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Fixing Light Reconnaissance Formations
The light reconnaissance formation is undergoing an identity crisis. As the Army begins its transition to fight the next high intensity conflict, mounted and dismounted reconnaissance units across the formation risk being left behind. Shackled to an aging, ill-suited vehicle lacking standoff, the R&S elements in Infantry Brigade Combat teams would be better suited pivoting towards the next high intensity conflict as a dismounted force specializing in urban reconnaissance.
The core mission of reconnaissance is to answer specific questions for the higher headquarters. These answers will provide context, illuminate threats, and ultimately drive decision making for the commander. The ability to answer these questions hinge on three capabilities: infiltration, collection, and reporting. Reconnaissance assets must be able to reach the area where the answers may lie. Often, this area is behind the accepted “front line” and poses some level of danger to the collection asset. Once in place, the reconnaissance unit must be able to gain and maintain contact with the area of interest or enemy force. Finally, the information gathered must be transmitted back to the higher headquarters to drive the development of the battle plan. While perhaps an oversimplification, these three processes are the most crucial elements to answering information requirements. Problematically, as currently constructed, the reconnaissance assets of a light infantry brigade are poorly postured to accomplish many of these in a high intensity conflict.
The infantry brigade combat team (IBCT) is a core formation of the modern counter-insurgency focused force. Its maneuver forces consist of three infantry battalions and a light cavalry squadron, with the cavalry squadron providing reconnaissance capability to the brigade commander, and a single scout platoon at the battalion level. The cavalry squadron has two mounted reconnaissance troops that utilize up-armored utility vehicles, and a dismounted troop. In the modern warzones of the Middle East, when facing an enemy that is technologically inferior, this structure works. Aside from the ever present IED threat, conducting area reconnaissance of villages in trucks or on foot is feasible. The reconnaissance platoon is well equipped to deal with the small arms threat, and the use of rotary wing aircraft to transport them around the battlefield is uncontested.
A high intensity conflict fought against a near-peer enemy poses serious risks to the IBCT reconnaissance assets. The enemy counter-recon threat is typically a mechanized force. Lacking a serious anti-armor capability, the gun trucks that IBCT recon troops use would be a high-signature infiltration mechanism that isn’t armed or armored to compete with Chinese or Russian mechanized vehicles, as they sport higher caliber guns and thicker armor than a Humvee. American scout platoons are currently straddling a line between the ability to fight for information that mechanized fighting-vehicles possess, and the low signature of the dismounted scout. By utilizing loud, unwieldy vehicles that lack firepower, the mounted recon troop instead is choosing the worst of both worlds.
A preferable alternative would see the IBCT cavalry squadron instead embrace dismounted infiltration, relying on stealth as a form of survivability. The small signature dismounted scouts present would allow them to reach the reconnaissance objective via terrain thought impassible or inaccessible to vehicle traffic, and therefore less likely to be observed. IBCT reconnaissance assets inherently lack the ability to effectively engage and destroy near peer mechanized threats, so leaning into signature reduction and stealth is intuitive. These teams would use long range communications and surveillance equipment, such as HF radios and cameras, to collect not just covertly but for extended periods of time. The ability of dismounted scouts to conduct passive, stealthy, reconnaissance and surveillance is unmatched by any conventional capability. By leaning into these abilities rather than compromising on a hasty and imperfect motorized solution the IBCT reconnaissance formation would be postured to fill a critical capability gap in the next, likely urban, high intensity conflict. But what would such a holistic restructuring look like?
A culture change, emphasizing the dismounted scout as the primary collection platform would be the bedrock of the new-look IBCT cavalry squadron. Military schooling such as the Reconnaissance and Surveillance Leaders Course (RSLC), would need to be prioritized for leaders in the formation. It is imperative that non-standard communications equipment including HF and TACSAT radio be key training priorities for scout teams. The ability to conduct air, boat, and land-based infiltration would be distinguishing capabilities, and would demand the requisite training and resourcing attention. These small teams would ultimately have the ability to insert, collect, and report back information including pictures and video of the reconnaissance objective. A renewed focus on urban surveillance, including subterranean facilities, would be a unique hallmark of the IBCT cavalry squadron. The dense, multidimensional environment of a city masks the shortcomings of a dismounted element, while providing ready-made hide sites for long-term surveillance.
As the Army modernizes with an eye on high-intensity conflict the role of the IBCT reconnaissance formation must be clearly defined. What it lacks in firepower, it makes up in stealth and reduced signature. It’s easy to envision the light reconnaissance troops of the future as highly modular specialists, focused on urban reconnaissance in dense cities and subterranean facilities. They could fill a gap that has been lacking since the dismantling of the LRS formations, able to cover large areas with small teams to collect for extended periods of time. The ability to answer the commander’s most pressing questions is crucial to the success of military operations, and the future mission set of the IBCT requires a reconnaissance force that is trained, equipped, and specially purposed to do so.