Time to Call In the (Armored) Cavalry
As the U.S. Army withdrew from Iraq in 2011, it eliminated its final deployable armored cavalry regiment in order to achieve standardization and modularity across the force. This change culminated a six-year process during which the land power institution reorganized two cavalry regiments and 10 cavalry squadrons that had long supported corps and divisions in favor of a larger quantity of squadrons assigned directly to brigade combat teams. The new reconnaissance and security structure resulted in a diverse array of armored, Stryker and motorized scouting formations more narrowly equipped to fight for information and provide freedom of maneuver.
Modularity also produced battlefield surveillance brigades designed to allow two- and three-star commands optimized capacity to collect information and enhance situational awareness. Unfortunately, they were “not adequately manned, organized, trained and equipped to fight for information, nor were they capable of conducting reconnaissance and security operations under all conditions of battle all the time,” the Army’s chief of armor, Brig. Gen. John Kolasheski, said recently.
To this end, the Army has since reorganized its active component battlefield surveillance brigades into enhanced military intelligence brigades while leaving a capabilities gap.
A second issue with Army cavalry lies in the imperative to achieve cross-domain superiority by synchronizing traditional maneuver with emerging technologies. According to a 2014 Maneuver Center of Excellence study, brigade combat team squadrons now “lack historically organic relationships with aviation, fires and intelligence enablers” that made armored and divisional cavalry regiments so effective. In areas of nontraditional domains—including cyberspace, electronic warfare and information operations—they also have yet to maximize newer capabilities to improve reconnaissance and security performance.
Moving forward, the solution is apparent: The Army should consider reconstituting armored cavalry regiments with 21st-century enhancements. By combining proven tactical strengths with emergent functions, it can create agile combined arms teams with the capacity to conduct forceful reconnaissance and security operations across theater depth.
Whether enabling joint forces commands with entire regiments or supporting divisions with detached squadrons, the re-creation of modular regiments would, as argued by VII Corps after Operation Desert Storm, fulfill the timeless requirement to employ “armed and armored recce at every level … battalion through corps.”
Beginning with traditional strengths, Army cavalry has historically combined mobility, protection and firepower to allow both stealthy and forceful maneuver. While scouts have achieved success in recent decades utilizing M3 Cavalry Fighting Vehicles, Stryker Recce Vehicles and Humvees, they have likewise benefited from organic integration of M1 Abrams tanks and Stryker Mobile Gun Systems. As argued by Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who commanded the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a colonel, the mechanized cavalry, in particular, possesses the lethality and survivability required to enable corps and divisions to “move unimpeded” and “keep maximum numbers uncommitted to fights” with “greater speed of action.”
Despite the importance of superior platforms, mounted troopers typically place even more value on access to the ultimate force multiplier: indirect and joint fires. The ability to complement internally owned mortars with Army cannon and rocket fires, Air Force close air support and naval gunfire allows aggressive counter-reconnaissance to shape conditions for follow-on forces or deprive enemy commanders of battlefield clarity. Given their lightened profile, infantry brigade combat team scouts are especially reliant on echeloned fires to fight in contested zones.
Attack aviation offers a third capability that, until modular transformation, organically empowered Army cavalry to operate across challenging depths and frontages. While brigade combat team scouts must now rely on external rotary-wing support, the regiments and squadrons of the Cold War and 1990s benefited from inclusion of attack and observation helicopters. As attested by retired Col. William Haponski, who commanded the 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam, “close-in support” by air troops with “instant, accurate firepower” amplified his command’s potential to enable the 1st Infantry Division during extended action.
Cavalry formations, perhaps more than any other tactical units, have the potential to leverage emerging battlefield technologies due to their role in attaining early access, disrupting enemy plans and answering information gaps. Their focus on aggressive zone, area and forcible reconnaissance as well as stubborn screen and guard actions make them ideal hosts, enablers and partners with an evolving arsenal of joint capabilities. Despite rapid technological innovation in recent decades, 21st-century troopers still emulate their horse soldier antecedents who likewise enabled both combined arms maneuver and dispersed security efforts.
The recent proliferation of unmanned aerial surveillance systems is an obvious area where cavalry can, as required by Field Manual 3-98: Reconnaissance and Security Operations, maximize “use of all collection assets” to “assess the enemy and the effects of the terrain.” While integration of attack rotary wing remains a proven value, the synchronization of drones is already allowing unprecedented capability to answer commanders’ informational requirements through layered reconnaissance. This multifaceted collection also integrates stationary sensors—and may soon include mobile robotic proxies—to amplify observation across diverse spectrums.
