Small Wars Journal

A Scout Leader’s Primer (On Earnest Preparation)

Share this Post

A Scout Leader’s Primer (On Earnest Preparation)

Alexander Boroff

Introduction

Utilizing a future fictional war against a near-peer adversary, reconnaissance and security fundamentals are presented in the manner of “The Defence of Duffer’s Drift.”[i] Unique in addressing both the interconnectedness of reconnaissance and security and tying them to concrete examples of failure, this paper attempts to present plausible ways to integrate said concepts into an iterative tactical decision-making exercise. The final two pages of the paper list the entirety of the lessons learned by the story’s hero, as he fights the same battle repetitively, getting better at each try. The intended audience for this essay is junior company grade officers who could potentially be tasked with reconnaissance and security operations or would like a quick preparatory guide for the Army Reconnaissance Course or the Cavalry Leader’s Course and is written in common language. A terrain sketch is provided at the end to give context to the situation.

Prelude

“When placed in command, take charge.” – Norman Schwarzkopf[ii]

“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower[iii]

As a young officer assigned to a new role, I struggled to comprehend the vastness of my charge. I had been assigned to command a thirty-six-man reconnaissance platoon which consisted of six heavily armored vehicles. This platoon was further broken down into three sections, each of which contained twelve men and two vehicles. Was I prepared to take this new mission role, and succeed at it? I was fully determined to do the utmost to complete the mission and never fail my Soldiers in any way.

Knowing that my first assignment would be critical in the preparation for those to come, I made much careful thought about how to proceed. To fully understand how I ended this so fruitfully, it can best be described by my thoughts and dreams of the outcomes of my various actions.

From left to right on the battlefield, as I saw it originally, there was a large plain that ran up to a gently sloping hill. There was a small hill that rose on the north side of the plain, however, other than that, it was a flat forest up until the hillside. On the right side of the hill, the terrain was steeper. It was again a forest plain, however, there was a cut on the north side of the road that bisected the battlefield. Finally, there was the edge of a large mountain that rose further to the east as one looked at the battlefield. Attached is a rough sketch that I drew of the terrain as I saw it, along with a depiction of where “Named Area of Interest (NAI) 1” was assigned to me.

First Vision

“Haste makes waste.” – Benjamin Franklin[iv]

“Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster.” – Sun Tzu[v]

Of course, we all know about the Crimean Quasi-war of 2025, but even then, we most likely have only heard of the heroes of the major engagements in that theater. In the early days of the first year of that short war, I found myself operating in a small town outside of Sevastopol. At that time, I had just received a battlefield commission in the rank of Second Lieutenant, as our previous platoon leader had perished in an engagement with the vaunted foe. I had previously held the rank of Platoon Sergeant, so the duties and responsibilities of this position were not unknown to me, but at the same time, the experience was already proving to be daunting.

Immediately I had been assigned, with my platoon, to conduct a reconnaissance operation in preparation for an attack by an adjacent unit on dug-in hostile defensive works. The unit that was supposed to conduct this attack was near and dear to my heart, as I had been assigned there in a previous tour. It was a good outfit, and many of my friends were still with it.

My commander had given me the order to complete the aforementioned mission in a quiet and unannounced manner as to retain the element of surprise for the attack. I was to examine the area for the enemy’s potential engagement area, determine where his obstacles were emplaced, and try to determine the best position where the follow-on force could emplace its own firing position to support its advance. His orders also included a strict policy on how and when to engage the enemy. I thought, as he made this specific mention, surely I shall know when to fire upon the foe. Further intriguing to me, the commander laid out a distinct set of criteria to me for how and when to withdraw when confronted with superior enemy force. This seemed an anathema to my honor as Soldier, having always been drilled only to retire in the face of overwhelming enemy odds.

Doing a quick map check of my reconnaissance objective, NAI 1, I saw that it was a particularly steep hill, with a long gentle slope on its reverse side. Immediately, I thought to apply the lessons I had learned over my career and during my brief officer’s course. The fundamentals of reconnaissance that I had been briefed flashed through my mind, “Never keep Reconnaissance Assets in Reserve,” and “Orient on the Reconnaissance Objective” were foremost in my mind. Knowing that NAI 1 as given was too large and diverse to be covered in a singular observational area, I decided to break up the problem set into several smaller sub areas for my platoon to conduct reconnaissance around. Key intersections, likely obstacle points, and an adaptable support by fire position for the supported unit to occupy during the course of the attack were the three major areas that I planned my operation around. This way I could assign each of my three sections to its own objective, which would allow the section leaders latitude to operate independently.

Following this, I thought to immediately plan a route to NAI 1 and set up my section observation posts there. 

