In a battlefield that is becoming increasingly saturated with multi-domain sensors, the US military is seeking to reconceptualize the part played by ground reconnaissance formations in the joint force kill chain. The US Marine Corps is experimenting with mobile reconnaissance formations and changing the role of the venerable scout sniper, while the Army considers what reconnaissance forces provide to a division-centric force construct. Over the course of a week in February, our reconnaissance troop from 2nd Brigade, 25th Infantry Division embedded with Marine units at the Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms for a large-scale force-on-force exercise testing the stand-In force concept. Built around the Marine Littoral Regiment, the concept envisions an agile, pervasive force deployed in the first island chain capable of sea denial and littoral reconnaissance to deter Chinese aggression. The regiment serves as an essential piece of the “contact layer,” while the Army would provide the “blunt layer”—two of four layers envisioned as part of the “Global Operating Model” first introduced by the 2018 National Defense Strategy—during the shift from competition to conflict. This relationship between the two services requires coordination and familiarity, and therefore the opportunity for our reconnaissance troop to partner with Marine Littoral Regiment during this exercise was invaluable.

The scenario pitted 3rd Marine Division against 7th Marine Regiment in a peer force-on-force conflict fought over five days in the California desert. Our reconnaissance troop was attached to the 3rd Marine Division, which fought to retain key littoral terrain—in the exercise, specified areas represented islands—against an aggressor assault force. The battle was contested in all domains, with similar force ratios, though the enemy assault force had the preponderance of air assets in order to replicate the asymmetric threat a stand-in-force would meet in the South China Sea. The division was built around 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment and 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, with attached air and fires assets. As a division asset our reconnaissance troop operated in division battlespace at the start of the exercise, before being retasked to work for 3/5 and the Marine Littoral Regiment, respectively, during various periods of the operation. The flexibility and maneuverability inherent to our formation afforded us the opportunity to conduct reconnaissance and security operations across the wide swath of training area in support of multiple commanders.  Our participation offered an eye-opening look at the complexities of reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance in an all-domain contested environment and made clear the need for future Army integration into joint exercises. Building on previous experimentation, exercises like these offer insights that should inform the decisions being made about the future of the Army’s conventional ground reconnaissance capabilities and their value to the joint force.

In the course of our participation in the exercise we identified four significant challenges: the prevalence of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance on the battlefield; impediments to responsive fires; command-and-control node survivability; and intelligence dissemination. These problem sets are not new but they require bespoke solutions when applied to reconnaissance formations. In previous periods when the Army has emphasized modernization and innovation, reconnaissance organizations have undergone dramatic restructuring and change: armored cavalry, long-range reconnaissance units, and battlefield surveillance brigades were all intended to tackle the various challenges the service expected to encounter in the next war. Our experimentation strongly indicates that the best reconnaissance solution for the Army’s divisional restructure is the multidomain reconnaissance troop, a formation that is agile, adaptive, and capable of operating as a hub for multidomain reconnaissance capabilities in support of division-level objectives. Sensors and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets must be pushed down to the lowest level to facilitate sensing, targeting, and destruction of enemy systems at a rapid pace and in a decentralized fashion. These units would employ self-contained kill webs to support division or corps maneuver. Equipping reconnaissance formations with technology like loitering munitions, electronic warfare, and extended-duration small unmanned aircraft systems augment the capability of higher echelon assets that are normally distributed to several commanders. When consolidated under a common commander, they present the enemy with a problem not easily overcome. Future warfare is likely to be fought at a rapid tempo, with the outcome resting upon a formation’s ability to out-cycle an opponent’s decision-making process. While reconnaissance assets have been traditionally used for target acquisition, we argue that the modern battlefield requires sensors that can also act as shooters in order to increase survivability, lethality, and most importantly relevance. Self-contained tactical formations capable of sensing and shooting in concert with the higher commander’s scheme of maneuver will allow friendly elements to maintain a tempo the enemy cannot hope to match. Our participation in the stand-in forces exercise allowed us to identify the effect the multidomain reconnaissance troop can have on a peer opponent on a modern battlefield, its capability to dis-integrate enemy systems, and the value in fielding these formations at the tactical level.

