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The Saber in the Post-Afghanistan World: An Infantryman's Take on Cavalry RSTAs

The thoughts conveyed in this article are the writer’s alone, and the following content does not reflect the official views or policies of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Army, or the United States Government.

In 2004, the U.S. Army began the process of reorganizing its ground combat formations around the concept of the independently deployable “brigade combat team” (BCT).  From this reorganization, the U.S. Army established three distinct types of BCTs: the tank-centric, 4,743-soldier Heavy Brigade Combat Team (HBCT); the Stryker armored vehicle-based, 4,509-soldier Stryker Brigade Combat Team (SBCT); and the light, 4,413-soldier Infantry Brigade Combat Team (IBCT).  To give some idea of the Army’s overall makeup, IBCTs compose fourteen of the Army’s combat brigades, HBCTs make up twelve, and SBCTs contribute the remaining seven.  This means that IBCTs make up the plurality of the U.S. Army’s ground combat brigades, with fourteen out of the total of thirty three falling into this category.  While HBCT and SBCT units possess significant numbers of relatively fast armored vehicles and trucks capable of conducting reconnaissance, IBCTs are made up in large part of dismounted infantry with no trucks or means of conducting fast-paced reconnaissance or rapid flank security.  As such, with the advent of independent BCTs, each IBCT received one reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition (RSTA) cavalry squadron; an approximately 500-soldier reconnaissance element equipped with both truck-mounted and light dismounted reconnaissance troops.  While this new asset theoretically provided IBCT commanders with dedicated ground intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, in practice they were (and still are) frequently used as a third combat maneuver battalion on the battle spaces of Iraq and Afghanistan.  Often, this focus on kinetic or counterinsurgency (COIN) based training and combat led to a degree of atrophy in terms of RSTAs’ readiness and ability to execute reconnaissance tasks.  Simultaneously, the rise of the prolific use of unmanned aerial surveillance (UAS) platforms to fill the reconnaissance roles traditionally associated with ground scout elements misled many to falsely associate the acronym “ISR” with the term “UAS”—in effect, relating all reconnaissance to UAS and forgoing the linkage traditionally shared between ground reconnaissance units and ISR tasks. (For more on the importance of this distinction, see one of my chief inspirations in writing this, Thomas Doherty’s excellent “Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance is Greater Than Aerial Surveillance” in Small Wars Journal.)  As the Army reorganizes and reorients itself to the post-Afghanistan/Iraq security environment, the unique role of RSTAs will be more relevant and more important to BDE commanders than they have been over the past nine years.  Specifically, the changing organization of IBCTs and the potentially different nature of future conflicts that the U.S. Army could face puts the RSTA on the verge of a new level of relevance.

The high manpower requirements of wide area security operations in Iraq and Afghanistan frequently placed pressure on IBCT commanders to maximize limited combat resources.  With only two light infantry battalions (the primary direct combat force in an IBCT) at their disposal, commanders were forced to improvise by employing RSTAs in the role of a “third maneuver battalion.” This meant that, in effect, most RSTAs were usually utilized as miniature infantry battalions and were thus given corresponding direct combat and COIN tasks to perform, rather than the traditional reconnaissance and flank security tasks they were designed to accomplish.  As part of its post-conflict reorganization effort, the Army has already begun the process of adding one infantry battalion to every IBCT.  This effort will help to alleviate the manpower issues faced in practice by IBCTs in Iraq and Afghanistan, freeing up RSTAs to execute their unique reconnaissance and security tasks in future combat scenarios. Perhaps more importantly, this extra manpower will allow IBCT commanders to create an environment in which RSTAs not only are given reconnaissance missions thanks to sufficient infantry presence within brigades but  also they will actually be prepared to conduct those missions thanks to proper training emphasis on these tasks.  Without having to focus an inordinate amount of time on traditional “infantry tasks,” RSTAs will be able to focus on the cavalry tasks that have often languished since 2001.  This training realignment will (ideally) give IBCT commanders a greater deal of confidence in their  RSTAs’ reconnaissance abilities.  Such increased confidence and employment will be more important than it has been in recent conflicts due in large part to the differences between the United States’ enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan and its potential future adversaries.

Over the last thirteen years of war, the United States has faced a very particular type of enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Although very capable fighters, the Islamist, sectarian and tribal insurgents who have been the primary enemies of the U.S. in recent years have presented a limited scope of capabilities, particularly in regard to their electronic warfare (EW) and air defense abilities.  As the United States looks to the future, the potential adversaries that it could face will be equipped differently than those it has combated in the recent past.  North Korea and Iran in particular will likely have significantly more developed air defense and EW capabilities, which could potentially negate the advantages the United States currently enjoys in terms of wide UAS coverage over battle spaces.  The perceived invulnerability of UAS will be even less realistic in the case of a large scale conventional conflict against a more evenly matched opponent.  In such circumstances, ground based ISR elements will be more important than ever and will need to be numerous in order to make up for the large swaths of territory that disabled UAS platforms would cover with ease in ideal situations.  Admittedly, such an extensive conflict is unlikely given the economic interdependence of today’s major world powers.  Even with that in mind, if the United States’ next ground conflict is against another asymmetrical, relatively poorly equipped opponent, the proliferation and exponential growth in capabilities of electronic and computing technology could enable such organizations to undermine the United States’ UAS and electronic surveillance capabilities.  Frequent headlines concerning the activities of independent hacker groups seem to suggest this trend. IBCT internal RSTAs will be critical in fulfilling possible reconnaissance shortfalls should the United States enter into the kinds of conflicts discussed above, especially considering that IBCTs are the most common type of ground combat brigade in the U.S. arsenal.  If the U.S. Army was to limit the availability of reconnaissance assets to combat brigades, it would endanger the effectiveness of its ground combat forces by potentially blinding them on the battlefield.  IBCT organic RSTAs are thus incredibly relevant as the United States prepares for potential future conflicts.