Hastily planning the quickest route I could to the objective, I briefed my platoon on the impending operation. I tentatively sketched observation posts on the map and left their emplacement to the discretion of the senior member of each section. As soon as my platoon sergeant let me know our small unit was ready to move out, we initiated our quick trek towards NAI 1 and my templated sub-objectives.

The movement started easily enough, and our lead vehicle had made quite some progress along the route. Suddenly, I heard the tell-tale sign of gunfire, and the dusty reports of enemy weapon fire in front of my vehicle. Immediately behind me, my third vehicle exploded into flames, the victim of a well-placed enemy rocket propelled grenade strike, with all Soldiers inside surely casualties. Reports of enemy contact flowed over the net, and specific mention was made to the fact they were not wearing uniforms, nor were they equipped with standard weaponry. This must be the vaunted irregulars that I had heard of only in briefings up until this point. I ordered my platoon to quickly move through the enemy’s ambush to avoid further casualties. I luckily escaped with the remaining five vehicles in my reduced platoon, with only one other Soldier suffering a minor gunshot wound. We could yet still accomplish our mission. Taking into account that the enemy that had attacked me would surely move on my supported unit, I called my higher headquarters in an attempt to report. To my horror, I heard the jarring noise of static unable to be pierced by my signal. The enemy had jammed our communications!

To my further dismay, my rush to begin the mission left me without our published plan to overcome any frequency jamming we encountered. Thus, I was stuck, left with 5 vehicles, all but certainly my supported unit would face a surprise attack from the same force which had ambushed my platoon, yet they would be caught completely unaware, as they had expected me to provide them early warning of any such attack.

With a guilty conscience, I proceeded along my pre-determined route to NAI 1, with the hopes of at least accomplishing some semblance of my mission. I went about setting up my observation posts and heard eight loud explosions far to my rear. The enemy had, as I expected attacked my higher headquarters. By this time, the jamming had ceased, however, it had accomplished its task. Desperate pleas for assistance from those in the rear area echoed through my head, just as my southernmost section reported a large formation of enemy armor moving forward through my sector. I radioed this up, but I only added confusion to the mess of communications over the net.

As the enemy armor bypassed my positions, I heard a scramble of communication over my own platoon net. The enemy was attacking my mounted observation posts and eliminating them one by one. Due to my hasty planning, none were within supporting range of each other, and thus doomed to fight alone.

Lesson 1: Always plan your subordinate units to be able to mutually support each other. Failing to do this deprives your unit of any advantage to aid itself in a coming fight. This can include section internal support. Support also includes observation of objectives. By creating “redundancy,” subordinates will not miss their reconnaissance objectives.

My thoughts turned to my first failure as a platoon leader, and the lives of those Soldiers who I had failed.

Lesson 2: Plan for the enemy in every eventuality past the start of your mission. Do a thorough enemy analysis of any route you plan to take and determine where they would best be able to strike you. Consider how you want to move to the next location based on when and where you expect to encounter the enemy.

Lesson 3: Haste makes waste, especially in regard to planning. Do not take dalliances planning yet allocate enough time to it in order to properly prepare yourself for anything that may occur in your mission.

Lesson 4: Never leave an enemy alive where you can destroy him, and if you cannot, immediately relay his position to your headquarters. Consider strongly any guidance you are given by your commander in regard to this measure.

I swore to myself, at that moment, when it came my time to fight against the approaching foe, if ever I had the chance to rectify my actions, I would never make these same mistakes again. In the quiet after the position adjacent to mine was destroyed, I began to reflect further upon the action that had taken place that day, myself alone with my thoughts. What a terrific failure in judgement I made. By some unknown grace my vision slowly began to fade.

Second Vision

“He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot, will be victorious.” – Sun Tzu[vi]

“Don’t fight a battle if you don’t gain anything by winning.” – Erwin Rommel[vii]

I awoke in a sweat, recalling the events of the previous day. My platoon sergeant had just opened my shelter tent to tell me that we had a new mission upcoming, which I soon realized was the same as the one I had just conducted. To be specific it was the exact same, and my old platoon was standing right before my eyes. Incredulously, I still was able to recall all the events of the previous day. I was determined to make use of my knowledge and not fail my Soldiers again.

Immediately taking my writing paper in hand, I began drafting a comprehensive operations order. This time, I prepared thoroughly for all eventualities regarding the enemy in my mission brief. I scanned the terrain along my route and gave the best predictions to my Soldiers where I expected we could face an ambush. Instead of hastily determining my observation post and hide site locations, I explicitly planned them with a deep focus on their ability to support one another. At a minimum, the sections would be able to support themselves internally, rather than leaving each vehicle exposed and alone. Finally, I had my second in command check over my operations order for a last “sanity check” and then briefed my platoon.

I then set out upon my path, knowing full where I expected enemy to be, given my detailed analysis of the area. I had planned several potential positions for the enemy along the route I was to take towards NAI 1.

