Scouts Out: What CA should know about Army Recon Courses

By Danny Moriarty & Richard Garcia

In this piece, CPTs Garcia and Moriarty—both former Cavalry officers now serving in Civil Affairs—explore potential applications and limitations of the Reconnaissance and Surveillance Leaders Course (RSLC) and the Scout Leaders Course (SLC) to Civil Reconnaissance (CR). The authors discuss how these courses can prepare Civil Affairs (CA) practitioners to conduct effective CR, while outlining some of the challenges of wholesale application of these courses to CR.


The Value of RSLC and SLC

As is the case with any skill set, schooling and education are essential. The 95th Civil Affairs Brigade has already begun conducting a CR course to educate Soldiers on key reconnaissance concepts. CA leaders have also pointed to courses, such as the RSLC and SLC which already exist for reconnaissance practitioners. While RSLC and SLC provide many valuable lessons and training in the planning and conduct of reconnaissance, they are not a cure-all when it comes to conducting CR.

Taught at Fort Benning, Georgia SLC and RSLC offer two different approaches to reconnaissance training. SLC (formally the Army Reconnaissance Course—ARC) instructed by Armor School cadre, is primarily focused on preparing 19-series officers and NCOs for leadership roles within cavalry organizations across the Army. RSLC, on the other hand, draws its heritage from the Long-Range Surveillance (LRS) units of the past and focuses on small-unit dismounted reconnaissance. RSLC students typically consist of infantrymen assigned to battalion scout platoons, cavalry scouts assigned to light or airborne formations, and service members in other branches assigned to reconnaissance organizations.

The primary difference between each course is the type of reconnaissance practiced and the associated techniques, tactics, and procedures (TTPs). Due to its home within the Armor School, SLC provides training and instruction on mounted operations, utilizing Humvees and Strykers to enable students the opportunity to execute zone reconnaissance missions. Using these platforms, SLC students plan and execute zone reconnaissance over wide swaths of the Fort Benning training areas. Route selection, prioritization of NAIs, and terrain analysis are all critical components of SLC. These elements make SLC quite similar to CR; for a CMSE assigned to an entire province or country, developing a civil information collection plan will often involve discriminating between multiple areas of interest.

In contrast, RSLC focuses primarily on dismounted area reconnaissance. Objectives often include specific locations, such as an assembly area for enemy forces, a weapons cache, or a single building within a MOUT site. In these ways, RSLC is similar to CR conducted on key pieces of civil infrastructure. Other differences include the amount of time spent on other tactical skills, such as communications. RSLC puts a premium on training communication systems. Students undergo rigorous training in areas such as high-frequency and tactical satellite systems, antenna theory, and practical exercises in field-expedient antenna construction. On the other hand, SLC offers familiarization on these topics but does not provide in-depth practical application outside of vehicle and dismounted very high frequency (VHF) communications.

The type of planning practiced by students in each course also differs. SLC embraces ambiguity. Students largely operate in a “recon-pull” method, where scouts conduct reconnaissance to inform situational awareness and drive a commander’s decision making. As a result, SLC emphasizes order production, planning, and agile thinking. Since zone reconnaissance missions often cover large geographic areas forward of the main battle zone, cavalry leaders are required to adapt and operate with little guidance. Likewise, a Civil Affairs Team tasked with conducting CA operations across an entire country or province must also be agile and able to understand a dynamic operational environment, at times without direct guidance from a commander.

RSLC takes a more “recon-push” approach, where reconnaissance forces are deployed deliberately by a commander after a course of action (COA) has been decided on, and are tasked with confirming or denying assumptions upon which the COA was based. That being said, RSLC’s curriculum provides challenging applications of Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield that test students’ planning and thinking abilities. Both RSLC and SLC challenge reconnaissance leaders to think critically and adapt in different ways, each with unique applications to a CA Soldier planning and executing CR.