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A RSTA Cavalry Trooper with 1-32 CAV at Jalalabad Airfield, Afghanistan in July 2013. Photo courtesy of the author.

The circumstances discussed above indicate the growing relevance of RSTAs in today’s global security environment.  Steps must be taken, however, to ensure that IBCTs and their RSTA elements fully engage themselves in preparing to better fill their doctrinal roles, including:

Renewed emphasis on reconnaissance oriented training and schooling at all levels of leadership in RSTA organizations, particularly at the team, section, and platoon levels. This should include both Army-wide training courses such as the Reconnaissance and Surveillance Leaders Course (RSLC), the Army Reconnaissance Course (ARC), and the Cavalry Leader Course (CLC) as well as unit field exercises tailored to train reconnaissance tasks.

Creation of improved maneuver live fire range facilities designed specifically for realistic mounted and dismounted reconnaissance missions at posts throughout the Army.

Joint training with Special Operations Command (SOCOM) special reconnaissance (SR) elements in order to ensure that RSTAs are constantly learning cutting edge, combat tested reconnaissance tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs). This recommendation is especially relevant as conventional units see less and less combat experience as the conflict in Afghanistan comes to a close.

Increased training integration between the infantry battalions within IBCTs and RSTA squadrons, given that small RSTA elements could be detached to provide reconnaissance support to other elements within IBCTs in combat situations. Conversely, training should also include exercises in which infantry battalion scout platoons are attached to RSTAs.

The above recommendations provide a framework for reorienting RSTAs to maximize their relevance and effectiveness.  However, given the rapid rate of social, political, economic, and technological change of today’s globalized world, these recommendations should be constantly reevaluated to ensure that they are the most effective means of promoting the competence of RSTA cavalry units.  What seems likely, however, is that the nature of tomorrow’s Army and of tomorrow’s conflicts indicate the absolute importance of maintaining a dedicated ground reconnaissance presence within IBCTs while simultaneously working to ensure that they are more capable than ever to execute their unique tasks.

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First Lieutenant Joseph Callaway is a native of Rocky Mount, North Carolina and is a 2011 graduate of The United States Military Academy at West Point. His military training and awards include US Army Ranger School, the Infantry Basic Officer Leaders Course, Airborne School, Air Assault School, and the Expert Infantryman Badge. He has served as a platoon leader and an air operations officer in the United States and deployed briefly as an Afghan National Army adviser in Kunar Province, Afghanistan in the summer of 2013.  He currently serves as an Infantry Officer in a RSTA, the 1st Squadron, 32nd Cavalry Regiment, 1st IBCT, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) at Fort Campbell, KY.

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5 Responses to “The Saber in the Post-Afghanistan World: An Infantryman's Take on Cavalry RSTAs”

  1. John Gassmann says:

    Great piece, 1LT Callaway. This is part of a larger discussion that needs to take place across the Army, but especially in the IBCTs. There seems to be a disconnect between the RSTA MTOE/METL and the tasks they are given to train and execute while deployed. As a recon troop commander in 4/101, our mission in Afghanistan was more of an infantry “economy of force” focus. While we made use of our reconnaissance capabilities, we were not feeding that information back to the BDE for action by a maneuver battalion; we were the maneuver battalion. This seems to be the norm for RSTA units over the past 12 years and has led in some cases to a devaluation of reconnaissance skills. Infantry battalions operating without RSTA support don’t see the value in having it. RSTA troopers don’t see the value in training on reconnaissance skills since they don’t use them. I agree that in a future, less-permissible environment, we will need these skills and new ones to gather information and drive the brigade targeting and decision making processes. Thank you for your insights and keeping up the dialog. Best of luck to you in your future endeavors.

  2. […] very forum about civil-military divide, and a few days later a young infantry officer wrote about improving reconnaissance organizations in the U.S. Army on a blog he shares with other junior […]

  3. Steve Sevigny says:

    Your story resonates greatly across the Aviation branch. The OH-58D Squadrons have been employed in a close combat attack role during OIF and OEF, watching many of the scout missions of years ago go by the wayside. The same atrophy of reconnaissance skills among RSTA Squadrons have also degraded similarly in the Aviation community. Furthermore, the decision of the Army to divest itself of the OH-58D, and use the AH-64 and UAS as the ‘replacement’ to fill the scout mission would tend to imply that the square peg of the AH-64 can be hammered into the round hole of the scout mission with enough brute force to accomplish the mission. The time will come that the Army will once again need a dedicated manned scout, and more than likely it will take a viable air defense threat to prove with finality that UAS can not provide all the answers.

  4. Danny Moriarty says:

    Great article! What was most alarming when I first reported to my unit, a RSTA squadron in a SBCT, was the atrophy in some of the skills that make 19Ds scouts and not infantrymen. In particular, the dust gathering on RSTA-specific gear like the AN/PRC-150, a High-Frequency radio meant to allow scouts to communicate further and operate more independently. Training on equipment like this and the other scout-centric tasks you mentioned will definitely put our troopers on the right path.

  5. […] So the Army cheated. It would stand up new BCTs, each with, among other things, their own RSTA battalion (which carried the unit designations of various historical Cavalry Squadrons). But instead of each BCT having three regular maneuver battalions, they would only have two. So the prime maneuver combat power of the BCT was reduced by a third. What wasn’t reduced was the missions these BCTs were required to perform. And so, as Tripp Callaway tells us in his article, the Cavalry RSTAs in Iraq and Afghanistan were of… […]

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