Why sand tables are important tools when preparing for a mission
When preparing for a mission, officers, who've signed off on hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of equipment and are responsible for troops each wearing around $17,500 worth of gear, crowd around a simple box made of sand, sticks, and stones. The S-3 officer will pick up a rock and say, "first platoon, this is you guys" and they'll use another rock to represent second platoon. And maybe they'll even throw in some ad-libbed sound effects. Admittedly, it's kinda silly at first glance.
Sometimes, if you're lucky, you'll get an operations officer to spring a couple bucks and buy a few green, plastic Army guys to represent each unit, which makes it feel more like a tabletop RPG or something. Whatever markers are used, the intent is the same — and it may be one of the best instructional tools available when briefing the troops on what's about to go down.
And, for the love of all that is holy, the answer is not another friggin' PowerPoint presentation.
The boots-on-the-ground troops don't often get a chance to look inside the S-3 tent when they aren't building it. Without that kind of visibility, it's easy to overlook the insane amount of detail that goes into preparing for each and every mission. Every single eventuality has to be considered and mapped out. Each potential outcome requires an alternate plan, a contingency plan, and an emergency plan. This goes for everything, from an assault on a compound to just planning a convoy to a training center.
When it comes time to execute the mission, all of that pristine planning is for naught if you can't properly convey it to the people responsible for carrying out the orders. So, officers need a good way to send that message.
Who would have thought that you'd be using the same toys when you were a kid "playing Army" in the real Army.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sergeant Christopher Ruano
This is where sand tables come in. It gives each and every person watching the demonstration a bird's eye view of what's supposed to go down. An observer can either take it all in or just hone in on their own marker. Either way, the sand table allows everyone to focus on something in physical space instead of just zoning out while staring toward a dry-erase board filled with scribbles.
It also gives the viewer a chance to take part in the preparation, and taking an active role helps increase information retention. For example, you can give the platoon leader the "first platoon rock" and have them act out their mission.
The best part of it all? Sand tables don't take much more than a little bit of wood and elbow grease to put together — sometimes, the best solution is the simplest.
To watch a retired Green Beret build a sand table, check out the video below from Dave of Centurion MILSIM. He's actually got an entire series on how to create fantastic tables and military terrain models from scratch.