Where RSLC and SLC fall short for CA

"Commanders provide clear reconnaissance guidance that offers both freedom of action to develop the situation as well as adequate direction to ensure that their organic Cavalry organizations can accomplish stated reconnaissance objectives within the required timeframe." [1]

FM 3-98 Reconnaissance and Security Operations

RSLC and SLC both require a significant degree of translation for Civil Affairs soldiers to apply to their career field properly. The odds of CA soldiers putting on a ghillie suit or maneuvering a platoon of Strykers are extremely low. However, differences between CR and the reconnaissance taught at SLC and RSLC are more than just surface deep. The reality is that there are discrepancies between the fundamentals of traditional army reconnaissance and the application of Civil Reconnaissance. These will likely continue to exist and will require the CA student to think critically and creatively while continuing their education after graduation.

Deriving Your Priority Intelligence Requirements (PIR)

RSLC and SLC both focus on teaching students how to deliberately plan reconnaissance operations. A large part of that planning is the selection of a Reconnaissance Objective based on the Commander's PIRs.

“All forms of reconnaissance, conducted by the fundamentals of reconnaissance, develop PIR and intelligence that allow the commander and staff to understand and visualize the environment, develop the situation, create options, and identify opportunities for the commander to seize, retain, and exploit the initiative.” [2]

FM 3-98 Reconnaissance and Security Operations

Answering PIRs is about enabling a commander to make a decision. Knowing which maneuver corridor enemy tanks are using may give a commander the time to array their defense effectively and win the battle. Answering the question of which corridor enables a commander to make a decision, and therefore constitutes a PIR.

Unlike Armor and Infantry reconnaissance, targeted PIRs are something Civil Affairs forces are not always given. Directly tasking CA elements to answer PIR about the human terrain often falls precariously on the side of targeted human intelligence collection and, as a result, it is avoided both in doctrine and in practice. As an Army Reconnaissance force, you are inherently tasked to “answer PIR and enable the commander to make decisions and direct forces to achieve mission success,” [3] but as a CA element, you “must not be tasked as active collectors of threat information.” [4] Balancing these two can often be a near no-win scenario.

As a result of this incongruence, CA forces will rarely be given a clear prioritization of information for the Civil Environment. Our doctrine supports this ambiguity “The commander may assign the force conducting CR specific guidance based on the current COP; however, specific mission details should be left to the discretion of the CA team unit executing the CR, as long as they are focused through the civil information collection plan and meet the commander’s intent.” [5] As a result, Civil Affairs forces need to find ways to answer PIR without compromising their permissions or authorities, and in some cases, the capability to understand and to create their own PIRs.

PIRs that do exist will normally be fixated on identifying major changes to the operational environment and transitions in the phases of competition, such as identifying a shift from Phase 0 to crisis response or open warfare. While this undoubtedly constitutes a PIR, it’s one the CA forces could deploy indefinitely to a region, and never see. CA forces must be capable of producing their own internal PIRs, which help inform decision-makers prior to a major trigger line and yet without overwhelming them with minutiae. SLC and RSLC will not help in this regard.

Redefining the Objective

In traditional military doctrine, the reconnaissance objective is a terrain feature, geographic area, or an enemy force for which the commander wants to obtain additional information [6]. Civil Affairs forces orient their reconnaissance on “civil aspects of the environment” [7] or the “Human Domain.” Attempts to further define this objective usually involve frameworks such as the civil considerations (ASCOPE) or operational variables (PMESII-PT). These frameworks lend a semblance of structure to this otherwise nebulous objective. However, the “Human Terrain” remains far too large a reconnaissance objective for any team or the whole of the Civil Affairs Corps to reconnoiter fully. Too wide an aperture when conducting reconnaissance can lend itself towards damaging rather than improving the quality of information. When a Civil Affairs Team is asked to “orient on a reconnaissance objective” comprising millions of people, thousands of buildings, hundreds of organizations, and dozens of governmental bodies, they risk reporting incorrect information and missing the forest for the trees.

With too wide an aperture, CR runs the risk of reporting information that actually hinders rather than helps decision-makers. There is such a thing as too much information. If all of the observation posts on a Cavalry Squadron screen line reports each detail within their sector, the operations center will quickly become overwhelmed. Bandwidth, both electromagnetic and mental, must be reserved for important information. PIRs and the physical limitations of radio communications help to force improved efficiency of reporting. However, CA rarely encounters these two constraints. The CA graduate of SLC or RSLC will need to look elsewhere if they seek to know what constitutes a reportable aspect of the civil environment.