Reconnaissance, Surveillance and Target Acquisition

Recon ramp-up (subscription only)

Between the expansion to 42 modular combat brigades and the requirements of fighting the Long Global War on TerrorTM (‘World War 4’ for those of you keeping score at home), the Army has decided that it needs more recon personnel. A lot more. As in nearly almost three times as many as it has today.

“Reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition is a highly important task in any type of military operation, but that is particularly true when you’re conducting a counterintelligence campaign such as in Iraq or Afghanistan,” said Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, commanding general of the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

In its first 16 years here, roughly 180 soldiers a year went through the 33-day Long Range Surveillance course. Last year, the training cadre pushed through 275 soldiers; this year, the cadre will churn out 400 recon soldiers in eight classes of 50 students each.

By 2007, that number will double to 800, and it still won’t be enough to meet the Army’s projected need of 1,100 recon soldiers a year to man the new RSTA squadrons.

MO recently posted on the plans to greatly increase the number of snipers in the Army and plans are being made to enlarge the special forces. This move to expand recon capability is a similar move in a similar direction, and it’s being made for similar reasons.


The military is coming to grips with the fact that it’s going to be fighting this sort of war for a long time. Those calling for change are gaining leverage over those who want to prepare for a massive war against a mechanized opponent. Even though conventional threats still exist and could grow, the business at hand is going to be peacekeeping and counter-insurgency. Tanks and high-tech gadgets are always useful, but to win this sort of struggle the Army needs to transform, and not in the way it envisioned when it kicked off the Future Combat Systems program.

Just as snipers can often get the job done better than a tank platoon or artillery battery against an enemy consisting of small groups (or even individuals) in typical engagements, recon by boots on the ground will be able to contact the locals, feel the situation out, and get the intel that satellites and even UAVs will often struggle to uncover. Additionally, the recon elements will be much more than “eyes and ears”.

“These units are needed to conduct targeted operations, as opposed to sweep operations, which are more efficient in capturing and killing the enemy and less disruptive in neighborhoods,” Petraeus said. “The goal is great soldiers enabled by great technology. Downrange, commanders will use them in different ways.”

Col. K.K. Chinn, commander of the Ranger Training Brigade, whose Delta Company, 4th Ranger Battalion, is tasked with the training mission, echoed the need for recon troops who can locate and destroy enemy forces.

“If we can find the guy who’s making the [improvised explosive device] or recruiting suicide bombers, with the finishing force, we can kill that guy,” he said.

Sounds like recon units may have room for a sniper or two and maybe a forward air controller. And like the units will be in high demand.

The traditional corps- and division-level long-range surveillance units are being redesigned and redistributed under the Army’s modular organization, and the maneuver brigades are seeing a substantial increase in their own reconnaissance assets.

Last year, the Army stood up eight RSTA squadrons and will stand up seven more this year.

The newly trained soldiers will operate sophisticated equipment usually reserved for special operations forces and be capable of working in small teams to find the enemy.

“This course bridges the gap between SOF and the regular Army,” said Maj. Eric Flesch, Delta Company commander.

This will give the regular Army a bit more organic SOF-like capability and maybe even free up some special forces, which are probably stretched a lot more thin than we know.

Maj. Flesch has been working hard to rework the training program to utilize equipment identical to that in the field and to incorporate lessons learned the hard way in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“The training focuses on imagery, mobility and target interdiction,” said Flesch, who is writing new doctrine for recon units. That doctrine will include new assets on the six-man teams — the traditional recon unit — including snipers and marksmen who can strike targets on the spot.

Recon students also are learning to call for fire in a joint environment, insertion and extraction techniques, post-combat assessment and other tasks that reflect real-time operations.

While the big-ticket items will always get all the headlines (and all the controversy), it is transformation like the decision to expand recon capability and transformation like the reworking of the training program that are effecting real change that will have a real impact soon.

And if they get a few cool gadgets to use? So much the better. But it’s the men and the decision about how to use them that will always matter the most.