children in various martial arts disciplines. If my kiddos can do it, why can’t warfighters? The primary objective of MACP is to improve the combat effectiveness and lethality of the warfighter. Specifically, it provides a medium for the warfighter to become comfortable with the aggression required to potentially take the life of a hostile combatant in order to preserve the life of the warfighter and their team. This is martial arts. There are bumps, bruises, aches, and sometimes blood. The beautiful thing about Jiujitsu, mentioned above, it its ability to train full speed against a fully resistant opponent. We’ve also stated that MACP is very Jiujitsu-heavy versus the other martial arts integrated into the art. If you go full contact in a Boxing or Muay Thai bout, yes there are going to be injuries. If you go full contact in a Jiujitsu competition, injuries will be quite minimal as Soldiers should be quite trained in not breaking their battle buddies arm off. There are definite stopping points in Jiujitsu. Especially in friendly competition with fellow Soldiers. Let’s return to MACP’s primary focus. The primary focus of MACP should not be to prevent the maximum number of Soldier injuries during training, but to prevent the maximum number of warfighter deaths during combat operations. Sweat more in training to prevent bleeding in battle. Or, in this case, bleed a little bit in training to prevent massive bleeding in battle.

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Kody Taylor

Kody Taylor

Martial Arts Instructor, Creative Writing Major, and US Army Soldier