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Posted on Mar 13, 2012 in Tactics101, War College

Tactics 101 070 – Reconnaisance, Part 1: the Foundations

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland


The Foundations

“Single men in the night will be more likely to ascertain facts than the best glasses in the day.”

General George Washington

In our last article we shifted gears a bit and discussed NEO. Our goal was not to make anyone an expert, but to provide you enough detail so you would be conversant in the subject. With that said, we addressed the following: 1) Definition. 2) The possible environments you may face in a NEO. 3) The key players in a NEO. And our focus – the phases of a NEO (Predeployment, Deployment, Evacuation, Withdrawal, and Safehaven Operations). In today’s world, NEOs are becoming all too frequent and each brings its’ own unique set of challenges.


Our focus for the next several months will be on reconnaissance operations. We will dissect the subject in detail. This will include the fundamentals of recon, the planning of reconnaissance, the actions you should take to prepare for a recon operation, and executing reconnaissance. As you are all well aware, reconnaissance has been the difference between winning and losing in countless battles throughout history. We hope to provide you with some ‘nuggets’ that you can utilize on your battlefield. Let’s move out.

To begin our discussion, let’s start with what reconnaissance is:
Reconnaissance operations are missions conducted to obtain information in three areas:

1) the activities and resources or your enemy (or potential enemy),
2) the weather, water, or geographic characteristics of a particular area,
3) the indigenous population of a particular area.

This information can be obtained by several means:

1) passive surveillance (covertly or overtly),
2) technical means,
3) human interaction,
4) fighting for it.

Most aspects of tactics have some key fundamentals attached to them. Reconnaissance operations are no different. There are several key fundamentals that are characteristic of most successful recon missions. These should guide you through the planning, preparation, and execution of your reconnaissance missions. Let’s address each of these in detail.

Reconnaissance is Continuous
There are no breaks in recon operations. Relax a bit and you have practically handed the initiative over to the enemy. Not only does it hurt you in executing your future operations, but it also greatly affects your security. Continuous reconnaissance means you conduct it before, during, and after any mission. During each of these periods, the focus of reconnaissance will change. Before a mission, you are collecting information which assists you in crafting a viable plan. During the mission, you collect information that assists the Commander in decision-making. After the mission, you continue recon so you maintain contact with the enemy. Breaks in contact result in surprises – bad surprises!
Conducting continuous recon can obviously place a burden on your assets. We will discuss in our next article ways in which you mitigate this.

Keep your Recon Assets Employed
One of the key fundamentals of reconnaissance is that you do not keep your assets in reserve. This is not to say that, depending on the type of asset, rest is not required. What we are saying is that if a recon asset is available and capable it should be utilized.

You must have an Objective
Your recon assets are extremely valuable. You do not send them out without a focus. This focus could be on the enemy, terrain or on the civilian populace. The Commander must determine this focus by providing recon assets objectives. These objectives should be tied to the Commander’s Priority Intelligence Requirements (CCIR). In this case, the recon objective corresponds directly to an information requirement. A group of answered information requirements should enable the Commander to answer the CCIR. As you know from the highlighted article, CCIR is tied to one of the Commander’s key decisions. So let’s summarize this: recon objective >information requirement>CCIR>Commander’s Decision. This is why it is so important to provide focus to your assets.

Reconnaissance Information Must be Reported Quickly and Accurately
The term ‘time sensitive information’, is thrown out there quite often. Nowhere is this more pertinent than in reconnaissance operations. Unlike some things, recon information does not get better with age. In most cases, it loses its’ importance as each second goes by. This is because, as stated in the above paragraph, reconnaissance information is ultimately tied to a commander’s decision.

In regards to reporting accurately, this speaks for itself. An inaccurate report can have disastrous results. Again, recon info is ultimately tied to a commander’s decision. Inaccurate info leads to a poor commander’s decision and bad ramifications. Reports must be solely on what the asset sees on the ground. For example, there are 12 tanks idling in an assembly area located at Grid 12345678, time now. The recon asset does not provide any analysis. Let the people who do this for a living conduct the analysis.

Recon Assets Must Retain Their Freedom of Maneuver
One of the cardinal rules of scouts is don’t get decisively engaged. When this occurs, the scout turns into a maneuver unit. This is not good for the home team. Bad things happen when scouts turn into fighters. This includes: 1) The potential to suffer casualties. 2) The potential to have vehicles and equipment damaged. 3) The potential to have Soldiers and/or equipment captured. 4) The possibility that this combat could alert the enemy that future operations are imminent. 5) Of course, the loss of information that could be key in the commander’s decision-making process.

