Operation ENDURING FREEDOM RECONDO School

Rebuilding our special reconaissance capability

Introduction

Special Reconnaissance (SR) is one of Special Forces’s (SF) nine principle tasks. The key differences between reconnaissance and Special Reconnaissance are: 1) it is beyond the capability of most conventional forces, and or 2) it is performed where conventional forces may not be appropriate. There is however no specific school to train SF at this task. During the qualification course there is no time devoted to anything more than a basic scouting mission and some power point classes. Pre-mission training devotes little to no time on this task. This has not always been the case. In Vietnam the SF as part of the Study and Observation Group (SOG) were performing Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRP) missions and had established LRRP Detachments. Special Forces stood up the Delta project which included detachments B-50, B-52, and B-56. Detachment B-52 was one of the most highly decorated units of its size.[1] It was these Special Forces LRRP detachments that would form the model for the conventional army’s provisional LRRP companies. They would perform mission beyond the normal unit’s capabilities and often in places where the official line was we had no troops.

Today after over a decade at war in two countries we have accomplished the opposite end state. Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) has become synonymous with the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). In most cases conventional reconnaissance units have been assigned almost exclusively non-reconnaissance tasks. Scout platoons are used as personal security detachments or just extra infantry platoons, Reconnaissance Surveillance and Target Acquisition (RSTA) Squadrons are used as Battle Space owners, even our new Battle Field Surveillance Brigades have been assigned battle space. The net result has been a severe deterioration in our overall ISR capabilities.

There is still time to rebuild our ground reconnaissance capabilities. If we look to history we will see there is a way to retrain the force, update our doctrine, gain real world experience, and improve the capabilities of host nation and coalition forces.  At the same time a capacity-building professional school can be handed off to the host nation countries the school would be built in. RECONDO School was used in Vietnam to train reconnaissance units, and it can be done again in places such as Afghanistan, Colombia, and the Philippines. For brevity this article will only cover a RECONDO school in Afghanistan this does not mean a jungle version could not be built in another country with different terrain such as the Philippines or Colombia.

Historical reference

The LRRP mission concept started based on the idea that NATO would fight a retrograde operation if the Cold War with the Soviet Union went hot. The LRRP teams would be left behind to report back on enemy activity. The supported Corps Headquarters would receive the intelligence and direct air and artillery strikes against selected targets.

There were informal RECONDO schools at Ft. Bragg and Ft. Campbell. Other units such as Indiana’s D/151st spent some time training in the Panama jungles before deploying. LRRP soldiers spent an above average amount of time training and rehearsing and planning their missions. After all, one mistake literally meant the difference between life and death.

The training of the LRRP units in Vietnam was varied at first. Being self-taught with an experimental doctrine and force structure in West Germany, they would lean heavily on ranger school graduates in the first years. As time went on, schools like the 101st’s RECONDO trained the necessary soldiers and the demand for LRRP capabilities became stronger. General Westmoreland used the 5th SFG detachments such as B-52 from Project Delta to form the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) RECONDO School. In September of 1966 the school became official with a full time staff.

RECONDO School was one of the most unique schools in the Army’s history. Your final exam was a real mission in enemy territory. In other words the final exam could and sometimes did result in enemy contact. RECONDO, was coined by General Westmoreland taken from the words: Reconnaissance, Commando, and Doughboy.[2] The school was staffed by a 54-man Special Forces cadre, Australian and Korean liaisons, support personal and a company of the Civilian Irregular Defense Group. Often soldiers from other nations attended the school jointly with the Americans.

The school was 20 days long. Week one was academics taught in the classroom adjoining the training areas. This phase would teach such things as map reading, patrol techniques, and mission planning. The second week was devoted to hands-on practical exercises such as rappelling, helicopter operations, shooting North Vietnamese and Viet Cong weapons, and ended with a four-day training mission on Hon Tre Island. The third and final week was devoted to the planning and execution of a reconnaissance mission in enemy territory.

The mornings started off with physical training. “The runs were killers, each one longer than the first, building up to a torturous nine-miler. Each one was with full combat gear: rifle, six quarts of water, sixteen magazines and one additional item, a measured, forty-pound sandbag placed in the rucksack.”[3] There was also the obligatory physical-training test and a swim test consisting of running three miles to the beach and swimming 100 meters out to a raft and back. The school was arduous. “A sure way to recognize a RECONDO graduate was by the burn marks under his armpits and on his lower back.”[4] By the end, approximately 39% of the students did not graduate.

As the Army became more involved in Vietnam, the commanders understood the need for sending units deep into enemy safe havens as their eyes and ears. The LRRPs were a perfect fit for these missions. The standard mission was four to six days long with helicopter insertion and extraction. The team would identify enemy positions and report back. The commanding unit would decide whether to send in reaction forces, air strikes or artillery bombardment.  For example Operation Junction City, which eventually included 22 brigades and the largest U.S. airborne operation since World War II, was initiated from the intelligence reported by a single LRRP team.[5]

LRRP teams were sometimes outnumbered by more than 100 to one.[6] The typical LRRP team did not have enough fire power for a toe-to-toe fight with the enemy. To assist them they used modified and non-standard equipment. They were famous for their tiger-striped uniforms, indigenous rucksacks and not wearing flak jackets or helmets. Some even wore ‘Ho Chi Minh sandals’ and Vietnamese clothing. They carried a variety of weapons such as AK-47s, Tommy guns, and the CAR-15. They would sometimes use an AK-47 to signal or counter signal the enemy tricking them into thinking they were friendly forces.

The typical LRRP soldier was trusted with more equipment than the line soldiers were. They carried modified claymores, different types of explosive, incendiary, and signaling hand grenades, suppressed weapons, and special medical kits. Their rations were even different being a special dehydrated packet that was a favorite even with the line soldiers. It was from these weapons and equipment that the LRRP team would adjust to the needs of a specific mission in a specific area. What worked in one part of Vietnam did not necessarily work elsewhere.

The effectiveness of LRRP units has never been disparaged, though their reconnaissance capabilities were reduced by the end of the war. However, that was partly due to the commands concentrating more on body counts than intelligence. The enemy of course adjusted also as happens in every war. By the end LRRP and LRRP style units had seen action in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. As to what the North Vietnamese thought of them:

“Those devils in green faces are beating us at our own game.”  – General Vo Nguyen Giap[7]

Example RECONDO in Afghanistan

In order to establish a RECONDO school, some basic elements need to be decided upon. Although there is a planned withdrawal from Afghanistan, Special Operations Forces (SOF) are expected to be in the country for years to come. The manning will transition over the course of 12 to 18 months from predominantly unilateral to combined. A quick reaction force or ‘Mike Force’ consisting of one host nation platoon will be a permanent part of the school. Classes and missions will be taught in Dari and English with a permanent party CAT I interpreter assigned to each training team. Final Field Training Exercises (FTX) will be real world in support of Group or higher level intelligence requirements.

Manning of a RECONDO school will take approximately 42 volunteers from Coalition Forces (CF) and 48 Afghan Commandos/Special Forces. This includes a platoon sized host nation quick reaction force. The average deployment for CF cadre would be a one year tour. The initial structure would be based on top of a Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA). After establishment, host nation soldiers and leaders will be added into the classes with the best becoming cadre afterwards. Slowly the Afghans will take control of the school. As the Afghan forces take control the ODA will transition into more of a supporting role and the overall number of coalition soldiers involved will decrease. Some staff position would remain open to Coalition SOF. This will allow new Tactics Techniques and Procedure (TTP) to be introduced into Coalition SOF units. A general task organization of the initial set up and final set up are represented in figures 1 and 2 respectively.

TOE

The students would be placed in twelve man teams based on the SF model. Every team would have two host nation soldiers in their team. The design would allow for five teams per class of roughly sixty students. RECONDO School’s student base came from soldiers in theater. This same system could be used or the school could be opened up to students stationed in their home countries. Students could also be drawn from units in pre-mission training for deployment to Afghanistan. Student prerequisites would be:

            -Volunteer

            -Member of a coalition SOF unit a LRSU or on orders to such an assignment.