The largest challenge ground reconnaissance assets face in large-scale combat operations is the saturation of the operating environment with competing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets. From space to the air, satellites and unmanned aircraft systems serve as cross-domain sensors able to identify and detect forces on the ground whenever they move, shoot, or communicate. This effectively renders us unable to hide reconnaissance assets from the enemy in the traditional sense. The development of increasingly sophisticated kill chains means that simply existing on the battlefield can result in destruction, a phenomenon well documented by retired Colonel John Antal in his book 7 Seconds to Die, an analysis of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. Two options we found to mitigate this effect were dispersion and deception, which worked to varying degrees against the multitude of sensors we faced over the course of the exercise. Dispersion seeks to manage the disposition of your forces to tip the enemy’s risk calculus in your favor. In a modern conflict dominated by fires there is a targeting threshold that must be met before opposing forces will unmask their guns or fire a precision munition, and building elements that can operate below this threshold is essential. Reconnaissance teams rarely meet the criteria for an enemy to engage them with weapon systems larger than organic mortars, and the more disaggregated the troop became, the more difficult it was for our opponent to leverage its higher echelon’s indirect fires against us, being subject to the same inefficient targeting process as the Army. Deception operations at the lowest tactical level revolved around dummy positions, false inserts, and awareness of enemy satellite passes to maximize confusion during collection windows and minimize actionable intelligence. We encourage further experimentation and thought in this area, as we only scratched the surface of possibilities in the deception realm.

On both sides of the exercise it was common to see almost all fires assets reserved for deep shaping of division-level, high-payoff targets, leaving ground combat units to fend for themselves with organic weapon systems. This resulted in an environment where formations that were equipped to execute local cross-domain kill chains had a massive advantage in the close fight, able to rapidly out-cycle their opponents and favorably dictate the terms of engagement. For example, the troop was able to capitalize on a combination of unmanned aircraft systems, communications intelligence, and loitering munitions to sense, cue, and strike enemy assets in the division battlespace with minimal adjacent unit coordination early in the fight. Empowering company-level commanders to cue unmanned aircraft systems off of local signals intelligence collection, acquire target locations with small unmanned aircraft systems, and then strike immediately with a loitering munition presents a complex dilemma to the enemy without the byzantine approval processes that plague fires approval at higher echelons. We found that the use of loitering munitions was more responsive and lethal than traditional artillery systems, and minimized the counterfire risk to the artillery battery. While certainly not a tool for immediate suppression, loitering munitions are the cornerstone of an organic fires complex best suited for the reconnaissance element. Army reconnaissance units are traditionally quite good at finding the enemy, but lack the organic firepower to finish key threat weapon systems. Loitering munitions provide an indirect strike capability that is timely, is efficient, and minimizes coordination and signature. It affords the on-scene commander the ability to close the kill web before the opponent has time to react, and dramatically increases the survivability of the collection asset. The exercise confirmed the inverse correlation between needless communication and survivability.

The modern sensor-laden battlefield is a dangerous place for command-and-control nodes, and these nerve centers tend to occupy lofty positions on high-payoff target lists. We learned firsthand the importance of developing simple and effective plans that can survive communication degradation or the loss of a command-and-control element. Within twelve hours of the exercise beginning we lost both the battalion and troop command posts. This would have severely hindered the organization’s ability to continue to operate effectively under normal circumstances, but we had taken steps in the planning process to mitigate some of the effects such a loss of command and control might have. Most important was the design of a simple plan that could survive initial enemy contact without communication between adjacent units. All company commanders understood their higher headquarters’ mission and intent and each had a distinct battlespace to operate in. Through a series of deliberate rehearsals and well-crafted engagement criteria every member of the unit knew both the unit’s plan and those of adjacent units. This created a handful of what were, in essence, guerrilla chiefs with their own battlespaces and missions, able to attrit the enemy while understanding the needs of adjacent commanders. Decentralizing fires authorities in a similar fashion also allowed for rapid employment of organic fires, out-cycling the enemy’s ability to effectively respond. This type of command and control has significant advantages in the defense, namely contributing to survivability by drastically minimizing electromagnetic emissions. We operated on communications windows with the reconnaissance elements turning on their radios to report on enemy activity and facilitate target destruction once every four hours, allowing them to conserve battery life and limit signature. We cannot overemphasize the trust and training this requires. Commanders must learn to exercise tactical patience with their subordinate formations, and craft clear and useful intent prior to mission start.

