Theater-Security Cooperation as a Regionally Aligned Force: Lessons-Learned from a Combined-Arms Battalion Serving U.S. Northern Command

Slide 1
Figure 1. Students prepare to conduct ready-up drills as part of an advanced rifle marksmanship mobile-training team exercise in the mountains outside Mexico City. (Photo by CPT Alexander Barron)
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Figure 2. An MTT instructor gives instruction on making adjustments to a SEDENA student’s rifle as part of the zeroing process. (Photo by CPT Alexander Barron)
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Figure 3. An MTT instructor observes as a SEDENA student completes the barrier-shoot portion of the course’s culminating stress-shoot event. (Photo by CPT Alexander Barron)
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Figure 4. MTT instructors cover various pre-marksmanship instruction techniques, to include dime-washer drills, prior to a day at the range. (Photo by CPT Alexander Barron)

When 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team (ABCT), 3rd Infantry Division, assumed its role as the first regionally aligned force (RAF) for U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) in March 2014, the Sledgehammer Brigade’s primary responsibilities were 1) to provide a rapid-response force to the NORTHCOM commander for emergency deployment anywhere within the continental United States (CONUS) and 2) to execute a range of theater-security-cooperation (TSC) missions with allied militaries throughout NORTHCOM’s area of responsibility through the proponent agency, U.S. Army North (ARNORTH).1

This article will cover the experiences of 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, through the preparation and execution of multiple mobile training teams (MTTs) in support of TSC operations in Mexico as part of the NORTHCOM RAF. Also, it will cover some basic background information pertaining to Mexico and its military, along with some key observations made by members of our various MTTs.


The Mexican military is organized roughly like the U.S. military in that it is composed of an army, air force and navy, with a similarly functioning marine corps and coast guard. At macro level, the main difference is that Mexican forces are divided under two secretariats: the army and air force fall under the Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional (SEDENA), while the navy, naval infantry and coast guard fall under the Secretaría de Marina.

The second primary difference between our militaries is that Mexico’s is entirely defensive in nature. They have no offensive expeditionary capability and are focused almost entirely on internal defense. While this planning contains some contingencies for threats posed by external state actors, it mostly concerns the flow of narcotics through their country and the various cartels this supports.

Geographically, Mexico is divided between two extremes: the dense jungles of the south and east and the arid, mountainous deserts of the north and west. Politically, the country is organized into 31 states with the capital of Mexico City falling within a federal district similar to Washington, DC. The Mexican army divided the states into 12 “military regions” that then break down into 45 subsidiary “military zones.”2 Most of Mexico’s army is organized and dispersed across the country according to these zones.

Each region also contains a regional training center that units within that region use. A U.S.-equivalent National Training Center is located in the state of Durango. Most students receiving training from our first MTTs were instructors at these training centers, indicating that the Mexican army showed interest in disseminating the techniques and lessons we provided.

The units and Soldiers of the Mexican army are divided into branches similar to those found in the United States. Combat-arms units like infantry, armor, cavalry (a completely separate designation), artillery, engineers, aviation and Special Forces are supported by quartermaster, transportation, communications, military police, intelligence, administrative and medical units. Other than the specific separation between cavalry and armor units, the only other major difference is that members of the army’s single airborne brigade (called paracaidistas) are considered a branch separate from their infantry brethren.

Most military zones in Mexico are garrisoned by a regimental or battalion-sized (they are roughly the same) combat-arms unit that is determined mostly by which branch is more suited to the terrain in the zone. Some are assigned an additional artillery or motorized infantry or cavalry battalion.

In addition to their locally garrisoned forces, the Mexican army provides the federal government with a maneuver force in the form of nine independent infantry brigades and a number of independent battalions of various other branches that are stationed predominately around the federal district.3 Also, the Mexican army’s Special Forces provides nine battalions, organized into three brigades, along with two separate units dedicated to presidential security and counterterrorism operations that answer directly to the president.

The Mexican army has a rank structure composed of enlisted soldiers and officers that is only notionally similar to the U.S. armed forces. Soldados (or privates) are eventually promoted to cabo (corporal), sargento segundo (sergeant) and then sargento primero (staff sergeant). While it is possible to branch out to other technical positions, there is no further promotion from there except for those soldiers selected for subteniente (second lieutenant) and schooling at a military academy. Most officers have a minimum of 12-15 years of active service. While it is possible to go straight into a military academy and receive a commission, the cases we witnessed all seemed to be the children of affluent and influential political and military leaders.

