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01 December 2007


On a lighter note for the weekend, for those that haven’t yet read William Gibson’s Spook Country, one of the key plot points of the novel is a fascinatingly abstracted variant of operational tradecraft the author calls systema, the bastard hybrid of Cuban, Vietnamese, and Russian intelligence training filtered through the unique lens of a transnational organized crime family.

One of the more interesting aspects of the systema protocol is the incorporation of urban free-running techniques. This is the second time in recent intelligence fiction that free-running has been featured prominently, following on the heels of the Bond film franchise’s return to the harder edged roots of the original novel’s style in Casino Royale, which included a scene involving the pursuit of a suspected IED expert making extensive use of some very cinematic free-running.

Of course, one can question the utility of the sport in practical application, given the requirement to carry certain kinds of equipment in most forward deployed operating environments that seems to be quite at odds with the typical dress of most free-runners. And unfortunately, it is the kind of training that only really mastered by those with a lot of time, and very little to lose (and therefore concurrently little fear of serious injury resulting from poorly judged movements). It would be very hard, we should think, to justify the kind of medical leave rate that such training would impose on a typical rotation.

Practical or not, one could see situational applications for the skillset. Perhaps it is one of the things that could be introduced at the university level for those wishing to enter the profession, as such students typically have the required free time and disregard for their own mortality their older counterparts may lack (though we have no idea how the liability problems would be resolved). It would certainly add a degree of unique differentiation to a resume for those seeking the operator’s path, even if it is only seen as another variant of sport by the recruiters (in much the same way that mastery of martial arts skills are viewed). We know we would have loved to have had a few practitioners along at certain points in our own operational history – even if only as a confidence technique during the instruction of indigenous forces.

Either way, it remains a thing of awe to watch. Via the author’s own blog, he points to a demonstration of “heavy systema”, featuring an excellent Russian practitioner of Parkour in the decaying concrete ruins of the post-Soviet environment.

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