One of the biggest failures the stand-in forces encountered in the rotation was synthesizing intelligence into actionable effects. Often, intelligence capabilities are held, products analyzed, and outputs acted upon at the highest level, driving the employment of attack aviation and rocket artillery. Unfortunately, this process often moves at the speed of the air tasking order and target decision boards. Even conventional artillery is subject to competing requirements, survivability moves, and clearance authority issues. Using the ground reconnaissance element as a hub for a survivable and self-sufficient kill web provides the commander with a distinct advantage over the opponent, albeit one requiring trust, training, and comfort in enabling lower echelon commanders with important equipment and capability. Properly employing this concept, however, requires intelligence analysis capability that normally resides at battalion and brigade levels. The speed of modern combat will likely require informed decisions to be made quickly in order to out-cycle an adversary’s reaction process, and while it is tempting for higher headquarters to retain capability at their level, it significantly limits the survivability and lethality at the point of relevance. In previous experimental iterations of the multidomain reconnaissance troop, we trained using organic all-source analysts that could synthesize the output of cross-domain sensors into actionable intelligence, which was then used to inform targeting at the troop level. Passing collected information, in multiple data forms, to different echelons for analysis, only to then wait on a decision to be made and transmitted to the strike asset, generates unnecessary emissions and wastes valuable time. Our ability at scale to sense, make sense, and deliver an effect during the exercise could not keep up with enemy survivability moves, fire, and maneuver. The most responsive weapon-to-target match is often the observer, and a dedicated intelligence cell helps the troop commander make an informed decision without the need to emit or wait for analysis.

Even with the advance of unmanned technologies, ground reconnaissance formations still have much to offer—indeed, they have the most to offer when complemented by these unmanned tools. As tempting as it is to declare the end of the scout, we should instead seek to reframe the role. Reconnaissance troops work best as the hub of a multidomain intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance complex, able to serve as the all-weather core around which to aggregate capabilities. The scout can persist on the battlefield while employing signals intelligence, unmanned platforms, precision munitions, and other cross-domain assets. When weather grounded our unmanned aircraft systems, we still destroyed armored reconnaissance with Javelin missiles, directed indirect fire missions, and reported on enemy movements. The troop’s ability to operate as an independent entity in the enemy’s rear area denied enemy forces interior lines and resupply routes, effectively halting their forward progress and pulling assets away from the main effort. A combination of antiarmor weapon systems, small unmanned aircraft systems, and loitering munitions contributed to an effective reconnaissance complex that could sense, identify, and strike in accordance with engagement criteria, all while producing negligible emissions. As the Army continues its force restructuring, an effort should be made to centralize as many cross-domain sensing capabilities as possible and push them down to the lowest practical level. We must encourage continued experimentation and innovation. The operational environment of the future is more networked and dangerous than ever, and demands a reconnaissance force that can survive, sense, and engage at speeds adversaries cannot hope to match.

Captain Sean Parrott is a reconnaissance troop commander in the 25th Infantry Division. He is a graduate of the US Marine Corps’s Expeditionary Warfare School.

Sergeant First Class Anthony Perez is a reconnaissance platoon sergeant in the 25th Infantry Division with experience in airborne, Stryker, and armored reconnaissance formations.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Lance Cpl. Pedro Arroyo, US Marine Corps