Also, soldiers at all ranks may remain in their position for an indefinite amount of time. It is possible to encounter career corporals or lieutenants in the Mexican military.

Tenientes (first lieutenants) and subtenientes serve as section leaders and assistant section leaders, respectively, in what is equivalent to a U.S. platoon. In armor sections, every tank has a teniente or subteniente in command. Officer promotions past teniente were unique to our experience in that there are two grades of captain. Capitan segundo is a pre-command or current company commander, while a capitan primero is post-command or in a second or third command assignment. Capitan segundo is also the highest grade of the oficiales (equivalent to our company-grade officers), while a capitan primero through a coronel (colonel) is considered a jefe (or field-grade officer). General ranks consist of one through four stars, signifying a brigadier general, a general of a brigade, a general of a division and the SEDENA, who is the secretary of defense and the only four-star general in the Mexican military.

Building team

To build and support an 8-12 man MTT, the battalion leadership interviewed and approved a pool of 16-20 potential candidates. For the officer-in-charge (OIC) position, they decided to assign a company commander. The OIC would then build the team from the pool of candidates, liaise with TSC liaison officers (LNOs) at our brigade and ARNORTH, develop and refine the program of instruction (PoI) and coordinate for pre-deployment training and Soldier Readiness Processing (SRP).

From the execution of the first MTT, we transitioned from having a company commander as the OIC to appointing a permanent member of the S-3 shop to serve as the battalion TSC OIC for all MTTs. The new OIC was a former scout-platoon leader who had served as the assistant OIC for the initial MTT and was then transferred to the battalion operations shop to take over TSC duties full-time. While this took a company commander out of command for more than three weeks, it provided the first MTT with added influence, in terms of higher rank, for building relationships with key SEDENA personnel.4 The individuals we indentified were crucial in arranging resources, billeting, transportation and general coordination of the training events. Company commanders are considered to be very influential in SEDENA, and the presence of one during the first MTT helped cultivate relationships with battalion, brigade and post leadership that easily transferred to the new OIC for his return trips with future MTTs.

The MTT noncommissioned officer in charge (NCOIC) should preferably be at least a senior staff sergeant if not a platoon sergeant. Discipline is a vital component of this mission, and the NCOIC will need to hold fast to the concept that MTT members are all representatives of the United States, not just a specific battalion. For instructors, maturity and tact are the key traits. We recommend using squad leaders and up, with a few promising junior NCOs by exception.

Another thing to consider is that this mission is a developmental opportunity that should be open to every NCO in the battalion. After a successful first iteration, look at incorporating a mix of new instructors with a core of experienced ones. However, the vetting process must remain stringent. You will find that your students are more likely to be officers than enlisted men, and that – along with the many cultural differences you’ll encounter – means tact will pay dividends in building a positive working relationship with your students. It doesn’t help that the NCO Corps in SEDENA is afforded much less esteem than is institutionally shown in our Army.

Critical to overcoming these potential barriers will be the combat experience and extensive military training your instructors must collectively have under their belts. The majority should have some combat-deployment experience, as this will be the easiest and fastest way to build rapport with your students. Most students have spent the last several years fighting narcotraficantes (the most commonly used term for cartel soldiers), and many have experienced intense combat and have even been wounded.

Military schools will achieve a similar effect. Having multiple instructor and leader graduates of the Ranger, Air Assault, Airborne, Pathfinder or Sniper schools will also ensure you have a firm base of doctrinal knowledge with which to execute your PoI. Including a medic on your team will open up a range of training topics to cover for hip-pocket training, while also providing you with internal medical support and a layer of risk mitigation when working with a foreign military and unfamiliar live-fire training practices.

