Wheels for Reconnaissance

by Maj D.C. Waddill

In its efforts to remain competitive on the modern battlefield, the Marine Corps now places great emphasis on highly mobile, combined arms task forces equipped with modern weapons and more effective command, control, and communications systems. Tactics are being reviewed with an ever-increasing interest being placed upon the controversial concepts of maneuver warfare. Though we seem to be making great progress, one glaring deficiency exists that must be corrected immediately or all other efforts will have been for nought. This deficiency is our inability to conduct motorized reconnaissance.

Motorized reconnaissance should be distinguished from long-range reconnaissance. Motorized reconnaissance is a mission undertaken by a highly mobile mounted force to gain information about an enemy. The force normally operates within artillery range and capitalizes on its extensive mobility to carry out its mission. Such a force also has a limited offensive capability and can perform screening operations in support of the maneuver element. Long-range reconnaissance, on the other hand, is a mission undertaken by a small, lightly armed, dismounted force to gain information about an enemy. The long-range reconnaissance force normally operates outside artillery range and capitalizes on its ability to operate clandestinely to carry out its mission. It has no real offensive capability and cannot perform screening operations in support of the maneuver element. The two types of reconnaissance complement each other and must be used together if the maneuver unit commander is to be properly supported.

There is a definite need for motorized reconnaissance within the Marine Corps. Operational Handbook 9-3A, Mechanized Combined Arms Task Forces (MCATF), emphasizes that Marine units must become masters of maneuver and defeat their adversary by throwing strength against weakness. The tactics required are described as “recon pull, not command push.” This simply means that offensive actions are generated as a direct result of reconnaissance efforts and not as a result of a commander’s moving blindly ahead in a frontal assault. Before maneuver elements are committed, reconnaissance elements must determine where they should be used to exploit enemy weaknesses.

The Soviets have long ago recognized the importance of reconnaissance. Not only is a reconnaissance battalion organic to each motorized rifle and tank division, but a reconnaissance company is also organic to each of the regiments of the division as well. These reconnaissance elements, whether they be company or battalion, have the capability to conduct both motorized and long-range reconnaissance in support of their parent unit. This gives the Soviet maneuver unit commander a capability that does not presently exist in any United States division, either Army or Marine.

Reconnaissance for an Army division is performed by its organic cavalry squadron. The structure of the Army division is undergoing a major reorganization to add a fourth maneuver brigade, the combat brigade air attack (CBAA). The cavalry squadron will be in the CBAA and will consist of a headquarters troop, two ground cavalry troops, and two air cavalry troops. The two ground cavalry troops will be equipped with Bradley tracked cavalry vehicles in the armored and mechanized divisions and with light armored vehicles (LAVs) in the airborne, air assault, and light infantry divisions. The two air cavalry troops will each be equipped with four attack and six scout helicopters. While this gives the Army division a highly mobile motorized and heliborne reconnaissance element, it fails to provide the division with a long-range reconnaissance capability.

Ground reconnaissance for the MCATF is provided by the MCATF’s security forces and attached division/force reconnaissance units. Motorized reconnaissance is normally performed by task organizing tank and mechanized infantry elements or by using attached division reconnaissance elements with their organic light vehicles. Initially, this may sound like the MCATF possesses excellent motorized and long-range reconnaissance capabilities, but this is not so.

Performing effective motorized reconnaissance has two basic requirements. First, the unit performing the reconnaissance must possess the considerable technical expertise necessary to accomplish the mission. Secondly, the unit must be equipped with vehicles that are suitable for carrying out the mission. Neither of the two motorized reconnaissance elements generally available to the MCATF meet these criteria.

The task organized reconnaissance force made up of tank and mechanized infantry elements is an ad hoc force composed of several different units put together on short notice. Although this force may have conducted some training in motorized reconnaissance operations, it is doubtful that it has trained together as a team. It is even more doubtful that it has developed the technical expertise necessary to carry out the extremely complicated mission of motorized reconnaissance.