We then started our task, again in a timely manner, this time, so I thought, better prepared. Moving along that same road where the dreadful ambush had occurred previously, I ordered our convoy to constantly change formation, and make sudden darting movements, followed by slow paced movements forward, to confuse any potential ambushers of our true intentions. By this method we proceeded, and at length, were some halfway to our objective observation postings.

My lead vehicle abruptly sped up, and then opened fire on a position alongside the road. Sporadic fire returned against it, and I ordered all of my men to identify the enemy position. Quickly, we determined that it was only a small enemy section that faced us. Remembering that my commander had issued me guidance to engage anything a section size or below, I immediately flew into action sputtering out brief commands over the radio to my elements. Remembering my first devastating encounter with this small group, I ordered a section to fire on them while the other two maneuvered to gain an advantage. This quickly led to my success in this endeavor, and this small group had been destroyed at my platoon’s hands, with only one of my own Soldiers taking some small shrapnel wounds.

Pushing further along the path to my objective, I reached it with no further incident. At NAI 1, as I had observed from my map-based reconnaissance of the area, there was the steep hill obscuring the rest of my path forward.  This information was all relayed to me via the scouts who first saw it. Along the entire heavily wooded hillside, there could not be seen any enemy to the naked eye, and I took pause for a moment to consider if they were there at all. Seeing for myself the value of holding such terrain as a boon to the enemy, and given its complete defensibility, I set myself to positioning my mounted observation posts in a manner where they could both remain safe and also observe the templated enemy positions along the hillside, along with their emplaced obstacles and a support position for the assault unit. After some maneuvering and the passage of a few hours my platoon was set in position. I felt supremely secure in the fact that I would be able to provide my commander with the information he needed, and also prevent any incursions of the enemy through my observation post line. In my confidence, however, I did not realize that not all of my vehicles were in the best position and left wide gaps in my reconnaissance coverage of NAI 1 or the sub-objectives I had developed earlier.

Lesson 5: As a leader, inspect your observation posts and reconnaissance positions with the same tenacity that you would if you were occupying the positions yourself. Do not care if your men grumble when told they have made a lackluster position, realign them to the point where they can best accomplish their mission. As a rule, the platoon leader will typically not be able to inspect every position. This is something you must be comfortable delegating to your subordinate leaders and have trained them to do so as well.

Hours passed, and eventually the early morning rays peeked over the top of the hill towards my formation. It had been a silent night, and with relatively minimal movement in the enemy’s defensive positions, which were now becoming slightly clearer to me, if still very obscured by the terrain.

Suddenly, as if some higher force had known that I was assured my plan was perfect, three loud explosions were heard to my far rear. It couldn’t be the irregulars; I had destroyed them! My positions were mutually supporting or at the very least capable of internal support, what could be the issue?

The radio crackled to life and I heard the scattered reports of further battle to my rear. The battle was being conducted by the supported unit’s back up operations center. Why wasn’t the main one responding? My fears were quickly realized as it became apparent that a large force of enemy infantry had somehow pierced my screen line under the cover of darkness and attacked the main operations center, sowing confusion along the entire rear echelon. They must have realized the poor state that my reconnaissance assets were in and decided to move out of their defensive positions and conduct a pre-emptive attack. 

Lesson 6: Use both mounted and dismounted Observation Posts in order to properly maintain situational awareness. Scouts on the ground can see and observe things that a crewman of a mounted vehicle may never be able to understand. Always use different assets, be they Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, Fixed Wing Support, Mounted, and Dismounted Observation Posts to observe the same objectives. This “mixing” of assets assures nothing is missed.

Suddenly, I had my own problems. Two enemy armor platoons were advancing on my thin line of observation posts. My own vehicles deployed their own anti-tank systems to great effect, and pride surged up in my stomach when I saw six of the enemy’s vehicles burning. I may have failed the supported unit once today, but by God, I would not allow them to be overrun with heavy enemy armor.

Radioing a voice of congratulations to my Soldiers over the net, I solemnly waited for the enemy to attempt to test my positions again.

Alas, this would never occur. If out of nowhere, three of my six vehicles exploded. Suddenly the other two were gone in a fiery blossom of smoke as well. I sat in shock in my seat, and solemnly awaited my fate. Surely if they had been spotted, so had I! This never came to pass, and I was left with my thoughts again, contemplating how or what could have so easily destroyed my vehicles.

My answer came to me from the heavens, literally. My astute vehicle gunner noticed a quick streak across the sky, and I heard, now that my engine was off, the distinct sound of an unmanned aerial vehicle which had obviously gained observation of all of my vehicles. The only reason I was alive was the placement of trees above my position, and the convenient fact that I had not fired any of my weaponry in the repulse of the enemy armor.

Lesson 7: Understand your disengagement criteria, and better yet, understand what signatures you give off when you fire any of your weaponry.