The last thing to consider in building a team will be your MTT’s ability to communicate. Since most of your prospective students are likely to be officers, most of them have some level of education. However, unlike many other Latin American militaries, Mexico does not place a large emphasis on English-language training, so few of them will be ready to communicate with you in English. Interpreter support will be arranged through SEDENA in support of your MTT, but, as a subcontracted service, it will be subject to the same tribulations U.S. forces experienced for years in Iraq and Afghanistan. The interpreters will also most likely not be paid to work on weekends, and their support for after-hours social events will be entirely up to the individual interpreters. Because of this, and the general enhancement that it provides to the execution of your PoI, we highly recommend that you include two to three members on each MTT with some level of conversational Spanish-speaking ability. None need be fluent, for the Mexican students were receptive and appreciative of even the most novice use of their native language.

Most of your instructors shouldn’t need any Spanish-speaking ability to be considered for the assignment. They only need to be outgoing and willing to learn. We embedded with our students for every meal, and most of our non-Spanish-speakers and SEDENA students picked up enough by the end of the rotation to be able to communicate fairly readily without an interpreter at the table. This turned into a critical component of our ability to develop rapport. We recommend that MTTs reach out to organizations like the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation at Fort Benning, GA, or Defense Language Institute at Monterey, CA, for more language resources prior to deployment, and we encourage instructors to research free language-training applications on-line.5


With a team identified, we moved on to the more concrete preparations required for deployment. The main aspects were administrative, resourcing and train-up. Of the administrative requirements that caused the most frustration, especially with MTT missions given on a condensed timeline, acquiring official passports was the most stressful. As the OIC for the first MTT, my official passport did not arrive at the post passport office until less than seven days before our flight.

To alleviate this, our battalion eventually decided to have the companies identify any NCO or officer who may qualify for the pool of instructors or MTT leaders, and have them put in their applications for official passports before an MTT mission was even assigned. If your brigade or battalion is assigned this mission, beginning the process as early as possible will save you some trouble and give you more options for possible instructors.

Once official passports have been completed, the only remaining administrative requirements are the completion of SRP, submission of Aircraft and Personnel Automated Clearance System requests through the unit S-2 shop, Isolated Personnel Report and a myriad of required on-line training and briefings covering anti-terrorism techniques; survival, evasion, resistance and escape; personnel recovery; human rights; and human trafficking. ARNORTH will brief you on documents required prior to deployment, reports due during deployment and close-out documents following redeployment. They will also have you forward your training documents, classes and other digital materials for translation into Spanish.

Resourcing also has the ability to make or break your deployment. ARNORTH will need a resource request in conjunction with your PoI so they can begin the request process through the military attaché at the U.S. Embassy to SEDENA leadership at your destination. This will be required weeks in advance of your training, but will most likely not prevent some level of resourcing issue upon your arrival. The key is to maintain constant contact with ARNORTH and SEDENA LNOs throughout the process. Internal-resourcing requirements will consist of an equipment package from ARNORTH and the packing list you develop in support of your PoI.

ARNORTH representatives will arrive at your brigade a few days prior to deployment to conduct some briefings and pre-training and will sign over a package of communication and personnel-recovery products. The package will include blood chits and personnel-locator beacons to be issued to each instructor and a set of equipment for making and sending reports. For us, that equipment was a Common Access Card-enabled computer with a MiFi (a small cellular Internet receiver) and a Broadband Global Area Network (satellite Internet receiver for areas with no cell reception), along with an international cellphone and an Iridium satellite phone. These items are for official communications, but your MTT members may bring personal phones and computers with the understanding they must pay for international cell rates.

For other gear, we recommend that, in addition to your own PoI-specific packing list, you include medical gear (either your medic’s equipment or a combat-lifesaver (CLS) bag), semi-formal civilian clothes for off-base social outings with your students, and lots of items for exchange as gifts or awards. We originally just brought marksman and sharpshooter badges for each of our students and nice paper stock for printing awards and certificates. By the end of the first iteration, however, our instructors had traded most of their personal badges, tabs and patches and given away anything they could think of as gifts for trade with the students. Planning for these ahead of time will make you seem more professional.

For our first MTT, we had roughly three weeks between the finalization of the instructor roster and the actual deployment. For train-up, we executed all the mandatory on-line training and briefings and received a series of classes given by ARNORTH representatives a few days before our flight. The best training we received was a set of cultural and language classes to help acclimate the instructors to Mexico’s military and regional civilian cultures. The key here, as with everything in the military, is to maximize available time to conduct training and rehearsals specific to your expected mission.

