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Spoiling for a Fight: Making a Case for Aggressive Reconnaissance

Spoiling for a Fight: Making a Case for Aggressive Reconnaissance

As the US Army focuses on preparing for large-scale combat operations, tactical leaders must train formations to conduct the reconnaissance and security operations that will allow commanders to identify and gain positions of relative advantage.  FM 3-90-2, Reconnaissance and Security Operations, characterizes reconnaissance as either aggressive or stealthy. It states that stealthy reconnaissance "emphasizes avoiding enemy detection and engagement," whereas units conducting aggressive reconnaissance "use both direct- and indirect-fire systems and movement to rapidly develop the situation."

Though most tactical leaders intuitively understand that their reconnaissance and security formations can conduct either stealthy or aggressive reconnaissance depending on the situation, we are currently out-of-balance. Many formations remain overly-reliant on echelons above brigade (EAB and organic unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to collect the information needed to inform the Commander’s decision-making. The results are underwhelming. The ‘see first, decide first, act first, finish decisively’ paradigm is one that has proven ineffective against an intelligent enemy well-trained in the use of camouflage, concealment, and dispersion techniques to defeat these platforms. Stealthy reconnaissance by ground forces holds more promise in overcoming these passive counter-reconnaissance techniques. Stealthy reconnaissance by ground forces are well-suited to identify the flanks and rear of enemy formations, allowing follow-on maneuver forces to achieve shock and surprise and exploit both physical and psychological positions of relative advantage. And yet, preparing and training formations almost exclusively in the conduct of passive, stealthy reconnaissance leaves the formation out-of-balance in respect to its capabilities. The ability to conduct aggressive reconnaissance is an essential proficiency in large-scale combat operations. Formations must train both. This post seeks to highlights considerations in favor of conducting aggressive reconnaissance that a tactical leader should use to inform thier model of reconnaissance.

1. Infiltration maneuvers that facilitate stealthy reconnaissance are high-risk.

Many who oppose the conduct of aggressive reconnaissance do so based on the justified belief that a commander conducting aggressive reconnaissance operations assumes considerable tactical risk. Aggressive reconnaissance is risky - if not careful, the commander might become decisively engaged in a disadvantageous position. Yet, the infiltration maneuvers used during stealthy reconnaissance operations carry their own risks. FM 3-90-2, Offense and Defense, states that “Without precise, detailed intelligence, infiltration maneuvers become high-risk, probing operations that can be costly and time-consuming.” Today’s formations remain challenged to integrate information collection assets at echelon and provide the precise, high resolution intelligence picture that successful infiltration requires. Until technology, training, and doctrine are better able to deliver on promises to ‘see first,’ infiltration maneuvers devolve into a movement to contact, wherein the commander risks making contact on the enemy’s terms rather than his. Thus, the conduct of both aggressive and stealthy reconnaissance presents tactical risks that the Commander must consider.

2. The operational tempo may not allow for stealthy reconnaissance.

In his paper, “Trading the Saber for Stealth: Can Surveillance Technology Replace Traditional Aggressive Reconnaissance,” then-MAJ Curtis Taylor asserts that the operational tempo in future conflicts may not allow for successful stealthy reconnaissance. He writes:

“The operational tempo of the battlefield is the primary determining variable on a commander’s decision to employ stealthy reconnaissance to fight for information. In operation Iraqi Freedom, as in Operation Desert Storm before it, the tempo was sufficiently fast to preclude the effective use of passive reconnaissance in the majority of cases.”

Infiltration is time-consuming. Where the situation allows, stealthy reconnaissance may prove effective. However, as Taylor argues, higher tactical-, operational-, or strategic-level requirements will force tactical leaders into conducting aggressive reconnaissance to inform their decisions in a time-constrained environment. Formations should be capable of informing the Commander’s decision-making regardless of the OPTEMPO. This requires that units should train, and prepare to conduct, both stealthy and aggressive reconnaissance.

3. Gaps in the enemy’s security zone to allow for infiltration to reach the reconnaissance objective may not exist and require the use of force to create.

Enemy counter-reconnaissance and security operations serve to frustrate and challenge a formation’s information collection and reconnaissance operations. An intelligent, well-trained enemy force will array his security forces in a way that provides the early warning and reaction time to defeat an infiltrating reconnaissance element. In instances such as this, a combination of aggressive and passive reconnaissance my prove effective, wherein aggressive reconnaissance operations serve to provide a point of penetration through which stealthy reconnaissance forces infiltrate to the deeper reconnaissance objective. Regardless of the methods employed, the enemy cannot prove an insurmountable obstacle to reaching the reconnaissance objective – sometimes formations will need to fight to see.

4. Stealthy reconnaissance alone cedes the initiative to the enemy, who might then harass, disrupt, or delay an attacker.

In his book, The Human Face of War, Jim Storr explains one benefit of aggressive reconnaissance, asserting that the attacker influences the situation in a way that not only is he likely better able to understand and but also creates uncertainty in the mind of his enemy. When coupled with surprise, increased uncertainty upsets the enemy’s psychological state of mind, potentially offering a position of relative advantage. The result is not insignificant; based on historical analysis, Storr asserts that aggressive reconnaissance has, on average, the same effect as a force ratio of 26:1 in respect to the overall effect on an operation! Aggressive reconnaissance allows formations to seize, retain, and exploit the initiative.

5. Passive or stealthy reconnaissance does not create maneuver space and facilitate the rapid movement of the main body onto the objective.

Based on engagement criteria, clearing all enemy forces within the reconnaissance formations’ capability is a critical task in the conduct of the route and zone reconnaissance. By defeating the enemy security zone forces along the main body’s likely axes of attack, aggressive reconnaissance formations facilitate tempo and concentration in the main body’s attack. When reconnaissance formations fail to accomplish this critical task, or the commander chooses to conduct of reconnaissance in a stealthy and deliberate manner, main body forces may have to fight to get to the objective, potentially disrupting the tempo and concentration of the attack.

6. Passive or stealthy reconnaissance does not fight for information, revealing much less about the enemy’s intent.

The enemy rarely fights at a particular time and place simply because he wants to, but fights in a given time and place based on higher-level orders. The easiest way to determine the enemy’s intent is to threaten something he (or his higher headquarters) values and feels compelled to protect. Fighting for information provides insights on the enemy’s intent, better informing decisions about how and where to employ combat power.


Ultimately, the commander assesses the situation and develops his reconnaissance guidance to best achieve the reconnaissance objective and identify a position of relative advantage from which the formation can 'pick an unfair fight'. Both stealthy and aggressive reconnaissance play a role in one’s model of reconnaissance. Where the situation allows, stealthy reconnaissance can be very effective in identifying potential positions of relative advantage for follow-on maneuver forces to then exploit. Aggressive reconnaissance, as discussed, provides the commander several considerable advantages, not least of which is the ability to seize and retain the initiative. The Commander of reconnaissance operations should consider both as viable means to accomplish his reconnaissance objective.

Discussion Questions:

1. What is your formation’s holistic approach to information collection and reconnaissance operations?

2. In what situations does your formation seek to employ stealthy reconnaissance? Aggressive reconnaissance? Are there situations in which a mix of aggressive and stealthy reconnaissance is appropriate?

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