Sleep Tactics for Sustained Operations

LAST UPDATED: October 23, 2017
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Sleep in a tactical environment

Sleep is critical for sustaining the mental abilities you need for success in training and on the battlefield. Even simple tasks such as communicating, driving, or plotting grid coordinates can be impaired by inadequate sleep (anything less than 7—8 hours every 24 hours). Soldiers can correctly sight a target – but they might select the wrong target.

Planning for sleep in training and tactical environments is a core leader competency. Leaders must know the sleep-work cycles of their Soldiers, particularly when they are working shifts, are in operational environments, or are outside standard duty hours.

Combat operations can create situations where inadequate sleep becomes the norm. Soldiers who do not get enough sleep accumulate a sleep debt that must be paid off by getting the needed sleep. It’s mission-critical to make sleep your top priority.

Inadequate sleep impairs the following abilities, among others:

  • Detecting and appropriately determining threat level
  • Requesting indirect fire
  • Coordinating squad tactics
  • Integrating range cards

Signs of insufficient sleep:

  • Struggling to stay awake during mission breaks, guard duty, or driving
  • Difficulty understanding or tracking information
  • Attention lapses
  • Irritability, decreased initiative/motivation

Overcoming sleep distractors:

  • Nap as much as possible to get 7-8 hours of sleep every 24 hours
  • If tactically permitted, use soft foam earplugs and a sleep mask or room fan to block noise/light
  • Do not use any drugs (prescription or over-the-counter) to help you sleep unless you are taking them under the guidance of your healthcare provider
Sleep tactics for sustained operations
Before Operations Get at least 7–8 hours of sleep every 24 hours the week before the operation so that you start the mission with a full sleep bank.
During Operations If possible, get 7–8 hours of sleep every 24 hours.
If 7–8 hours is not possible, take naps when mission permits to minimize your sleep debt.
Use caffeine to temporarily sustain mental performance until you can obtain sleep.
After Operations Get extra sleep each day to pay off your sleep debt and resupply your sleep bank.

Caffeine use during sustained operations:

Daily use of caffeinated products is very common and can be useful in the morning to promote alertness in sustained operations. In day-to-day life caffeine intake should be restricted to morning use. Caffeinate products temporarily reduce sleepiness and maintain performance. Remember, caffeine content varies depending on the product.

Refer to the section: Sleep Deprivation Countermeasures, for a caffeine dosing schedule.

Night operations and performance

The figure below shows how the brain’s biological clock impacts sleep/wake and performance. The brain’s clock is programmed to boost alertness during the day and sleepiness during the night.

Daytime work / Nighttime sleep

The figure below shows what happens on night shift work. This clock is slow to adjust and often never adapts to night time operations. Soldiers working across the night are trying to stay alert when their brain clock is programmed to sleep. During the period from about 0600 to 0800, leaders and Soldiers are especially error-prone. After the night shift, Soldiers are trying to sleep when their brain clock is programmed to be awake. Their ability to sleep is impaired, resulting in a sleep debt.

Nighttime work / Daytime sleep

Managing sleep to maintain performance

Sleep does not have to be taken in one continuous period to be effective. It is preferable to give Soldiers uninterrupted sleep time at night when the brain clock is programmed for sleep. Two periods that add up to 7–8 hours of sleep also works. Naps can compensate for insufficient nighttime sleep.

NighttimeSleepGraphic.jpg

Bottom line: Do not create schedules or situations in which Soldiers are forced to choose between adequate sleep and other off-duty activities (personal hygiene, calling home, etc.) They will always sacrifice sleep in these situations.

If sleep must be rationed

Prioritize sleep need by task:

  1. TOP PRIORITY: Leaders making decisions critical to mission success and unit success.
  2. SECOND PRIORITY: Soldiers who have tedious or sedentary duties such as monitoring equipment for extended periods or guard duty, and those who judge and evaluate information.
  3. THIRD PRIORITY: Soldiers performing duties involving only physical work.

Sleep recovery after sustained operations

Following any period of insufficient sleep, leaders and Soldiers need extra sleep to fully reset and pay down their sleep debt. Although exact amounts of sleep required to fully recover are unknown, we do know that the longer a Soldier goes or has gone without adequate sleep, the more nights will be needed to fully recover. We also know that recovery from sleep loss over a short period of time is faster than recovery from chronic insufficient sleep.

The following can serve as general rules:

  • Most Soldiers will recover if allowed 1–2 nights of as much sleep as needed for recovery sleep.
  • Chronic, inadequate sleep (4–5 hours) of sleep across 3–6 nights
  • Most Soldiers will fully recover following 3–4 nights of getting as much sleep as needed for recovery sleep.
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