For an advanced-rifle-marksmanship (ARM) MTT, we sought out opportunities to conduct familiarization training with the weapon systems we were most likely to use in Mexico. Unfortunately, in the time allotted, we were unable to acquire H&K G3 rifles to conduct this training. We were able to alleviate this by using the flexibility in our PoI to conduct instructor training on the identified systems during our first week.

Regardless of your assigned topic, getting your instructors some hands-on experience with the material prior to deployment will allow a smoother execution. Having an assistant OIC or the NCOIC begin planning for this concurrently with development of the PoI will help increase efficiency. Our brigade formalized many training topics that were applicable to all the different PoIs in what we called the Sledgehammer Academy. It provided many resources and training opportunities we weren’t able to coordinate for ourselves.

PoI development

Immediately following the identification of an OIC, and concurrent with all preparations, the next most important task for us was to develop a PoI for the MTT. The 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment – part of 3rd ABCT, 3rd Infantry Division6 – was tasked with providing ARM training, but other topics covered by our brigade and battalion included tactical combat-casualty care, crisis action planning, motorized urban operations and air-assault operations. Regardless of the topic assigned, the easiest place to begin is to take the initial products given by ARNORTH and collect similar PoIs from U.S. Army proponent organizations for the given subject. We amassed training materials from the U.S. Army Infantry School’s basic-rifle-marksmanship program from the infantry’s basic training and advanced-individual-training courses, along with material from the Army Marksmanship Unit.

As you build a PoI specific to your MTT, your key task will be to maintain flexibility throughout the plan. We began with a few events designed to build rapport with the students prior to the official start of training. Introductions and some kind of social or sporting event (we used soccer and basketball) will work to break the ice for your students and your instructors. We also had an in-depth discussion with the students to determine what they thought the training objectives should be and to begin to assess their level of capability.

Whether formal or informal, having an assessment period built into the beginning of your PoI, along with the flexibility to adapt to the outcome of your training, will be critical to your success. Soldiers who cannot zero their weapons will probably not gain anything from a 400-meter known-distance range, while a class of mostly Special Forces officers may be turned off by a week straight of zeroing at 25 meters.

After completing and proofing your initial PoI, consider drafting a second version that outlines your training plan into more broad terms and timelines. To ensure your plan’s flexibility translates effectively when it’s sent to the SEDENA LNOs, have it worded in terms of training topics per day, rather than specific tasks per hour. This will allow you more room to make changes without a SEDENA official believing that the previously communicated plan has been overruled.

What reinforced the importance of flexibility the most for us was the recurring issues we encountered across the different MTT iterations with resourcing. Ammunition, facilities, weapons and targetry are provided by SEDENA through a logistical system that is rife with administrative complexity and potential bottlenecks for supply and distribution. Our ammunition was delayed by five days from the arrival of our first MTT on the ground. We were able to leverage this delay into a valuable teaching event that reinforced the importance of maintaining a detailed hip-pocket training plan. In what seemed to be a completely new concept for our students, we conducted training on many tasks – like ready-up drills, dime-washer drills, individual movement techniques and range cards – that related to our PoI but for which we required no resources.

The two topics that generated the strongest positive response were medical training and combatives. Medical training at the team, squad or platoon level is not a major component of basic-soldier-skill or unit training in SEDENA, and the low-level casualty-care training we conducted generated an intense level of interest in our students. As a demonstration of the medical-support culture in SEDENA, the range medic support provided for our first MTT (when we had no medic of our own) consisted of a SEDENA major who was one of the post surgeons. He was also very helpful in supporting the medical-skill training we conducted due to the very specific medical vocabulary with which even our interpreters were unfamiliar.

The most popular hip-pocket training we conducted was in the Modern Army Combatives Program (MACP). Our first MTT NCOIC was MACP Level IV certified and, after the excitement shown by the students in just the first hour of hip-pocket training, we decided to incorporate an entire Level I certification class into the overall PoI. Even our Special Forces students had had little to no combatives training (even from similarly hosted training events with U.S. Special Forces). Through the rest of our three-week MTT, we included one to two hours of combatives into each day of training, with the only modification being the removal of strikes to prevent injuries among the students. With a more robust risk assessment conducted beforehand, and the inclusion of required safety equipment in the supply request, it would be entirely feasible to include the complete course in future MTTs.

