Thoughts on the Role of Reconnaissance in Exploiting the Enemy's Vulnerabilites
Author's note: The relationship between reconnaissance and the offensive operations that it enables is not well-defined. The following is a collection of thoughts derived from an effort to explore and generate insights on how reconnaissance informs the commander's decision-making and allows for the formation to attack the enemy from a position of relative advantage.
Based on thier understanding of the operational environment, to include the enemy plan, a commander and his staff plan the course of action best able to defeat the enemy plan. For each enemy COA, there exists a corresponding friendly plan for defeating it. This is true because every time the enemy commander commits his forces to a particular course of action, he assumes tactical risk derived from the vulnerabilities inherent with the manner in which he arrays himself. There are vulnerabilities associated with each form of maneuver in the offense: envelopment, turning movement, frontal attack, penetration, and flank attack. In the defense, there are vulnerabilities associated with the area defense, mobile defense, or retrograde. These vulnerabilities present the friendly commander with exploitable opportunities. It should be the goal of the commander and his staff to select the plan that best exploits the vulnerabilities of the enemy plan – that is, an exploitative COA. Further, he should avoid presenting the enemy with vulnerabilities of his own prior to committing to his own course of action – one that, while presenting tactical risks, is specifically designed to defeat a particular enemy course of action.
The doctrinal method that presents the fewest vulnerabilities is that of a force organized to conduct a movement to contact, in which the commander enjoys the protection of the covering force, the advanced guard, flank security, and rear security forces. Until he commits the main body to a particular course of action, he is, relatively speaking, unexploitable. However, organized as such, the he is unlikely to be arrayed in a manner that would exploit the vulnerabilities of the EN COA.
Thus, a spectrum exists, wherein, on one end, a commander can organize his forces such that few vulnerabilities exist but is he likely unable to exploit those of his enemy or, on the other, he assumes tactical risk and commits to a course of action that is specifically designed to defeat a particular ENCOA (see Figure 2).
As stated previously, it should be the goal of the commander to select the plan that exploits the vulnerabilities of the enemy plan. However, the enemy has many courses of action available to him. The range of ENCOAs is finite and each ENCOA has a corresponding friendly COA best suited to defeat it. To ensure success regardless of the enemy actions, the commander and his staff must identify the full range of ENCOAs and develop a composite plan consisting of the friendly COAs that exploit their vulnerabilities and defeat them. Decision support tools then allow the commander to commit to the most exploitative branch plan once the ENCOA is identified.
The goal of selecting the optimized branch plan is frustrated by the fact that the enemy course of action is rarely known and must be discovered through reconnaissance. To accomplish this, the Commander can employ one of two reconnaissance techniques: reconnaissance pull and reconnaissance push. They are defined in FM 3-98, Reconnaissance and Security Operations, as follows:
“Reconnaissance pull is used when commanders are uncertain of the composition and disposition of enemy forces in their areas of operation, information concerning terrain is vague, and time is limited. In these cases, reconnaissance assets initially work over a broad area to develop the enemy situation. As they gain an understanding of enemy weaknesses, they then ‘pull’ the main body to positions of tactical advantage… Reconnaissance pull knowingly emphasizes opportunity at the expense of a detailed, well-rehearsed plan, and unity of effort. Commanders base plans on several viable branches or COAs triggered by decision points that reconnaissance assets operate to answer associated CCIR. Leaders at all levels must understand and rehearse branches and sequels.”
“Reconnaissance push is used when commanders have a relatively thorough understanding of the operational environment. In these cases commanders ‘push’ reconnaissance assets into specific portions of their areas of operation to confirm, deny, and validate planning assumptions impacting operations. Reconnaissance push emphasizes detailed, well-rehearsed planning.”
As described, reconnaissance pull is the most appropriate technique in those instances when a single friendly course of action is incapable of achieving the commander’s intent against the complete spectrum of enemy capabilities. Reconnaissance push is optimal when there are few or no decisions that the maneuver commander must make. This situation can arise from numerous circumstances, to include when terrain does not allow for multiple enemy COAs, when one side possesses significant overmatch such that selecting from different COAs yields insignificant returns, or in a time constrained environment wherein the development of multiple branch plans and sequels is not feasible. Simply put, when a single friendly course of action can or must achieve the commander’s intent against the complete range of enemy capabilities, reconnaissance push is the most appropriate reconnaissance technique. Thus, another spectrum exists, wherein the commander employs reconnaissance pull in instances where he has a poor understanding of the OE and then, upon developing a thorough understanding, transitions to reconnaissance push (see Figure 3).
Consider these ideas together (see Figure 4). It seems logical that a commander seeks to remain as unexploitable as possible when uncertain about his OE. In these situations, he maintains a composite plan consisting of several branch plans to defeat the full range of enemy COAs. As he develops the situation through reconnaissance pull, he narrows down the number of necessary branch plans as reconnaissance informs him about the enemy’s plan. Through effective reconnaissance, the enemy plan becomes apparent and, thus, the commander can commit to a single branch plan that is best suited to exploit the vulnerabilities of the ENCOA and defeat it. The commander can then transition to reconnaissance push. In this way, one always begins on the left of the spectrum and progresses right. The Commander and his staff cannot develop a single, exploitative COA without first understanding the OE – the exploitative COA must be one of several COAs from a composite of branch plans that defeat the entire range of the enemy’s capability, selected only once the ENCOA is understood.
In many cases, reconnaissance is unlikely to determine the enemy course of action prior to the departure of the main body. Commanders must either become comfortable crossing the line of departure (LD) without knowing where they are going to commit the decisive operation OR consciously and deliberately assume the tactical risk associated with committing to a course of action that 1) may fail to exploit the vulnerabilities inherent in the enemy plan and, perhaps more importantly, 2) may present vulnerabilities to the enemy that he may be well-positioned to exploit. Both options are capable of achieving success. Crossing LD while relying on the composite plan and the corresponding decision support tools allows for success regardless of how ‘late’ in the operation the enemy plan is understood but requires much from the formation that conducts operations in this way. The latter, committing to a friendly COA before the enemy plan is well understood, allows for success when the friendly COA is well-suited to defeat the remaining range of ENCOAs but could result in disaster when the enemy plan is well-suited to exploit the vulnerabilities of the friendly plan.
Finally, one must recognize that conduct of intelligence preparation of the battlefield to determine the complete range of ENCOAs and development of the composite plan consisting of the numerous branch plans necessary to defeat them takes time for which the strategic or operational OPTEMPO may not allow. In these situations, we must move back to the left of the spectrum, force organizing to conduct a movement to contact and relying on the covering force, advanced guard, and flank and rear security to safeguard the formation from being exploited while fighting for information necessary to commit the main body from a position of relative advantage. Given our inability to predict the success or failure of reconnaissance efforts or the OPTEMPO in which we will operate in the future, we must assume the worst – that we will have little to no understanding of the OE and must conduct a movement to contact. Thus, it is important that commanders and their formations become masters of the movement to contact.
Reconnaissance informs the commander's understanding of the enemy and, thus, his likely vulnerabilities. In his his efforts to achieve a position of relative advantage and attack those vulnerabilities, the commander must himself assume tactical risk. Given that the tactical commander cannot always assure the success of his reconnaissance efforts, he must assess and mitigate tactical risk by operating in ways that provide the best chances of acheiving a position of relative advantage. Understanding the use of decision support tools and the mastering the movement to contact provide this flexibility when the enemy situation remains unclear.