Recon: A Neglected Supporting Arm

by Maj T.W. Parker

Current Marine Corps structure does not provide the MAGTF commander with a responsive, well-trained combat intelligence and target acquisition capability. Our ground reconnaissance forces are disjointed, minimally trained, and wedded to a doctrinal concept more suited to World War II-Vietnam era than to the battlefield of the future. The Marine Corps has neglected its ground reconnaissance community in doctrine, equipment, training, and personnel. The purpose of these thoughts is to stimulate discussion that might result in a new, revitalized view of reconnaissance.

The first and most difficult problem in any discussion of Marine Corps reconnaissance is the attitude of many officers, particularly infantry officers, who served in Vietnam and observed the employment of reconnaissance forces. Their attitude is normally one of derision based on their antagonism toward an “elite within an elite.” They fail to see reconnaissance as a supporting arm and look to the misuse of reconnaissance in Vietnam as the norm.

Second, there is the relentless pursuit of automated systems and high technology solutions. Our experience with various seismic and acoustic listening devices should tell us that they are unreliable, inaccurate, and subject to the environmental stress of heat and cold. Vietnam should have at least taught us this lesson.

Finally, there is the mindset of many Marines that dismisses reconnaissance as a secondary function of infantry Marines who are in outstanding physical condition and qualified as water safety instructors. Surely this is a dangerous attitude. If we are to pursue seriously the tactics and techniques of maneuver warfare, now is the time to reconsider the role of our reconnaissance forces on the future battlefield. In hand with that, thought must be given to the training, manning, equipping, and organizing of those reconnaissance forces and to the doctrine governing their employment.

The primary duty of reconnaissance personnel is to collect combat intelligence. They should have a systematic plan for determining the location and strength of enemy forces, the location and disposition of enemy on the flanks and front and the location of reserves. Without a continuous effort to accomplish these tasks, the MAGTF commander will be fighting blindly. He must have Marines in the field who can provide timely, accurate updates. Aerial reconnaissance, radar, thermal imaging, and SCAMP assets cannot deliver intelligence with the accuracy of a human observer.

A complementary task to the collection of combat intelligence is target acquisition. Reconnaissance personnel must be able to acquire and kill targets with air, artillery, or naval gunfire. The return of the battleship and the increased range of modern artillery, including the ability to conduct observed fire out to 35 kilometers, give the commander a tremendous weapon to exploit. On the future battlefield, the destruction of the enemy’s weapons systems and nuclear delivery means could have a decisive psychological and tactical impact. The importance of having the ability to perform these tasks should be obvious in a maneuver warfare scenario.

A closely related mission that is not now a part of our doctrine is the disruption or disorganization of enemy communications, logistics functions, and headquarters. The Soviet Army relies upon airborne and special mission troops to perform this function. We can expect such forces to be used against us. Marine Corps reconnaissance units could be trained and equipped for similar missions. The ability of the MAGTF commander to use reconnaissance elements to create chaos in the enemy’s rear gives him a significant advantage-one that currently is lacking.

The traditional roles of beach and landing zone reconnaissance should not be neglected. The Marine Corps vitally needs an organic beach reconnaissance capability. The proven value of such a force makes it a sine qua non of any amphibious operation. In addition, the reconnaissance force can determine routes of egress from the beach and disrupt enemy reactions to the amphibious assault.

Our most important asset, as always, is our personnel. We cannot afford to have less than the best, nor can we casually assume that any Marine with an infantry MOS can be an effective reconnaissance man. Candidates for reconnaissance duty should be screened from the FMF for intelligence, physical fitness and general health, swimming ability, motivation, and perhaps most importantly, the ability to function independently. Once screened and assigned to a reconnaissance unit, the selected Marine should then enter a period of up to six months of intense training followed by at least six months of unit training. A year is not an unreasonable period of training to produce a basic reconnaissance Marine. Consideration needs to be given once again by Headquarters to assigning a primary MOS of 0321 (reconnaissance man) to provide a pool of talent for assignment to reconnaissance units. If we can afford a well-driller’s MOS, it seems reasonable that we can also afford a reconnaissance MOS.

The training of reconnaissance personnel is woefully lacking. Although we have amphibious reconnaissance schools on both coasts, they are neither comprehensive nor intense enough to produce well-rounded reconnaissance Marines. All Marines who are assigned to reconnaissance units do not have the opportunity at the present time to attend these schools. Often the instructors themselves have little or no experience in the field prior to their assignment and cannot provide expert instruction. The Marine Corps needs a rigorous school that all fledgling reconnaissance Marines attend.

Reconnaissance Marines need an airborne capability for clandestine entry into an objective area. That means of entry-whether it be conventional parachute, various highly maneuverable wings, hang glider, or some other aerial device-is more the subject for another article. Helicopters, our primary means of entry at the present time, do not provide a covert means of access to enemy controlled terrain.

Substantial numbers of our reconnaissance Marines need to be SCUBA qualified. Not only does this provide a clandestine means of entering an objective area, modern nuclear submarines require SCUBA trained personnel to conduct lock in/lock out missions. With the exception of our force reconnaissance personnel, we now send only selected individuals to these schools as the meager quotas become available.

We need to seriously consider the foreign language capability of our reconnaissance Marines and begin to train selected individuals in languages of the areas into which they are likely to be committed. This could be an invaluable resource for any unit operating in rear areas or areas with heavy civilian populations.

Finally, the U.S. Army maintains excellent schools such as the Ranger School and Special Forces Course, which should be exploited to the maximum degree along with our own schools. Our junior officers and NCOs in particular can obtain the type of intense, detailed instruction necessary to make them proficient.

My purpose as stated at the outset has been to stimulate discussion of this topic in the Marine Corps. Our notions of the mission of our reconnaissance forces may need to change. Our preconceptions concerning elite units may need to change. What cannot change is an unwavering commitment to well-trained, well-equipped, adequately manned, reconnaissance forces supported by a realistic concept of operations for the modern battlefield.