With all that said, it is imperative that recon assets retain their freedom of maneuver. So how do you achieve this? Well, there are several things that can assist in this. First, an understanding of the enemy is crucial. Knowing his tendencies and the equipment he possesses can assist you in retaining maneuver freedom. Second, an understanding of the terrain is critical. Obviously, there is terrain that is conducive to maneuver and there is some that is not. Third, utilize your multipliers to stay out of trouble. Thus, instead of getting decisively engaged with your assets; use indirect fires instead.

Gain Contact and Maintain it
This may seem like a contradiction to the above, but this is a very different fundamental. Gaining contact with the enemy does not mean physical contact. What it does mean is that you have eyes on the enemy. These eyes can be of the human variety or via technology.

When this contact is achieved; you must maintain it. Contact is not broken unless authorized by the Commander. Again, maintaining contact can mean breaking physical contact, but keeping surveillance via ‘eyes’. Of all the fundamentals, this is clearly one of the most challenging to achieve. Clearly, the better the unit, the better the ability to succeed in this fundamental. The poorer the unit, the more the likelihood that combat ensues when the attempt is made to break physical contact.

When a Situation Arises; Develop it Rapidly
Just as in most situations on the battlefield, it is critical that recon assets develop the situation rapidly. Split second decisions are the norm in recon operations. When a situation develops on the ground, the leader on the ground makes a decision with the information he has at his disposal. This is why in most units; the position of leading recon assets is highly coveted and highly competitive.

Obviously, this fundamental is tied to many of the previously discussed fundamentals. Developing the situation rapidly assists in reporting info quickly, maintaining freedom of maneuver, and gaining and maintaining contact.

Within reconnaissance operations, there are two techniques that are utilized. These are reconnaissance push and reconnaissance pull. The main difference in the two techniques is at what stage of operation reconnaissance is being conducted. We’ll discuss each below.

Reconnaissance Push – In a reconnaissance push, the commander sends out his assets after he has decided on a plan. Thus, he is pushing his assets out in order to gain information that will assist him in fighting this plan. Within this plan, he may have some critical decision points that he will require information in order to answer. As stated earlier, this information should ultimately be tied to a commander’s decision.

Reconnaissance Pull – In a reconnaissance pull, the commander sends out his assets before he has decided on his plan. Thus, he is deploying his assets to pull information so he can craft his plan. In a reconnaissance pull, the situation is normally unclear or the situation is rapidly changing.

As a point of clarification, a particular recon asset could certainly execute both types of techniques during the same mission. For example, the asset could be initially deployed to garner information early in the planning process (reconnaissance pull). Later, once a plan is approved, the same unit could provide information to assist in decision-making (reconnaissance push). In a perfect world, the asset could stay in virtually the same location and not break contact with the enemy.

A Commander has several methods available to him to conduct recon. These methods are dismounted, mounted, aerial, and sensor .Certainly, the type of unit and the technology available have a large part in the particular methods available. Commanders who have all of these methods at their disposal will certainly utilize them all for redundancy, flexibility, and to capitalize on the strengths of each. Let’s address each of these. Our discussion will include when you would use this method and its’ advantages and disadvantages.

Dismounted –When detailed information is required and being stealthy is critical; then dismounted recon is clearly a preferred method. It is however, certainly the most time consuming of the methods.

So when would you utilize dismounted recon? Here are some reasons:

  • As stated before, when security and stealthyness are at a premium.
  • As stated earlier, when you want detailed information.
  • When you have time available to send out dismounted recon.
  • When the information you require is located at a fixed location, terrain feature, or is a stationary threat.
  • When the information you require is at a location in which mounted recon cannot maneuver to. This may be because of the terrain or the enemy threat.
  • When the information you require is at a location where sensors or aerial methods would not be effective.
  • When simply the other methods are not available, the old reliable dismounted recon should always be there for you.
  • If there are confirmed enemy near fixed locations or terrain features.


  • It is inherently a less aggressive method vice mounted recon. This can assist in survivability.
  • Can take advantage of certain types of terrain during maneuver to their objective.
  • If well-trained, dismounted recon can be extremely hard to detect.
  • Can get in much closer to an objective without detection than other methods.
  • Can conduct highly detailed recon.


  • If discovered, can have a challenge breaking contact against certain types of enemy.
  • It just takes longer to maneuver. Must always be a consideration.
  • May have communications challenges based on the distances and the equipment the dismounted assets possess.
  • Planning time can be significant (especially planning the maneuver to the objective).
  • During limited visibility, may have visual challenges in finding information.
  • If the maneuver to the objective is challenging, this may affect recon assets both physically and mentally. This can have a negative effect on their ability to find information.
  • If poorly trained, dismounted recon can be extremely easy to detect.