Such a force would be equipped with M60 tanks and LVTP7 amphibian assault vehicles. Both vehicles are designed for another purpose, and both are borrowed from the MCATF’s maneuver elements. The M60 tank is the MCATF’s main battle tank, designed to be used as an offensive weapon, and making maximum use of the shock effect of its firepower and mobility. The LVTP7 amphibious assault vehicle, though designed to carry personnel from ship to shore during an amphibious assault, doubles as the MCATF’s mechanized personnel carrier. It can carry up to 25 troops, although 15 to 17 is a more realistic figure during the high tempo of MCATF operations. While both vehicles are relatively fast, reliable, and possess good cross-country mobility, they are inherently large, clumsy, and noisy when compared to their Soviet counterparts. The M60’s lack of swimming ability is a major drawback when conducting reconnaissance operations, as are the signatures (sight and sound) both vehicles leave as a result of their size and weight. Both vehicles are marginal at best when it comes to performing motorized reconnaissance and should be used only as a last resort.

The division reconnaissance battalion is even less capable than the ad hoc tank/mechanized infantry force in performing motorized reconnaissance for the MCATF. While equipping long-range reconnaissance companies with jeeps and calling that a motorized reconnaissance capability may have been an alternative in the midst of the Vietnam era, it is sheer suicide today. 2d Reconnaissance Battalion has been diligently trying to make this concept succeed, but it has encountered several significant problems. The first is mission compatibility. It takes a minimum of one year of continuous training to adequately qualify a Marine in the skills needed to be an effective member of a long-range reconnaissance unit. This training must continue during the Marine’s tenure in the reconnaissance unit or his skill will deteriorate. Giving the motorized reconnaissance mission to the division’s reconnaissance battalion simply burdens the Marine with yet another skill to be mastered. Although both long-range reconnaissance and motorized reconnaissance seek to gain information about an enemy, the manner in which they go about this task is completely different. Long-range reconnaissance emphasizes stealth and covert operations; motorized reconnaissance emphasizes maneuver and mobility and is of necessity an overt operation. A single unit cannot achieve the level of technical expertise desired to accomplish both missions. Even the Soviets use two distinctly different types of reconnaissance units to carry out the two different types of reconnaissance missions.

The second problem is one of vehicle suitability. The vehicle used to mount the division reconnaissance battalion’s motorized reconnaissance force is the M151 jeep. Its limitations are almost legendary, and are extremely well-covered by 1tLt Craig A. Griffith’s article, “Mechanized Warfare: Let’s Get the RIGHT Vehicles,” in the Mar81 GAZETTE. The HMMWV will be an improvement, but it too will lack armor and the ability to swim. In short, division reconnaissance units are not designed or equipped for the mission of motorized reconnaissance. In fact, as yet, a satisfactory motorized reconnaissance capability does not exist within the Marine Corps’ total structure. Fortunately, however, there is a solution in sight-the forthcoming light armored vehicle battalion (LAVB).

The LAVB is still in the developmental stage and a final concept of employment has not been approved. It is clear, however, that the new battalion will not be a general purpose combat organization but will be employed in roles consistent with those traditionally filled by light armor organizations. It can easily be tasked with performing motorized reconnaissance for the division as a primary mission without interfering with any other responsibilities it may have. It can also dedicate its organic assets to developing the high level of technical expertise requisite of an effective motorized reconnaissance unit, while pioneering Marine Corps doctrine in this vitally important area.

The LAVB will be built around the Piranha light armored vehicle in the light assault (LAV-25) and perhaps several other variants. Ironically the criteria for selection of the Piranha were exactly the same criteria necessary for developing an effective motorized reconnaissance vehicle. It will be light, fast, highly mobile, reliable, durable, and easily maintained. It possesses the ability to traverse water obstacles and run on flat tires. This makes it ideal for conducting motorized reconnaissance, especially considering that it has protective armor and a weapons system capable of defeating lightly armored enemy vehicles-all essential elements for conducting screening operations.

The Marine Corps is clearly deficient in the area of motorized reconnaissance, but that deficiency can be corrected by properly tasking the forthcoming LAVBs. Then and only then will we be on the road to satisfying this much needed capability.