Lesson 8: Camouflage everything! If you can see each other, the enemy can see you better.

Hearing further confusion from my rear, the supported unit having finally overcome the initial infantry assault on their position, I heard the rumble of more enemy armor passing my original position heading directly for them. By some mercy, my vision began to fade yet again.

Third Vision

“The battlefield is a scene of constant chaos. The winner will be the one who controls that chaos, both his own and enemies.” – Napoleon Bonaparte[viii]

“Pursue one great decisive aim with force and determination.” – Carl Von Clausewitz[ix]

Yet again, I found myself awakened by the familiar sight of my platoon sergeant, in the very tent I had awoken the morning previously. I was beginning to honestly think I was doomed to repeat this mission forever but reflected that I would not waste this new opportunity to succeed where I had twice failed.

I again drafted my detailed plan of observation posts positioning to gain understanding of NAI 1, set upon ensuring that this mission would not go as the previous two iterations had. I made secondary, and even tertiary positions for my observation posts and vehicle hide sites and made specific reference to the inclusion of dismounted portions of said positions. I knew that this was certain to draw the ire of my tired Soldiers, who, when given the chance, would much rather remain inside their vehicles, but as I had learned, it was absolutely necessary for mission success.

After starting my mission, I yet again encountered and destroyed the small section of enemy irregulars that had harassed me and continued forward to my reconnaissance objective and subobjectives. The specter of the mountain rose in front of me, and I knew that I must make myself busy for the duration of the time I had remaining to ensure our mission success. Once my vehicles radioed to me that they had completed setting in their observation posts, I issued the order to my section leaders to ensure that they had validated each position. Thus assured the observation posts had been inspected, I instructed my posts to report their current observations of NAI 1 and their specific portions of it. I ordered one section to move, given their reports, as they had positioned themselves too far away from their objective to gain a meaningful understanding of it, and directed two more vehicles to shore up their camouflage based on their section leader’s reports. I was absolutely determined not to repeat my previous mistakes.

Satisfying my current designs to improve my position, I had each vehicle scan its adjacent vehicles within its own section to double check that they were fully camouflaged from every vantage point that they could. Given that my Soldiers would most likely be conducting active dismounted reconnaissance around their various reconnaissance objectives, the vehicles must be hidden very well. The sections were spaced at approximately 1000-1500 kilometers between each other, and thus could not directly observe each other. Thinking more about vehicle signatures I ordered all vehicles to turn off, and run on battery power only, in order to cool down their engines. Doing this, I ensured all vehicles were turned off at the same time, as to confuse the enemy, if they were listening, to how many vehicles I had in support of the reconnaissance of NAI 1. Feeling slightly more assured of my standing, I continued to see if I could improve my battle position.

Lesson 9: Always work to improve your battle positions, be they defensive, offensive or even protectionary in nature. Never be satisfied with the current state of affairs.

Lesson 10: Consider any type of signature that you produce as a reconnaissance unit. Perhaps leaving the vehicles in hide sites versus actually deploying them as gathering assets is the appropriate course of action in the same scenarios.

Postured far more effectively, my Soldiers began their earnest observation of the enemy’s dug in position and obstacles. They also began to actively scout for a support by fire position for the assault force. More secure in their surroundings, they began to identify and map out the enemy positions on the slope within NAI 1. Calling over the net and reporting to me, my radioman and myself set about adroitly copying down all information that was given to us. More specifically, we started to mark an additional analog map to give to the supported unit to ensure that they understood the battlefield exactly the way we did.

This continued for several hours, and into the night. Not knowing the precise time that our main force was to attack, we continued in such a manner to allow our Soldiers rest, while still accomplishing our mission.

Finally, a radio call came from headquarters, letting me know the frequency and call sign of our supported unit, as they had initiated their movement down the very road that I had moved through earlier the day prior. Remembering that I had destroyed the enemy element along that road, I silently was extremely glad to have done so, preventing the enemy from wreaking havoc in the rear of our formation. Still waiting, we finally began hearing static over the radio, and as they came closer, a full transmission from the unit that was preparing to conduct the assault. I made coordination with the commander of this assault element and set a place to meet him face to face.

As I moved with a small element backwards to meet him, I was stopped several times, once almost getting into a firefight with our own friendly troops, as they were not expecting any movement in their direction.

Lesson 11: Disseminate information to the lowest level. Linking up with friendly forces or moving through a friendly battle position at night is an extremely difficult operation, and every Soldier, to a man, must know the exact plan for doing so.

I finally reached the agreed upon meeting place and met with the commander who was about to make the assault. We discussed his plan, and I was sure to brief him to the fullest extent of the exact enemy disposition along the slope and obstacles that he could expect to encounter. With my information in hand, he felt far more confident of the course of action he selected and issued a set of small change orders to his Soldiers.