Another area where cavalry can improve its ability to support division and corps efforts is through deeper cooperation with national agencies, theater military intelligence and special operations forces. Rather than “stovepiping” reconnaissance, forward scouts are ideally suited to maximize human and signals intelligence by answering, confirming and linking echeloned collection programs. Special operations forces, in particular, are often well-positioned to work with advancing squadrons to bridge informational gaps among joint task force, corps and division commands across theater depth.
The emerging field of electromagnetic activities, and cyber operations in particular, offers a third domain where armored scouts are functionally suited to align missions. As stated in its 2014 Operating Concept, the Army “integrates maneuver in cyberspace” to “deny the enemy’s ability” while “preserving U.S. freedom of action.” This description, which precisely describes the doctrinal purpose of cavalry squadrons, makes them ideal hosts for cyber action teams that seek early access to conduct reconnaissance and unleash fires. Cavalry is likewise suited to facilitate forward electronic and information operations to degrade, deny and destroy enemy capabilities.
One option for attaining cross-domain reconnaissance and security is to reconceptualize legacy armored cavalry regiments as more versatile units that combine traditional strengths with emerging technologies. As argued by retired Lt. Gen. David Barno in his September Atlantic Council report, “The Future of the Army,” this formation would “be able to maneuver highly capable forces into position [to] prevent escalation and protect the force with its long-range fires, air defense, electronic warfare, and electronic and signals intelligence capabilities.” By structuring with modular squadrons, the new armored cavalry regiment could support corps or detach elements to enable divisions.
A 21st-century armored cavalry regiment would first prove its value during major combat operations by allowing attacking corps to, as required by joint doctrine, seize initiative and dominate. Just as cavalry groups did in World War II and armored cavalry regiments did in the First Gulf War, a modernized regiment would employ combined arms superiority to answer commanders’ informational requirements and destroy forward enemy forces. This unique capability—stemming from unprecedented integration of direct, indirect, aerial, joint, cyber and electronic fires to conduct cross-domain maneuver—would once again provide joint task forces with a highly responsive force optimized to “shape the deep fight.”
Because of this potential for success in high-intensity combat, empowered armored cavalry regiments would also enable strategic deterrence in contested theaters. Their unmatched integration of armored and aerial firepower, ability to support theater intelligence efforts, and optimization to execute semi-independent and wide-ranging maneuver would provide corps and divisions with critically needed economy-of-force options for expanding lodgment zones and massing combat power. On a symbolic level, the return of famed units such as the Blackhorse and the Brave Rifles to former Cold War arenas could signal national resolve to support allies and deter adversaries.
A third advantage of creating 21st-century armored cavalry regiments is their ability to conduct training and security operations with regionally aligned partners. Just as the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment employed, according to the late Gen. Donn Starry, “better means of gathering intelligence” to excel in combined forces operations, dispersed patrolling and route security in Vietnam, modernized versions would similarly excel with host-nation security forces. Their inherent ability to operate distributed and independently with tactical versatility would make the regiments ideal selections for supporting allied forces in Europe, Southwest Asia and East Asia.
Multiechelon Recon, Security
The 2014 Operating Concept states that Army forces must “possess the ability to operate dispersed over wide areas” while integrating “intelligence and operations to develop situational understanding through action.” Modernized armored cavalry regiments, though expensive, offer the potential to better achieve that superiority in joint efforts ranging from major combat operations to peacetime engagement. Yet despite proven value, adding corps and division capability shouldn’t come at the expense of brigade combat teams. Every commander, from corps to battalion, requires dedicated reconnaissance and security formations to ensure responsive integration of intelligence and operations.
This imperative is gaining relevancy as the Army negotiates unfamiliar complexities. Again, as argued by McMaster, “trends in armed conflict that include contests across all domains, increased lethality and range of weapons, complex and urban terrain, and degraded operations all argue for reconnaissance and security at all echelons.” By combining traditional maneuver strengths with a panoply of new technologies to create cross-domain capabilities, reimagined regiments could complement brigade and battalion scouts as “eyes and ears” of higher commands. If armored cavalry regiments seemed to pass with the Cold War, the challenges of the 21st century call for their return.