April 03, 2006
Army aims to triple force skilled in ‘finding’ the enemy
By Gina Cavallaro
Army Times staff writer
FORT BENNING, Ga. — The Army school that trains soldiers to sneak around and locate the enemy now must push through enough troops to support the biggest expansion in its 20-year history.
The long-range surveillance community is racing to produce enough soldiers to man one-third of all ground maneuver battalions with reconnaissance soldiers.
To meet the projected need, recon instructors will have to nearly triple their current output of 400 troops a year.
Driving the growth is Army Transformation from division-centric operations to a lighter, more mobile force built around brigade combat teams. The Army has planned for 42 active BCTs to be stood up by 2007, each including a Reconnaissance, Surveillance and Target Acquisition squadron.
The RSTA teams are seen as vital in the fight against terrorists, guerrillas and other unconventional enemy forces.
“Reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition is a highly important task in any type of military operation, but that is particularly true when you’re conducting a counterintelligence campaign such as in Iraq or Afghanistan,” said Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, commanding general of the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
In its first 16 years here, roughly 180 soldiers a year went through the 33-day Long Range Surveillance course. Last year, the training cadre pushed through 275 soldiers; this year, the cadre will churn out 400 recon soldiers in eight classes of 50 students each.
By 2007, that number will double to 800, and it still won’t be enough to meet the Army’s projected need of 1,100 recon soldiers a year to man the new RSTA squadrons.
The soldiers are being trained here at the overhauled Reconnaissance and Surveillance Leaders Course. They are being schooled in much more than how to find the enemy. They now must master some of the Army’s most technologically advanced field surveillance equipment.
And, to meet a critical new role for the recon mission, they will operate with the capability and authority to directly engage and kill the enemy.
“These units are needed to conduct targeted operations, as opposed to sweep operations, which are more efficient in capturing and killing the enemy and less disruptive in neighborhoods,” Petraeus said. “The goal is great soldiers enabled by great technology. Downrange, commanders will use them in different ways.”
Col. K.K. Chinn, commander of the Ranger Training Brigade, whose Delta Company, 4th Ranger Battalion, is tasked with the training mission, echoed the need for recon troops who can locate and destroy enemy forces.
“If we can find the guy who’s making the [improvised explosive device] or recruiting suicide bombers, with the finishing force, we can kill that guy,” he said.
Keeping pace with combat
The traditional corps- and division-level long-range surveillance units are being redesigned and redistributed under the Army’s modular organization, and the maneuver brigades are seeing a substantial increase in their own reconnaissance assets.
Last year, the Army stood up eight RSTA squadrons and will stand up seven more this year.
The newly trained soldiers will operate sophisticated equipment usually reserved for special operations forces and be capable of working in small teams to find the enemy.
“This course bridges the gap between SOF and the regular Army,” said Maj. Eric Flesch, Delta Company commander.
“For the conventional Army, this is brand-new,” said Lt. Col. Jim Mingus, commander of 4th Ranger Battalion. “If it’s a valid military target, then you have the authority to strike or capture that target.”
Flesch said that when he took command of Delta Company, he realized the course had not kept up with real-life combat and recon scenarios.
“The course [used] radios that weren’t being used [in theater]. Because of the Rapid Fielding Initiative, the troops in combat had better radios and the course hadn’t caught up,” he said. “The classes were half-full because people were deployed, and equipment and techniques at the school were not matching real-world operations.”
Flesch, who worked in the Joint Special Operations Task Force in Afghanistan and Iraq before coming to Benning in June 2004, brought his real-world experience and restructured the RSLC program’s instruction. He switched out about half of the curriculum, adding some of the technological advances and tactics, techniques and procedures emerging from the battlefield.
One of the most significant new areas of training is in the use of digital surveillance systems to collect images and data that can be transmitted almost simultaneously for analysis hundreds or thousands of miles away.
Until now, LRS soldiers were observers who reported back to military intelligence battalions without engaging the enemy. Now, the capability and authority of RSTA soldiers to strike is similar to what the original Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol units had in Vietnam. What’s different is the quick turnaround time of the digital systems versus analog technology. The time to analyze field data significantly accelerated, shortening the time needed to process information and decide what action to take.
With the surveillance equipment, soldiers can digitally send detailed information down to a 10-degree grid coordinate. They also can send pictures of entry points, people, buildings and descriptions of the security environment or a neighborhood.
a former enlisted combat engineer, 1st Lt. Will Parker, 32, is an infantry officer who went through the course here in January.
He is slated to go to Iraq in August for the first time, with the 121st Infantry Regiment Airborne (LRS) of the Georgia National Guard. He feels the RSLC has given him a huge advantage.
“We may be tasked with watching a house for five days and then we’d get an order to clear that house,” he said. “The phrase ‘be flexible’ goes to a whole new level.”
RSLC is the only Army school that trains with imagery collection and transmission.
“The training focuses on imagery, mobility and target interdiction,” said Flesch, who is writing new doctrine for recon units. That doctrine will include new assets on the six-man teams — the traditional recon unit — including snipers and marksmen who can strike targets on the spot.
Recon students also are learning to call for fire in a joint environment, insertion and extraction techniques, post-combat assessment and other tasks that reflect real-time operations.
Students learn to identify 140 different types of vehicles, weapons and equipment. They are trained to operate the latest high-frequency communications equipment, including multiband systems compatible with Air Force gear.
It is an intensely brain-draining and physically demanding course that incorporates the sorts of tasks a recon soldier can expect to follow, such as creating a good hide site, the art of camouflage and how to identify the enemy by sight, smell and language.
The students also get used to humping a 100-pound ruck, and practice land navigation in the woods — and even sometimes outside the post’s gates in downtown Columbus.
“The course applies to anywhere the Army goes,” Flesch said, indicating that although Iraq and Afghanistan are in the operational spotlight, RSLC students learn skills they can take to any environment.
“We’ve kept the focus broad so you spend days in the woods, but you also spend days in an urban environment,” he said.
The cadre is a rich mix of former LRS and special operations soldiers, many with deep experience in several countries.
One of those is Sgt. 1st Class Earl Owens, a veteran recon guy who went through the LRS course in 1993 and has operated in South America, Southeast Asia, the Philippines and Singapore.
“The changes between then and now are outstanding. I used to sit in a hole and I had a hand-crank generator,” he said. “We’re sitting out there now lasing with digital. If we had had this communications technology, there would have been more people in the hurt locker.”
By 2007, Flesch said, the cadre will double in size to more than 60 instructors, and the schoolhouse will add 14 new buildings, all at a cost of $9 million.
Although most students are infantry troops with Ranger tabs or SF backgrounds, those requirements can be waived for the right candidate.
“It doesn’t matter what your [military occupational specialty] is,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Matt Walker, the Ranger Training Brigade command sergeant major.
“Recon is recon and a commander is going to use the recon guy he’s got.”