On the other side of the battlefield, where one of my sections had been conducting reconnaissance of a support by fire position, that section leader linked up, in person, with the commander slated to support this assault. He further detailed the best vantage point where this commander could set his formation to support.

Lesson 12: Conduct reconnaissance handovers in person when possible. Do not accept that a radio communication will do the job of a face to face interaction.

Having given him the locations of my friendly observation posts, I left him to make his final preparation for the assaults. When he was ready, I guided him forward, and, once his Soldiers were in front of mine and facing the hill, he assumed control of the forward operations. My part in this battle was complete, and I relished the feeling of accomplishing the mission in such an exemplary manner. – Or so I thought.

Several hours passed, and the assault element attacked at first light. Having very specific directions and almost exact locations and dispositions of enemy troops, the attack was extremely successful. The supported unit also was kept abreast of enemy obstacles, given the scouted potential breach site, and even given the exact grid coordinates to a support by fire position that they used with alacrity to cover their own advance. The commander, once complete, went on to say “Thanks Lieutenant, we couldn’t have done it without you and your reconnaissance efforts!” 

Congratulating myself yet again, I settled in to wait for the following mission, fully expecting about a full day of recovery operations to finally give my Soldiers and I some limited rest. Suddenly, headquarters came over the radio, ordering me to immediately set security for the assault force as they consolidated on the hill along Phase Line 1. This took me completely by surprise. I had planned for a reconnaissance operation focused on an NAI, not a security operation for an unknown duration! How could I be expected to do this?

Lesson 13: Reconnaissance and Security operations are interlinked, and almost always performed by the same unit on the battlefield. Always prepare for a follow-on security mission, and never neglect in planning for this contingency.

I ordered my Soldiers to begin to uncover their positions and make ready for movement. I had secret thoughts that this would take longer than not so I could plan more deliberately for this screening operation. This, unfortunately, was not the case, and my platoon was ready to move in short order. I could do nothing other than to move to my assigned screen location and hope for the best.

We initiated movement, conducting another passage of lines with the assault for who was still in front of us. This was made easier by the daylight, and we made this transition with no issues, having fully briefed all of my Soldiers of the specifics of what was to occur. We were now, yet again, alone to the front of our formation, and the one unit entrusted with the safekeeping of the vulnerable elements to the rear.

I moved to where the screen line had been templated on the map and began to set in a string of observation posts, following all the lessons I had learned to this point. Feeling slightly more secure and knowing that I had correctable deficiencies, ordered my section leaders to inspect their positions and report when complete. I inspected my own section’s observation posts to ensure that they could both see potential enemy counterattacks but at the same time not be seen. I continued to shore up my positions along the templated screen line into early that night and awaited the inevitable enemy counterattack.

We continued to wait until about noon of the following day. Having begun to sleep due to my weariness, I was awoken to the loud sounds of gunfire to my rear. Confusion was again sown over the radio nets, and I began to piece together that I had somehow been bypassed! How could this be? I was exactly where I was templated to go!

It hit me like a ton of bricks. I had overlooked an excellent position for a screen line in favor of placing my platoon exactly where headquarters had templated me to go. I instead simply placed my platoon in the position that the map had given me along Phase Line 1. Furthermore, my platoon was placed in a screen line that was extremely linear, there was no depth to it, and this could have also prevented this catastrophe.

Lesson 14: Incorporate terrain into every aspect of your planning. The terrain will not change, your forces, however, can adapt to it.

Lesson 15: Give your screen lines depth in both planning and practice. Having a linear screen is appropriate in very special circumstances, however, if you consistently give them depth they shall be able to conduct better reconnaissance. 

The ravine running through my position had provided just enough concealment for me to be bypassed. My platoon was still intact, however, the unit I was to protect was in the process of being annihilated due to my careless planning.

Lesson 16: The supported unit is always the main effort of the reconnaissance and security operation. You must always consider putting them in a position of advantage as mission success.

Lesson 17: Plan for both the mission at hand, and also the mission you must accomplish next. It never suffices to think in the present, and as a leader, you owe your Soldiers this consideration.

Quietly, my vision again began to fade into oblivion, and I accepted that I was again to repeat this dreaded reconnaissance and security operation.

Fourth Vision

“The backbone of surprise is fusing speed with secrecy.” – Carl Von Clausewitz[x]

 “Thanks, I couldn’t have done it without your efforts, excellent work,” were the first words that I heard coming out of a groggy sleep. How strange it was for me not to have awoken back in my tent as had been tradition! I immediately repeated his words of praise to my Soldiers. I found myself right back where I had been, just after the supported commander completed his assault. I knew I was about to receive an order to move into security operations.

Even with my expectation to transition immediately to security operations, I was again taken by surprise by our headquarters’ immediate order to do so. This time, they even followed up with specific guidance regarding displacement for my platoon, which I set to the side mentally for the time being.