            - Have a combat MOS

            -Current SF physical or their country’s equivalent

A basic Program of Instruction would look like this:

WEEK 1

  • Physical training
  • In processing
  • SOP development
  • Weapons familiarization
  • Patrolling techniques

WEEK 2

  • Physical training
  • Common tasks (map reading, reporting formats, etc)
  • Intro to reconnaissance
  • Communications training
  • Medical training
  • Intro to planning

WEEK 3

  • Physical training
  • Mission planning
  • Mission planning practical exercise
  • Full mission planning with local FTX
  • Debriefing procedures

WEEK 4

  • Physical training
  • Reinforcement training
  • Final FTX  in support of theater ISR requirements
  • Debrief
  • Graduation

Final FTX

As in the Vietnam RECONDO School, the final mission will be in support of Group or higher level intelligence requirements. This does mean combat is a possibility during training. The fact that the school will be in a combat zone already makes this a possibility throughout the training. We have successfully done this before. Several second- and third-world countries do this on a daily basis.

Intelligence from boots on the ground is the most accurate and dependable source. The schools entire purpose is to bring our SR capabilities to a higher level. With this in mind the ISR managers at Group or higher level units in theater will be able to request the use of one of the five teams to conduct a mission for them. That Headquarters will be responsible for providing any direct support need to conduct the mission.

The school will assign the missions based off priority and student teams demonstrated capabilities. The teams will then take the operations order written by the mission requestor and conduct mission planning. The school house will provide command and control of the teams. Upon completion of the mission the school house will conduct full mission debriefs and pass on all information gained to the requesting unit. 

Upon completion of the final Field Training Exercise (FTX), the student will receive a diploma and have the school placed in their records. As with the original RECONDO School, graduates will be authorized to wear the RECONDO patch while in theater.

Conclusion

Our ability to perform SR has been reduced from years of neglect. We have become dependent on electronic and unmanned assets. Assets that could will be much less effective in a near peer fight.  Solving this deficiency now will save time, energy, and lives in the future. We have an opportunity to build a world class SR school that will help fill the ranks of our military with experienced personnel for years to come. At the same time we will help build the capacity across collation forces. Regaining a strong ground reconnaissance and surveillance capability may make the difference between mission success or failure in the future.


[1] Burford, John. LRRP’s in Action. (Carrolloton: Squadron/Signal Publications Inc., 1994), p. 13

[2] Chambers, Larry. LRRPs in the 101st Airborne RECONDO (New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2003), page 133.

[3] Ibid, p. 139

[4] Ibid, p. 139

[5] Battleground Vietnam War in the Jungle, DVD (St. Laurent, Quebec: Madacy Home Video, 2005 Episode 4)

[6] Ibid, Episode 4.

[7] Ibid, Episode 4.

 

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Comments

Thank you for this thoughtful and well written article. It seems like the leadership won't invest in anything with vision, including jungle and desert schools, which is bizarre given where all the small-scale intractable conflicts currently exist.

I posted a video on the LRRP training in Vietnam at the following link you may enjoy:

http://council.smallwarsjournal.com/showthread.php?t=17731

In general agreement with CPT Doherty's article, but would recommend focusing on developing an Afghanistan reconaissance capability that ties into how they'll do business after we pull out of much of our support. I suspect they won't be as dependent on technology to display intelligence, and will in many cases rely on posting maps on the wall with acetate and updating them based on the intelligence reports coming in from the SR teams and numerous other sources. How to write and call in meaningful intelligence reports using the SALUTE format will require some culturally tailored approaches to make up for the literacy shortfalls (some sort of brevity code will probably work for some of this).

The author covered the SR training proposal sufficiently, but what also needs to get addressed (and it may have happened already) is the development of competent Afghanistan intelligence staff. It shouldn't be the SF Group sending out these teams, but rather the Afghans sending them out to address their intelligence gaps needed for planning. We need to shift the mindset from doing to enabling. Enabling in developing nations almost always means we have to adapt what we do to their level of technology and ability to sustain what we teach them. Don't let perfect become the enemy of good enough.