Trading the Saber for Stealth: Can Surveillance Technology Replace Traditional Aggressive Reconnaissance?

September 7, 2005

The Modular Force design will fundamentally change the way Army forces conduct reconnaissance on the future battlefield. Tactical reconnaissance organizations will replace their traditional combat capability with a surveillance capability. Under the Modular Force concept, dedicated tactical reconnaissance units are found at three levels of commandó the battalion scout platoon, the armed reconnaissance squadron (ARS) and the battlefield surveillance brigade (BFSB). All three organizations are specifically designed and equipped to execute passive reconnaissance onlyóthat is, they collect information by observation from a distance rather than by gaining direct contact. This significant change is founded on the idea that modern surveillance technology has enabled reconnaissance units to collect information through observation that once could only be gained by fighting. This raises a fundamental question about the nature of effective reconnaissance operations. Is close combat with the enemy an essential part of effective reconnaissance? Do combat formations still have to fight for information or do modern surveillance technologies change this paradigm?

Previous attempts to transform the military based on emerging technologies had to rely primarily on the forecasts of military theorists and the results of staged field tests and experiments rather than on real-world experience. In many cases, the tendency has been to place too much faith in the power of technology and too little in the persistence of friction on the real battlefield. Fortunately, the Army today has a great advantage that it lacked during previous periods of major reformóan abundance of contemporary battlefield experience. Since 11 September 2001 the U.S. Army has been engaged in conflicts all over the globe. These operations have provided an enormous amount of anecdotal information with which to thoroughly ìfield testî any new warfighting hypothesis. In military operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has employed highly sophisticated surveillance technology and modern intelligence fusion techniques against a thinking and adaptive enemy. This enemy has ranged from traditional Cold War-style tank divisions to 2 amorphous terrorist networks. If this modern technology has reduced battlefield uncertainty for the tactical commander, the evidence for it should be overwhelming.

With this in mind, this paper will attempt to critically test the hypothesis emerging in the Modular Force design that the combat capability of traditional cavalry organizations can be replaced by a passive surveillance capability. This hypothesis is built on the assumption that modern surveillance technologies dramatically reduce uncertainty and render the combat forces in these organizations obsolete. The ample battlefield experience in the opening months of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) provides an ideal real-world environment in which to field test this hypothesis.

Before looking at the contemporary experience of OIF, it is important to fully understand the history that shaped the current design of reconnaissance forces in todayís military. Much has been written on the evolution of cavalry organizations and doctrine and need not be repeated here. Instead, this review will focus on three critical periods that shaped the design of present day reconnaissance forcesóOperation Torch in North Africa, the National Training Center (NTC, at Fort Irwin, California) in the 1980s and í90s and Operation Desert Storm.