This time, however, I was prepared. Immediately I set my platoon to destroying their hide sites and camouflaging and preparing themselves for movement. Once ready, I moved them along a pre-determined route to the positions that would form the screen line. Movement to the screen line was conducted in good order with minimal distractions. My platoon reached their designated positions, which were fully integrated with terrain. I again set about improving my positions, and inspecting each one individually, or at the very least, confirming that my section leaders had done so. This time I attempted to ensure that there was no “dead space” where my platoon could so easily miss a large formation again. I understood that some “dead space” would be a necessary evil given the size of my screen, however, I also knew that I could cover this with roving patrols or even dismounted observation posts. This would allow me to avoid the pitfalls of leaving “dead space,” yet at the same time space out my screen to meet my mission requirements.

The platoon set about its tasks with vigor, and I felt fully confident in my ability to provide security for the supported formation. 

This improvement of the positions continued late into the night. We had just begun our rest cycle when the static of the radio was cut with a report of enemy armor moving into our area. Two platoons of enemy armor were spotted. Desperate to prove my platoon’s combat mettle, I ordered the command of “fire and adjust,” allowing my platoon to engage at will. In short order all enemy tanks were destroyed with careful anti-tank weaponry shots, and our vehicles had displaced to their secondary positions with only one lost due to enemy fire.   

I radioed this news up to my higher headquarters, to which I received no response. Suddenly, a second report of five enemy armored platoons cracked across the net. Again, believing I could make a large enough dent in the force to cause a general retreat, I ordered my platoon to open fire. This time we were not so adept at fire and maneuver, and three of my vehicles were destroyed in the process of destroying only one platoon of enemy armor. 

Though I could not see, I knew my screen line now had massive holes in it. I radioed this news up to my headquarters, who did not respond yet again. I heard the rumble of enemy tanks moving through my formation, which was now too spread out to be combat effective. I had yet again failed! 

I desperately tried to take my radioman to the highest nearby point to attempt to reach headquarters. When I got there, I finally heard a flurry of desperate responses to my calls.

Lesson 18: Do not over-estimate the power of your communications platforms. Always plan for a primary, alternate, contingency, and emergency mode of communication.

The headquarters element had heard everything that I sent and had desperately been telling me to displace through backward to the supported unit who had established a defensive line in preparation for the enemy counterattack. My men’s lives had been spent in vain! My headquarters had even specified when to retreat, and my own pride and desire for glory had made me numb to the fact. 

I had accomplished the mission, but I had failed my Soldiers in the worst way. It was they who paid the ultimate price for my failures. As I heard the net chatter with the successful destruction of the enemy’s counterattack by our now prepared defenses, I felt a desperate pit forming in my stomach. How could I be so careless?

Lesson 19: Understand the security guidance given to you by higher headquarters. Disseminate this criteria to the lowest man. Displacement criteria can be based on either the enemy force size or a time requirement, and all your Soldiers should know and understand this. If you are to stand, fight, and die, then so be it, but this is most likely not the intent. 

My platoon was called back to recover from our losses behind the now established defensive line. As I conducted a reconnaissance handover with the incoming platoon, I thought to myself of the faces of the men who had perished under my careless command. They were like brothers to me, and my thoughtlessness had killed them all. 

As we returned my platoon began to dig makeshift graves for our fallen comrades, I assisted them. Each thrust of the shovel made my soul heavier with my failure as a leader who these men trusted to make the right decisions.

My vision began to fade, yet again.

Fifth Vision

“If you tell people where to go, but not how to get there, you’ll be amazed at the results.” – George S. Patton[xi]

Shuddering, I woke myself up to the crisp air around me. Dutifully, my platoon sergeant came to tell me that there was a new mission to be briefed and was startled to find me already awake. I was dead set on succeeding in all aspects where I had failed before and would not fail my men for a fifth time. I again found it strange that I was waking at a yet different time yet again but thought that my repetitions could only breed success. I grabbed my writing utensils and headed over to my commander’s tent.

Again, we were tasked to conduct reconnaissance of NAI 1, and I set to work planning my mission and writing the operations order. Again, I deeply considered terrain in my statement, and incorporated all directions I was given. This included both reconnaissance guidance and security guidance with specific regard to the engagement and disengagement criteria. To wit, I even approached the signal officer assigned to my unit and ensured that at no point my positions were templated outside communications connectivity to higher headquarters. He even made a point to set up a device nearby to broadcast our headquarters’ frequency at a greater amplitude further enhancing our communications ability. Finally, he allocated two additional signalmen to move slightly forward of the main headquarters element in order to properly maintain our signal strength for communications.