The combatives training also reinforced with us the level of competitiveness our students displayed. We ultimately decided to rewrite the rest of our PoI to embed some type of competition throughout the training. We maintained running scores of all the students from their daily marksmanship exercises and built a culminating stress shoot for the final day of training. Buddy teams had to negotiate a lane that covered multiple shooting tasks over a 400-meter mountainside course that also included many of the hip-pocket tasks we trained on earlier. Also, we conducted a combatives tournament following the completion of Level I training. At the graduation of the class, we presented awards for the class top shot, the stress shoot’s best team and the winners of the combatives tournament. We also developed a grading scheme for the marksmanship results that allowed us to identify and reward sharpshooters and experts in the class.


The actual deployment is a relatively painless process. ARNORTH does a good job of coordination to receive the MTT in Mexico City and transport them to the assigned camp. The only thing we were required to coordinate was transportation to the airport. The only issue worth addressing here is that the MTT NCOIC needs to maintain everyone’s Form DD 1610 temporary-duty orders and walk everyone through the baggage-check process to ensure there is no confusion with airline personnel over baggage weight limits.

Typically, our flights out would take place on Sundays. Ideally, flying on Saturday would give the MTT an extra d ay (before the students arrive on Monday) with which to familiarize themselves with the post and to conduct rehearsals and pre-training with the equipment and facilities they will actually use. The first day will begin with formalized introductions. All the MTTs that had deployed together to the same camp were collectively introduced to the students who had assembled to receive the various training courses. ARNORTH action officers and LNOs accompany the MTTs to the camps for the first day and ensure that each SEDENA student has been vetted for human-rights violations in accordance with the Leahy Amendment.7

A mandatory human-rights class must also be conducted with all the SEDENA students present. If ARNORTH personnel conduct the class, it allows the MTT instructors to sit in among the SEDENA students and show that the training is important for everyone. This will help begin the bonding process with the students and ensure they don’t feel as if they’re being looked down upon.

This will also be the first interaction between the MTTs and their assigned interpreters. As with all contracted interpreters, some are more proficient than others are.

The last, and arguably most important, thing to achieve on the first day is picking a class leader. The senior-most member of your class will be in charge of attendance and will help you with executing all sorts of day-to-day tasks. Typically, the students SEDENA chooses for these courses are the best their parent units can send and are correspondingly disciplined and highly motivated. You should find that whoever is identified as the senior student will readily step up to the job.

After the first day, your experience will vary based off your assigned topic and your PoI. While we conducted marksmanship training predominantly at the range and taught air-assault training at landing zones and rappelling towers, other MTTs consisted of mostly classroom training. There are a few common points of emphasis. Safety in training environments is much more heavily emphasized in the United States than in SEDENA, especially with range training. Ensure that you talk through tactics, techniques and procedures with students prior to execution so that everyone is on the same page and no one is surprised.

Seemingly insignificant aspects of training you may take for granted may be done in a completely different manner by SEDENA, so be cognizant. For example, we discovered early on that the SEDENA method for zeroing a rifle was for a shooter to fire three groups of three rounds at a target and adjust the point of aim to bring the point of impact closer to the center. Some units specifically forbade Soldiers from adjusting the sights of their rifles, while most others simply did not train it or even talk about it.

Every training topic has opportunities for similar discoveries. We discovered it was vital to keep an open dialogue as we progressed through the different gates of our PoI to see how students from different regions and zones would execute similar tasks. Gaining perspective into the different circumstances and limitations they face helped us modify some points of our PoI to better suit SEDENA units. For example, parts of the CLS training we conducted used equipment like tourniquets and Israeli dressings that SEDENA units usually don’t possess. For this reason, we then put more emphasis on field-expedient medical techniques.

Throughout the execution of your PoI, pay attention to opportunities to build rapport between the instructors and students, especially outside of the training environment. Sports like soccer, basketball and American football are an excellent way for your students and instructors to find commonality in physical activity and competition. Mixing teams with both students and instructors is a must.

Weekends also provide you with some opportunities, as they will typically not be used for training. While the students and SEDENA LNOs are professionals and will execute training if asked, consider using weekends as opportunities for other activities. Our MTTs conducted hikes in the neighboring mountains, took our students and interpreters to dinner in local cities and visited national sites like Aztec pyramids and local volcanoes. Off-post activities will require thorough security consideration, but the SEDENA, ARNORTH and embassy representatives can easily provide input on local security situations. If you plan these events before deployment, your unit S-2 section can also build you initial situation briefs and provide you with intelligence updates in real time. Your only consideration in this case would be your lack of secure communications capabilities.

You will most likely have a few students in each class who are posted at the camp where you are conducting training and therefore will have in-depth knowledge of places to go and places to avoid. Our students also hosted several authentic Mexican barbeques (called barbacoa) that, while delicious, have a tendency to become rites of passage for U.S. instructors. Have your medics pack accordingly, as pharmacies may or may not be readily available.

Our instructors took full advantage of the high altitude around Mexico City with a robust physical-training (PT) schedule and, by the end of the first iteration, discovered that many of the students were interested in working out with the Americans. Follow-on MTTs successfully incorporated more formalized group PT into the PoI.

Another recommendation is that each member of the MTT, and especially the leadership, maintain a journal with brief daily entries cataloguing what events took place and observations about the students, facilities or anything that seemed of interest about the culture of Mexico and of SEDENA. This will support several important tasks. First, it will support end-of-course after-action reviews (AARs) so the instructors won’t forget as many of the observations they made that would be important to contribute. It will also help the MTT leadership when it comes time to consider instructors for awards after the successful completion of a rotation. It will also drive awards for the students by cataloguing performance at the various events along the way. Most importantly, it will help the MTT collectively refine the PoI throughout the course, develop the PoI between courses and maintain a record of student capabilities so each class can be compared to prior classes.

The last thing to consider during execution is planning for the graduation event. Begin building a plan with some formality almost as soon as you arrive. Our first ceremony was attended by several of the camp’s senior leaders, and we also had a member of the U.S. Embassy Defense Attaché Office, all of whom arrived with no prior coordination or notification. The graduation program and script will also need to be translated which, depending on what you produce, may take some time. You’ll also need to make certificates for the students. We brought some heavy stock paper with us and a certificate template, and then had the student leader make certificates for each student.

Depending on the subject of your training, there are many options for badges or awards you can bring with you. Each of our students walked away with certificates of completion for marksmanship and combatives training and a U.S. Army marksman or sharpshooter badge. Our top shot and best stress-shoot team received a sniper tab we’d made.

Finally, take some time to explore the camp and determine the best location for the ceremony. SEDENA camps are similar to U.S. Army forts in that they are covered with grand statues and heroic plaques and monuments. We conducted ours at a statue of a Mexican infantryman with the sun rising over the mountains and rifle ranges in the background.


In conclusion, the key to success with TSC missions is choosing intelligent and mature personnel who can operate with minimal guidance. None of the points of preparation or execution covered here are particularly difficult to accomplish. We moved from approving a pool of instructors to deployment for our first MTT in less than four weeks.

ARNORTH action officers and LNOs will be helpful throughout the process and will provide you with a wealth of experience. Maintaining constant communication with them will be vital.

Also, feel free to contact me directly at or contact the S-3 of 1-15 Infantry, 3rd ABCT, 3rd Infantry Division, at Fort Benning, GA, for previous PoIs, storyboards, AARs or other historical data.


1This includes principally Canada, CONUS, the Bahamas and Mexico.

2Country Profile: Mexico, Library of Congress, Federal Research Division, July 2008.


4Conversationally, we referred to the Mexican army, both collectively and individually, as SEDENA personnel.

5We also received some very useful products from the U.S. Military Academy’s Department of Foreign Languages.

6Other units making up 3rd ABCT, 3rd Infantry Division, are 2nd Battalion, 69th Armor; 3rd Squadron, 1st U.S. Cavalry; 1st Battalion, 10th Field Artillery; 3rd Brigade, Special Troops Battalion; and 203rd Brigade Support Battalion.

7By law, the U.S. Department of State and Department of Defense may not provide military assistance or training to foreign units or individuals that have conducted human-rights violations.