|Aussie krav maga instructor and ex-AFP officer Paul Johnstone (left) with Nir Maman.
To him, krav maga is more than the world’s most marketable reality-based self-defence method; it’s a vital component in keeping his colleagues and country safe. In this interview with Blitz, the former Israeli special forces Counter Terror Unit (CTU) soldier and commander of its Special Operations School (CTS) outlines some key elements of soldiers’ krav maga training that make it the Israeli Defence Force’s close-combat method of choice, including mental and physical preparation, and battlefield strategy.
A Mind for Survival
The first phase of the krav maga training that all soldiers go through in the IDF revolves around developing the most important element in combat: the mindset. It’s only with the proper mindset that an individual can survive the most complicated situations, or be able to continue fighting even while severely injured.
Take an individual who is an accomplished martial artist with years of training behind him, who has unmatched technique, is quick, and dominates the ring or the mat in training and in competition. If this individual doesn’t possess the proper mindset for combat, and is suddenly attacked and overtaken by fear and shock, chances are that he will not survive that encounter. If his mind shuts down, his body will not function and will not even allow him to use any of the great skills he has.
However, you can take an individual who has absolutely no training experience but possesses the proper survival mindset that will not allow him to lose under any circumstances. If he is suddenly attacked, his mind will take over and drive him to fight for his life without stopping, even if he gets hurt, until his attacker is no longer a threat to him. In this situation there will be no proper technique used due to the individual’s lack of experience — there’s even the chance that due to the lack of proper technique, the individual will get injured by not properly striking his target — however, he will almost always end up with better results in surviving the attack than the martial artist in the first example.
The types of situations IDF soldiers face in the field usually give them unfavourable odds. There’s an average of one to two attempts per month of kidnapping IDF soldiers by Hezbollah guerrillas or Hamas terrorists. This usually occurs by the terrorists driving around, three or four in a vehicle, trying to find a lone soldier standing at a bus stop or walking down a street. They pull up next to the soldier and quickly grab hold of him, sometimes through an open window, while two of the terrorists get out of the vehicle to shove the soldier inside.
Another popular method used in kidnap attempts is in the field, similar to the attack and kidnapping of Corporal Gilad Shalit on 25 June 2006. Corporal Shalit was in a team of five soldiers on guard duty at a point on the Israel/Gaza border. Hamas terrorists quietly approached the soldier’s check post and fired a rocket-propelled grenade round (RPG) into their tank. Three of the soldiers were instantly killed and two, including Corporal Shalit, were wounded and knocked unconscious, with Shalit also sustaining a broken hand. The terrorists quickly scooped up Shalit, collected all the soldiers’ weapons and fled into Gaza through an underground tunnel.
Like in the described scenarios, most soldiers who encounter an attack and kidnap attempt are starting with a disadvantage, such as being outnumbered or being injured at the point that they have to fight to survive. It is only the proper survival/killer instinct mindset that gives them a fighting chance at escaping and surviving such encounters.
During IDF soldiers’ krav maga training, various drills are used to develop survival mindset. For example, these training sessions, which last anywhere from two to six hours a day, the soldiers are always worn out completely with extensive physical punishment training before the mindset training drills begin. This is an important factor for two reasons. Firstly, soldiers have to learn how to fight and survive in worst-case scenarios, meaning when they are at a tactical and physical disadvantage. It makes no sense to teach someone how to try to ‘survive’ a situation where they are already in a position of advantage.
The second reason is that you have to learn how to know yourself when you are at your absolute bottom, and then train yourself how to work up from that point. If you don’t, and then you are put in a real situation that suddenly brings you to absolute mental and physical exertion, you will be too distracted trying to adapt to this new feeling to be able to mentally focus on your primary task, which is to survive, and to physically execute the steps required to get you out of the situation.
Once the soldiers are brought to the point of physical and mental exertion, the mental aggression drills begin. One such drill is where the entire group, usually 25 to 40 soldiers, are placed in a circle where they link arms with one another. One soldier is placed in the centre of the circle, and on the blow of the whistle he is given a time frame to escape the circle. He is not allowed to jump over the wall of soldiers, he is not allowed to crawl under them, and he is not allowed to hit. His only authorised means of escape is by physically breaking through the linked arms.
This may not sound like a difficult task, but when you are trying to use nothing more than physical might to break through a wall of people using all of their strength to hold you back, while you are physically at the point that you can barely lift your arms up and your mouth is completely dry from exertion, even the big, strong soldiers have a difficult time. The catch here is that if the soldier does not succeed in escaping the circle in the time limit given, he is brought back to the centre of the circle, and he repeats the process over and over until he finally breaks through.
Another mental aggression development drill is where one soldier is placed in the corner of the training room; the entire group bunches up against him with the goal of smothering him into the corner. On the command of the whistle, the soldier has to force his way out through the group, but again he is not allowed to climb over them or crawl under them. He is again given a time limit to accomplish his objective. Forcing your way through a wall of people pushing against you drains you of everything you have and can take several minutes to accomplish.
Once the soldier finally makes it out to the other end, he is greeted by an instructor in full sparring gear who he has to fight for several minutes. Every soldier may end up performing these drills several times per training session, which is also one of the reasons why their krav maga training can last up to six hours a day!
Once the mind has been cultivated into the necessary survival tool that will lead the individual to the proper response under stress, the body must also be tuned up to ensure it carries out the mind’s commands on cue, quickly and effectively. The type of physical training incorporated into the IDF’s krav maga sessions is not geared at making the soldiers big and strong; it’s geared at making their bodies physically capable of responding properly to the type of confrontations they face.
Counter-terror warfare is a very unique dynamic. Terrorists structure their attacks in a way that will be conducive to them achieving their end objective, which is always death and the destruction of human lives, with no interruptions. With the exception of the end objective, our military and law enforcement units apply the same structural method when we have a mission to carry out. The end objective is to carry out the mission successfully with no injury to any innocent bystanders or unit members, and without the target being able to react quickly enough to our mission to be able to fight back or escape.
When terrorists decide to carry out an attack, whether it’s against a military check post or a crowd of innocent civilians, they will implement the same strategies to ensure maximum success. For example, they study their target to the point where they know all the target’s vulnerabilities and the best time to strike the target — i.e. when immediate response/resistance may be unavailable and where anyone situated at the target will be caught off guard. Therefore, the physical preparation of our soldiers has to be one that will allow them to instinctively explode into action as fast as possible. Physical training such as lifting heavy weights or running long distances has a tendency to slow the body down. Instead, the type of drills used in the IDF’s krav maga training focus on developing neurological and physical speed.
One example of these drills is called the ‘six on six’. The soldiers are lined up at one end of the room, and on the command they must sprint as quickly as they can to the other end of the room, a distance of approximately 15 metres, and back for six laps. They then rest for 30 seconds, and repeat the six laps, trying to beat the time of the previous round they just ran. They perform six sets of these six-lap sprints.
To add to the quick-response training element, little things are added to each drill, such as having the soldiers lie face down on the ground at the start line, so that when the whistle is blown they must explode up to their feet, turn around and then run.
In the IDF krav maga system, the focus is on always keeping the soldier in a dominant and effective position. For example, we never teach any techniques that result in the defender falling to the ground during the execution of the technique; we want the soldier to always remain on their feet. We also don’t teach any throwing moves, as throws can sometimes be easy to counter, and in many throwing moves the attacker can hold on to you and take you to the ground with him as he falls. It’s also not easy for a smaller person to throw a bigger person, especially if the smaller person is stacked with 30 to 50 kg of gear.
The battlefield of today is very diverse in terms of the types of weapons terrorists use to attack soldiers in Israel. These weapons include handguns, assault rifles, knives, machetes, lead pipes, slingshots and even hand grenades, so the krav maga training the soldiers go through in the IDF also focuses on teaching them effective defences against armed attackers. The training includes extensive drills to train the soldiers to respond quickly and instinctively to an attack with a weapon from many positions and scenarios. For example, they will learn how to disarm a terrorist holding a gun to their head while they are on their knees in an execution position, or to counter a vicious knife attack while lying down on the ground, or defend against an attacker armed with a lead pipe while a second attacker is also attacking them, or to disarm a threat armed with a hand grenade or micro explosive, or even how to surgically neutralise a suicide bomber about to detonate in a crowd of people. These are all examples of situations IDF soldiers have experienced in the past or continue to experience today.
The proper use of the assault rifle or handgun as a cold weapon is also a crucial skill. The preference and focus is always to terminate the threat as quickly as possible to prevent injury or death to ourselves or innocent bystanders, which in the majority of the cases means to shoot it. However, firearms are prone to technical malfunctions, which may place the soldier in a predicament that he can’t clear the malfunction quick enough to be able to shoot the threat before the threat can make contact with him, or from a tactical perspective it may be more important to first stop the threat from advancing and control distance before shooting it.
There are three types of injuries that a firearm — or indeed, any weapon used effectively — can cause:
Type 1 An instantaneously lethal injury, meaning the bullet or weapon penetrates the attacker’s central nervous system and shuts his body down instantly.
Type 2 A time-induced lethal injury, meaning the bullet/weapon causes an injury that will have a lethal end result in a matter of several seconds to several minutes. Until death occurs, the attacker may still be able to function in the confrontation.
Type 3 An incapacitating non-lethal injury, meaning the bullet/ weapon causes damage that will physically disable the attacker immediately, but not kill them.
Type 4 A non-incapacitating wounding injury, meaning that the attacker will not die as a result of the shot or weapon attack, but can continue to physically function in the confrontation.
In injury types two, three and four, if the attacker is in close proximity to the soldier he can still attack the soldier before the bullet injury physically stops him. Therefore, in close quarters combat, many times the soldier will first need to use his firearm as a ‘cold’ weapon, meaning to strike the attacker with it to create or control distance, before using it as a ‘hot’ weapon and shooting the attacker. So the soldiers are also trained in using their firearms in various situations such as stopping a charging attacker or deflecting a knife attack with the firearm.
Another point as to why krav maga is very effective and practical for the civilian theatre is because everything in the system is just as applicable to the civilian world as it is to the military or law enforcement world — many assailants will try to catch their potential victim off guard to ensure uninterrupted success in their objective.
Also, the margin between what soldiers face on the battlefield and what civilians are facing or will face on the streets today is narrowing. Today the potential for a civilian in North America or Europe to face a live suicide bomber in the street is not as foreign a concept as it was just a few years ago. In Israel, the majority of the individuals who come face to face with a suicide bomber are not the Special Forces operatives, they are the regular civilians carrying on their routine lives in the busy cities of Israel, such as Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, or they are the 60-year-old retirees looking to supplement their pension by working as a security guard at a mall entrance.
Read more expert opinions here.