With a solid plan, I fell upon my task with aplomb. I conducted the final inspections of my Soldiers and their equipment and issued the order to move out. My initial movement passed without incident until my lead vehicle stopped short and pulled to the side of the road. Again, we had encountered enemy irregular forces attempt to ambush us, but by the sight of my lead vehicle’s gunner, we were able to see them before they could notice our arrival. I called a quick plan of action over the radio, and we engaged our would-be ambushers, incapacitating them all without taking a single casualty ourselves. I ensured that our headquarters knew of this action, gave them a time and location, and then continued our movement down towards our observation posts. 

The rest of our movement was uneventful, and when we arrived, I set out immediately to inspect the progress of our reconnaissance positions. In a very similar manner to before, my positions bore the advantage of having terrain incorporated into their planning, and as such, they did not need much adjustment at all. The camouflage process then began in earnest. My Soldiers again utilized the same techniques to verify their camouflage and began working with each other to develop the enemy situation on the ground on NAI 1 and their specific section objectives.

The radio again sparked to life, and my radioman and I set to conducting the same tasks as last time. After taking copious notes, we again met, face to face, with the commander set to conduct the assault, and maneuvered him forward of our lines. He then conducted his same, expertly executed attack.

“Excellent work, we took only few casualties during this assault, and it is directly as a result of your efforts in reconnaissance of NAI 1.”

I waited for the inevitable call to begin security operations in the form of a screen line, which came just as fast as it had before. Having fully prepared for this contingency following the lessons that I had learned; I issued the order to my platoon to move forward to the screen line that I had originally envisioned. 

Again, we moved through the lines of the unit that had just conducted the attack on the enemy position, and this went flawlessly, as we had planned specifically for its execution and had guides from the unit to move us forward. As we passed through the unit, we deposited the two additional signalmen in order to allow them to boost our radio frequency signals. Finally, we again became the forward most unit providing security for our supported unit to conduct reorganization and refit.

Moving forward, I again emplaced my unit along the terrain-based observation posts in a screen line. As my Soldiers set their mounted and dismounted observation posts, I again began to make my rounds of the positions and ordered my section leaders to do the same. This was in order to ensure that they were mutually supporting and focused on the correct areas. I took special time to ensure that there were no dead areas where my observation posts could not see, or at the very least, we would have a specific plan to deal with the reconnoitering of the “dead space.” Again, we examined our positions and ensured that our camouflaging efforts had been successful. Through the day and into the night, we continued this process. We further enhanced our positions, yet again, by emplacing secondary and tertiary positions in order to fall back to once our original positions had been exposed.

All became very still at early daybreak, and we first heard the rumble of approaching enemy armor. It would appear, as we viewed them, to be a single platoon of enemy armor. As soon as they were within maximum firing distance for my vehicles, I gave the command to open fire, and immediately displace to our secondary positions. My troopers were extremely practiced and adept at this maneuver and did so with the professionalism that I expected of them. The enemy platoon was eliminated in short order, and we were still prepared to screen forward with no losses of our own. With haste, I reported this action to higher headquarters, who responded positively to this news, and gave me the order to remain in place.

The distant rumbling picked up, and from auditory signals alone, I now understood that there was far more enemy armor in the area. My lead scouts confirmed this, and I was suddenly facing down four full enemy armor platoons moving directly towards me.

Remembering my commander’s security guidance, I radioed this new information to the higher headquarters, and with quickness, ordered all my vehicles to fall back in good order. We had given our supported unit the time, at least I thought, that they needed to prepare a thorough defense for the upcoming enemy attack. 

Moving backwards through our friendly prepared defenses in the same manner that I had moved forward through them, I set my platoon in an assembly area and reported back to the headquarters. By the time that I reached my destination, the defense was thoroughly underway, and to my delight, it was succeeding very well. The time had certainly been enough, and we were well prepared for this new enemy onslaught. 

I was greeted by my commander, who heaped accolades on me and my platoon. I could only think to myself what the outcome would have been if I had not prepared myself with all the lessons I had learned through my visions. I could finally rest easy knowing that I had done my duty to both my command and my Soldiers. 

Knowing what we know now, we realize the significance of that particular attack and defense on the outcome of the conflict, and, looking back we can understand the importance of my platoon’s reconnaissance and security mission.

My vision began to fade, and I was suddenly jarred from my reverie. Waking abruptly, I quickly recognized my familiar tent space and surroundings. My platoon sergeant had just, yet again, awakened me to prepare for a new upcoming mission!

Lessons Learned

Lesson 1: Always plan your subordinate units to be able to mutually support each other. Failing to do this deprives your unit of any advantage to aid itself in a coming fight. This can include section internal support. Support also includes observation of objectives. By creating “redundancy,” subordinates will not miss their reconnaissance objectives.

Lesson 2: Plan for the enemy in every eventuality past the start of your mission. Do a thorough enemy analysis of any route you plan to take and determine where they would best be able to strike you. Consider how you want to move to the next location based on when and where you expect to encounter the enemy.

