By Josh Tawson
In January 2017 the Army deactivated the last of its active-duty Long-Range Surveillance (LRS) companies in Fort Hood, Texas and by August 2018, all remaining National Guard LRS units met the same fate. The Army made this decision after using computer models to determine its future priorities to remain successful in a dynamic world.
Dismounted reconnaissance has increasingly taken a back-seat to various technological means of recon leaving a costly void in conventional Army capabilities.
Reactivating LRS and mandating reconnaissance specific training would fill this void and we can look to our peers in the Marine Corps for guidance on how to fix this issue.
UAVs Versus Dismounted Troops
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are becoming a regular means of gathering intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) for our armed forces. UAVs allow for the gathering of imagery in a safe manner as the pilot is often in a secure location leaving potential cost of human life a non-factor. Additionally, it presents a more cost-effective method of gathering intelligence in that we simply don’t need a lot of them.
In 2014 a deployed soldier in Afghanistan costs the U.S. government $2.1 million, according to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, while a single MQ-9 Reaper drone, for example, costs $6.48 million to build and close to $3 million to operate.
With far more soldiers serving, let alone deployed, then drones, the Department of Defense budget would favor the use of drones.
Current and past wars have not presented the full myriad of potential problems that reliance on a technology driven means of recon could present. In any near-peer conflict control of the air space and a legitimate defense against potential cyber-attacks would prove crucial to mission to success.
Bad weather and limited visibility can also inhibit any UAV mission and therefore prevent the gathering of timely intelligence for commanders. Reviving the boots on the ground deep reconnaissance asset will alleviate these problems and allow for a more dynamic and effective Army.
The use of dismounted scouts will enable commanders to infiltrate into high density, low visibility areas and confirm or deny intelligence reports for 24 hours a day, no matter the weather. Even dismounted troops have portable technology that can help them achieve similar capabilities similar to larger UAVs.
Reconnaissance teams can utilize hand deployed drones such as the Raven or emplace remote sensors to conduct perimeter defense, surveillance, environmental monitoring, and target acquisition operations. FM 3-98 Reconnaissance and Security Operations states, “A lack of knowledge concerning insurgents, local politics, customs, culture, and how to differentiate between local combatants often leads to actions that can result in unintended and disadvantageous consequences.”
A drone circling 50,000 feet above cannot gather context of a local community and the interactions between people the same way soldiers on the ground can. The Army finds itself in a stability role in every war fought by the United States and stability operations require a knowledge of the local populous to be successful. Prior to Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army found significant, albeit late, success in the Vietnam war with Civil Operations and Rural Development Support (CORDS) as well as, amid several others, post World War II Germany in 1945 and several Caribbean countries beginning in 1915.
As it stands the conventional Army’s means of dismounted reconnaissance is a troop consisting of two platoons nested within a mounted recon squadron. This troop, doctrinally, is supposed to report gathered intelligence from the battlefield to the Brigade Commander directly for dissemination across his brigade combat team (BCT).
Infantry battalions commonly have a dedicated scout platoon that conducts limited reconnaissance and surveillance (R&S) and security operations for its local chain of command. This platoon can, however, be detached to other units if necessary.
The conventional Army’s dismounted recon assets will often find themselves on personal security details, semi-permanent base security, or even utilized as regular infantry platoons. The latter use is a dangerous idea because a scout platoon cannot organically support an infantry platoon mission. They lack the number of personnel and the weapons and equipment that a standard infantry platoon operates with.
Iraq and Afghanistan still warranted a need for reconnaissance driven missions. A common task would be to conduct recon and surveillance on routes that convoys relied on that were consistently being targeted with IEDs by the enemy. The undeniable reason that dismounted scouts are being utilized improperly is that commanders don’t want to assume risk.
Technology driven ISR gathering does not put human lives on the line but sending a platoon forward of friendly lines is naturally more dangerous. The way to mitigate that risk, as with any risk, is through standardized training of all reconnaissance personnel.
Currently, there is no required reconnaissance training for conventional Army scouts, dismounted or mounted. Both offer optional in-depth courses, the Reconnaissance Surveillance Leaders Course (RSLC) and the Armored Reconnaissance Course (ARC), but they are small schools that commonly fill seats with personnel from other branches of the military.
Conversely, the Marine Corps requires that all Force Reconnaissance Marines attend and graduate their Basic Reconnaissance Course in Camp Pendleton, California. The Army needs to expand the role and the resourcing of RSLC to fit the broader needs of the Army. RSLC is a mentally challenging and physically rigorous course as it’s currently taught and will serve this new larger reconnaissance community well if they get the backing of the Army to help expand its reach.
Marine Corps Methodology
Organizationally, the Marine Corps has a similar reconnaissance methodology. The Marines, like the Army, have two platoons of dismounted reconnaissance personnel within a company (Force Recon) that is inside of a reconnaissance battalion. The mission set, by nature of different branches of the military, is different but the Army stands to gain a lesson learned. Within the Force Recon company is a deep reconnaissance platoon. Each of the three teams within the deep recon platoon has a different specialty to include freefall, amphibious, and mobility operations, which is similar to the former Army LRS company structure. All reconnaissance Marines go through the Basic Reconnaissance Course (BRC) and they are required to graduate in order to serve in a reconnaissance role. BRC is a four-phase school that covers the fundamentals of reconnaissance as well as waterborne operations. Every Marine that graduates BRC and goes to his respective unit starts off with the same base knowledge of his unit’s mission set and their role in the organization as a whole. They don’t have to spend time trying to train their personnel on the same base level, the schoolhouse already did that for them and now they can build off it together.
The Marines have a deeper commitment to reconnaissance capabilities than the Army has. The Marine Corps has committed to the adoption of hand deployed quad copter drones for every infantry squad, according to a Stars and Stripes interview with LtGen Robert Walsh of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command. This will only help to further the capabilities of their reconnaissance troops on the ground even further.
They also have a full reference publication, MCRP 2-10A.5, dedicated to remote sensor operations which help to expand a commander’s view of the battlefield. The Army conversely has a single paragraph dedicated to the same within FM 3-98, the last Army publication dedicated to remote sensors was fielded in 1977 and is no longer in circulation.
The Way Ahead
The Army needs to stand up the LRS companies again but organizationally restructure the old design. Instead of housing the LRS companies within military intelligence battalions, assign the company directly to its respective division.
The company will assign a platoon to each brigade combat team while still maintaining team specialization. The team specialties will remain in freefall, mountain, and dive techniques in order to diversify the capabilities of each BCT even further. The key difference in the revitalized LRS units is that all personnel assigned to a LRS company will have to complete the refurbished RSLC course. Doing so will ensure that every member of the LRS companies has the same fundamental knowledge and physical capability to accomplish their mission. Doing so will only improve the ISR gathering capabilities of the Army as a whole. It should also give commanders the confidence to send their elements forward knowing they are properly trained in an array of reconnaissance techniques.
Revitalizing a human emphasis for gathering intelligence will fill in the gaps that naturally reside in technology driven methods. Standardizing and requiring reconnaissance training for conventional scouts will not only help to reduce risk and encourage commanders to utilize all their assets but also to ensure that all recon personnel share the same base level training to help build a common operating picture. The LRS companies will not be there to compete with technology, rather work with it in order to get a three-dimensional understanding of the objective and help commanders succeed on the battlefield.
The Army needs to act on this now while there are still former LRS soldiers circulating through the Army. They can be used to train the new companies before the generational gap becomes to big recover from and they have to learn from scratch.
About the Author
Josh Tawson grew up in Northern California where he ran cross country and learned to snowboard. After high school he received his degree in Political Science at Boise State University while serving in the Idaho National Guard. He is currently an Army Infantry Officer serving at Ft. Bragg, NC and fits snowboarding and rock climbing in whenever he can.