Mounted –
So when would you utilize mounted recon? Here are some reasons:

  • When time is clearly at a premium.
  • The maneuver distance to the recon objective is significant.
  • Stealthiness is not a prime consideration.
  • The terrain during the maneuver and near the objective is conducive to concealing vehicles.
  • The type of information required may not be as detailed as other types. As discussed earlier, detailed information is usually better found by dismounted means.


  • The vehicle can offer protection for soldiers.
  • The vehicle can provide additional firepower if needed.
  • The vehicles can be equipped with high speed navigation devices which can assist in getting to the recon objective.
  • The vehicles will normally have good communication devices.
  • Recon vehicles can be equipped with technology which can afford them to gain information farther from their objective than dismounted assets.
  • Mounted recon can gain the advantages of dismounted recon when soldiers dismount the vehicle once they get closer to the recon objective. Thus, you can get the best of both methods.


  • Detection is more probable than other methods. Detection can be visually, from noise, or even from a thermal signature which a vehicle can produce.
  • Vehicles add complexity to supply and maintenance operations.
  • Sometimes vehicles can give soldiers a false sense of security and make them take risks they otherwise would not have.
  • Mounted recon operations are more likely to result in combat than dismounted recon ops. As discussed earlier, you do not want your recon assets to get decisively engaged.
  • Terrain certainly has an impact on maneuverability and can make it challenging for a vehicle to get to certain locations.

Aerial – Before we get into the particulars of aerial recon, remember that within the category exist both manned and unmanned assets. As you know, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are truly a key asset in today’s environment.

So when would you utilize aerial recon? Here are some reasons:

  • When information is needed quickly.
  • The location of the potential information is too far for ground assets to maneuver to.
  • The ground recon assets (mounted and dismounted) are not available for the mission.
  • If you want to confirm information obtained from other methods.
  • To set the conditions for the other methods. Perhaps, this means flying over a route that ground recon wants to use.
  • The enemy threat is too dangerous for ground assets.
  • The location of the potential information contains terrain too complex for ground recon assets.
  • Weather is conducive for aviation.


  • It can compensate for some of the disadvantages of the other methods. Thus, if used in combination it increases the effectiveness of your overall recon efforts.
  • Relatively unaffected by terrain. Although a smart enemy clearly understands how to camouflage itself from aerial view.
  • Can get information from locations that other methods cannot get to.
  • Are good at locating enemy assets in dead space.
  • Of course, UAVs do not run the risk of casualties.


  • If the enemy possesses a good air defense system, these assets can be destroyed.
  • An advanced enemy may possess technology which can degrade aerial capabilities.
  • Obviously, can be highly weather dependent.
  • May have challenges observing small stationary elements.
  • Can be significant coordination between ground and air elements.
  • May not get the detail in the information you need.
  • UAVs and manned aircraft are highly vulnerable to enemy attack when they are flying at lower altitudes.
  • High maintenance in manned and unmanned craft.

Sensor – Sensors have been around forever. In earlier years, they were primarily utilized in the security role. For example, stringing tin cans outside the perimeter to warn the unit of intruders was a rudimentary security action. With technology, sensors have moved as a viable recon method. They can be positioned nearly anywhere and can track maneuver and actions. Sensors can communicate images back to the commander. At one time, this was Start Wars stuff, now pretty ordinary, but still extraordinary!

So when would you utilize sensor recon? Here are some reasons:

  • If you do not have the other methods available to utilize.
  • When you want to observe a location for a significant period of time.
  • If you want a cue so you can then employ other recon methods.
  • If you want redundancy in certain key locations.
  • With the various types of sensors, some can be utilized to conduct reconnaissance of areas which you believe may be exposed to chemical or biological agents.


  • Is the longest duration method. Once in place, can be functional for an extended period of time.
  • Can greatly expand the coverage of your recon.
  • Economizes your other assets so they can be used in other areas or at the times that are critical.
  • They can take away the risk of sending soldiers to locations in which the enemy may be located.
  • Provides flexibility for a commander in his recon operations.


  • An enemy with the capabilities can seriously degrade the effectiveness of sensors.
  • Many types of sensors need to be placed by human hands. Thus, there are security concerns depending on where you want to emplace the sensor.
  • Related to above, with the ever changing environment; the location you originally emplaced the sensor may be no longer be where it is needed.


There are four forms of reconnaissance that a Commander can utilize. The key determination in what form to use is what type of information you are trying to gather. Let’s discuss each below.

Route – A route recon focuses on providing information on a specific route such as a trail, road, railway, or even a mobility corridor. These routes are almost always routes in which the unit will or plans to utilize in the future. This information includes things such trafficability, obstacles, bridge classifications, and any enemy or civilian activity on the routes. Within a route recon you will also require the asset conducting the recon to provide info on the terrain near the route which could influence maneuver. A route recon should include the following:

  • Report locations of all enemy forces that can impact maneuver on the route. (If it is within capabilities of the recon force, clear the route of those forces. As discussed earlier, forces cannot get decisively engaged – truly a fine line!).
  • Determine the trafficability of the route. Report if it can be utilized for maneuver or just as importantly, if it cannot.
  • Recon the route as if you were the enemy. With this mindset, you will report choke points, potential ambush sites, observation posts, drop zones, landing zones, etc…
  • Recon any built-up areas that are located along the route.
  • Recon any areas that you know or believe to be contaminated. If the unit possesses the capabilities, it should mark the contaminated area.
  • Bridges are critical in any maneuver. During a route recon, you must determine the classification of all bridges. In other words, determine what vehicles can use the bridge and what vehicles cannot.
  • Water obstacles along a route can be trouble. A route recon should first see if the water is fordable. If not fordable, determine if there are bypasses available for maneuver. Finally, if the first two are a negative, then report possible locations to construct a bridge (if feasible).
  • Locate obstacles (natural and manmade) along the route. Units may be tasked to breach and mark any obstacles.
  • Provide a sketch map (with pictures if feasible) of the route.

Area – An area recon is focused on obtaining information (on the enemy, terrain or civilian populace) on a certain area the commander dictates. An area could encompass many different things. It may be a town, an airfield/landing strip, potential drop zone/landing zone, a particular bridge, etc…. I think you get the idea that it can be almost anything. However, with a caveat that it is something that is important to the commander. After all, if it wasn’t, you wouldn’t expend the resources to obtain the information.

Within an area reconnaissance, you are basically conducting the same type of tasks as we discussed in the route reconnaissance. The main difference in the two is the perspective. Within the route recon, you are clearly focused on the maneuver aspects. Within the area recon, you are obtaining info on a particular area which will likely have major significance in the overall mission.

Zone – A zone recon is focused on obtaining information (on the enemy or terrain) on a particular zone dictated by the commander. The zone will be articulated by boundaries. This zone could contain a route or routes and an area/areas. Thus, it is the encompassing of all the forms of recon.

A commander will decide a zone recon is needed when he requires more info on a zone in which he anticipates maneuvering in the future. At the present time, the commander has little information on the enemy and the terrain. Thus, the requirement for the zone recon.

As you can imagine, the zone recon can be extremely time consuming and resource intensive. It cannot be done on the cheap. If it is, it will likely result in not obtaining the information the commander requires and the potential for significant casualties certainly increases. Again, the overall tasks for units conducting a zone recon are basically the same as discusses above.

Reconnaissance in Force – A form of recon that is normally not considered a form is a reconnaissance in force. In a reconnaissance in force, a unit maneuvers a force in an offensive operation against his enemy. This force is normally at least battalion size in strength. This action is generated to assist in determining the enemy’s strength, disposition of his forces, and how he reacts to your initiative. This reaction can be invaluable in analyzing what the enemy’s future actions will be.

So when would you execute a reconnaissance in force? Obviously, this is a significant expenditure of resources. Yet, there are times when a commander should consider conducting a recon in force. These include: 1) If the commander just simply can’t obtain critical information he requires by any other means available. 2) Because of restrictive terrain, the commander does not feel he can deploy smaller units without fear that they will be ambushed and take heavy losses.

A recon in force must have clearly understood recon objectives. These objectives are almost always enemy related and not terrain related. Recon forces must be focused on these objectives. Certainly in an operation like this it is a challenge to not have this mission turn into an attack. If it becomes this, the results could be disastrous. Again, forces are there to obtain information on the enemy for the commander.

In this article, we strived to provide you the basics of recon operations. These basics included addressing the definition of reconnaissance, the key fundamentals of recon, the two techniques of conducting reconnaissance, the methods available (or potentially available) to conduct recon, and finally the four forms of reconnaissance. These basics will set the conditions for our next article.

With the conditions set, we will dissect the keys to planning, preparing, and executing reconnaissance operations. For those, who think you just send out assets on a whim you will be very surprised. There is much planning and preparation whenever you decide to deploy a recon asset. There must be because these recon assets can obtain information that clearly aids a commander in achieving his mission. We will discuss how you can make the most out of our reconnaissance efforts.

1 Comment

  1. you know i just want to say thank you. arm chair general has probably enlightened me more to caveats of wisdom that i could never get anywhere else.

    so from me to you or you all thank you. superlative deployment


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