Lesson 3: Haste makes waste, especially in regard to planning. Do not take dalliances planning yet allocate enough time to it in order to properly prepare yourself for anything that may occur in your mission.

Lesson 4: Never leave an enemy alive where you can destroy him, and if you cannot, immediately relay his position to your headquarters. Consider strongly any guidance you are given by your commander in regard to this measure.

Lesson 5: As a leader, inspect your observation posts and reconnaissance positions with the same tenacity that you would if you were occupying the positions yourself. Do not care if your men grumble when told they have made a lackluster position, realign them to the point where they can best accomplish their mission. As a rule, the platoon leader will typically not be able to inspect every position. This is something you must be comfortable delegating to your subordinate leaders and have trained them to do so as well.

Lesson 6: Use both mounted and dismounted Observation Posts in order to properly maintain situational awareness. Scouts on the ground can see and observe things that a crewman of a mounted vehicle may never be able to understand. Always use different assets, be they Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, Fixed Wing Support, Mounted, and Dismounted Observation Posts to observe the same objectives. This “mixing” of assets assures nothing is missed.

Lesson 7: Understand your disengagement criteria, and better yet, understand what signatures you give off when you fire any of your weaponry. 

Lesson 8: Camouflage everything! If you can see each other, the enemy can see you better. 

Lesson 9: Always work to improve your battle positions, be they defensive, offensive or even protectionary in nature. Never be satisfied with the current state of affairs.

Lesson 10: Consider any type of signature that you produce as a reconnaissance unit. Perhaps leaving the vehicles in hide sites versus actually deploying them as gathering assets is the appropriate course of action in the same scenarios.

Lesson 11: Disseminate information to the lowest level. Linking up with friendly forces or moving through a friendly battle position at night is an extremely difficult operation, and every Soldier, to a man, must know the exact plan for doing so.

Lesson 12: Conduct reconnaissance handovers in person when possible. Do not accept that a radio communication will do the job of a face to face interaction. 

Lesson 13: Reconnaissance and Security operations are interlinked, and almost always performed by the same unit on the battlefield. Always prepare for a follow-on security mission, and never neglect in planning for this contingency.

Lesson 14: Incorporate terrain into every aspect of your planning. The terrain will not change, your forces, however, can adapt to it. 

Lesson 15: Give your screen lines depth in both planning and practice. Having a linear screen is appropriate in very special circumstances, however, if you consistently give them depth they shall be able to conduct better reconnaissance. 

Lesson 16: The supported unit is always the main effort of the reconnaissance and security operation. You must always consider putting them in a position of advantage as mission success.

Lesson 17: Plan for both the mission at hand, and also the mission you must accomplish next. It never suffices to think in the present, and as a leader, you owe your Soldiers this consideration.

Lesson 18: Do not over-estimate the power of your communications platforms. Always plan for a primary, alternate, contingency, and emergency mode of communication.

Lesson 19: Understand the security guidance given to you by higher headquarters. Disseminate this criteria to the lowest man. Displacement criteria can be based on either the enemy force size or a time requirement, and all your Soldiers should know and understand this. If you are to stand, fight, and die, then so be it, but this is most likely not the intent.

1

End Notes


[i] Swinton, Ernest Dunlop. “The Defence of Duffer’s Drift.” 1904. W. Clowes & Sons, London.

[ii] Academy of Achievement. "Norman Schwarzkopf Interviews -- Academy of Achievement." Last modified December 14, 2007. Accessed October 20, 2016. http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/sch0int-3

[iii] Eisenhower, Dwight D. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States. 1957. National Archives and Records Service, Government Printing Office.

[iv] Franklin, Benjamin. Poor Richard’s Almanack. December 19, 1732. Various Publishers.

[v] Tzu, Sun. The Art of War. 5th Century B.C. Various Publishers.

[vi] Tzu, Sun. The Art of War. 5th Century B.C. Various Publishers.

[vii] Rommel, Erwin and John Pimlott. 1994. Rommel: In His Own Words. London: Greenhill Books.

[viii] Hagopian Institute. Quote Junkie: War and Patriotism Edition. 2008. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

[ix] Clausewitz, Carl von. Principles of War. 1812. Various Publishers.

[x] Clausewitz, Carl von. Unattributed

[xi] Patton, George S. Jr. War as I Knew It. 1947. Mariner Books.

Categories: leadership - US Army - tactics

About the Author(s)

Alexander Boroff is an active duty Army Captain serving as an Army Joint Chiefs of Staff Intern. An Armor Officer, CPT Boroff has commanded in both the generating and operational force. CPT Boroff commissioned through the United States Military Academy and holds a Masters in Systems Engineering from Johns Hopkins University. He is currently a student Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy.