Special reconnaissance

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Special Reconnaissance (SR) is conducted by small units of highly trained military personnel, usually from Special Operations Forces (SOF) who avoid combat with, and detection by, the enemy. SR is recognized as a key Special Operations capability at the level of the US Secretary of Defense[1]:

"Special Reconnaissance is the conduct of environmental reconnaissance, target acquisition, area assessment, post-strike assessment, emplacement and recovery of sensors, or support of Human Intelligence (HUMINT) and Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) operations."

Military units that carry out SR missions include United States Army Special Forces, Marine Force Reconnaissance and United States Navy SEALs; UK Special Air Service, Special Boat Service and Special Reconnaissance Regiment; Israeli Sayeret Matkal and other "reconnaissance units", Russian and former Soviet Spetsnaz and Razvedchiki; Australian Special Air Service Regiment; and a variety of other units.

Sometimes, the SR mission is carried out by other than special operations professionals, such as the Australian Coastwatchers of the Second World War. Coastwatchers usually received military commissions in the hope it might protect them if captured, but, fundamentally, they were long-time residents of Pacific islands, able to survive there and report on Japanese operations.

From the intelligence perspective, it is a HUMINT collection discipline. The SR mission is not espionage if they are in uniform, according to the language of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 [2]. This continues the language of the Hague Convention of 1907 [3]. Countries do not always honor this legal protection, as with the Nazi Commando Order of WWII, which was held illegal at the Nuremberg trials.

Their operational control is likely to be inside a compartmented cell of the HUMINT, or possibly the operations, staff functions. Since these personnel are trained for intelligence collection as well as other missions, they will usually maintain clandestine communications to the HUMINT organization, and will be systematically prepared for debriefing. They operate significantly farther than the furthest forward friendly scouting and surveillance units; they may be tens to hundreds of kilometers deeper.

Increasingly, the SR role is broadening beyond information gathering. The most common addition is to direct air, and possibly missile, strikes into areas deep in enemy territory. SR may also include placement of remotely monitored sensors, and may be specific preparation for other SOF actions, such as direct action (DA) and unconventional/guerrilla warfare (UW).

A spectrum of reconnaissance capabilities

Conventional military forces, at battalion level, will often have scout platoons that can perform limited reconnaissance beyond the main line of troops. Reorganized brigade combat teams, the new Unit of Action, are gaining reconnaissance squadrons (i.e., light battalion sized units). Traditional higher command levels had specialist Long Range Surveillance (LRS) detachments at the division level and LRS companies at corps level [4], although there is a trend to increase organic reconnaissance capability. Still, LRS do not substitute for the capabilities of SR-capable units. LRS units, logically, should conduct all operations within their capabilities, leaving only the SR missions for the true special operations forces (SOF). Long-range surveillance detachment teams (LRSD) operate forward of battalion reconnaissance teams and cavalry scouts in the division area of interest. The long-range surveillance company teams operate forward of the LRSD teams and behind most special operations forces. The duration of an LRS mission depends on equipment and supplies the team must carry, movement distance to the objective area, and resupply availability. LRS teams normally operate up to seven days without resupply depending on terrain and weather.

A true SR unit has capabilities beyond LRS. SR units tend to be better armed, since they may have to defend themselves if they are detected, but their exfiltration support needs time to get to them. If they were operating against NATO, Soviet Spetsnaz units on SR missions were expected to go to immediate Direct Action (DA) against any nuclear delivery systems they encountered.[5] During the 1991 Gulf War, British SAS and United States Army Special Forces units were sent on SR to find mobile Iraqi SCUD launchers, originally to direct air strikes onto them. When air support was delayed, however, the patrols might attack key SCUD system elements with their organic weapons and explosives. See The Great SCUD Hunt.

While there are obvious risks to doing so[2], SR-trained units can operate out of uniform. They may use motorcycles, four-wheel-drive vehicles, or multiple helicopter lifts in their area of operations, or have mountaineering or underwater capability. Most SR units are trained in advanced helicopter movement and at least basic parachuting; some SR will have HAHO and HALO advanced parachute capability.

SR will have more organic support capabilities, including long-range communications, possibly SIGINT and other means of collecting technical intelligence, and usually at least one medical technician who can do more than basic first aid.

Given that SR is conducted by military forces, and reconnaissance is a basic military skill, what factors make a mission "special"? There are two aspects, one being the means of operating in the desired area, and the other being the nature of the mission. In US Army doctrine[1] [6], there are five basic factors, all of which need elaboration:

  1. Physical distances. The area of operations may be well beyond the forward line of troops, and require special skills to reach the area.
  2. Political considerations. Clandestine insertion also may be a requirement. If there is a requirement to work with local personnel, language skills and political awareness may be critical.
  3. Lack of required special skills and expertise. The most basic requirement for SR is to be able to remain unobserved, which may take special skills and equipment. If there is a requirement to collect intelligence, skills anywhere from advanced photography to remote sensor operation may be required.
  4. Threat capabilities. This usually relates to the need to stay clandestine, potentially against an opposing force with sophisticated intelligence capabilities. Such capabilities may be organic to a force, or be available from a sponsoring third country.
  5. Follow-on special forces missions. This is the concept of preparing for other functions, such as Unconventional Warfare (UW) (i.e., guerrilla) or Foreign Internal Defense (FID) (i.e., counterguerrilla) operations.

SR-Appropriate Missions

Before starting a mission, the essential question to ask is "why are we doing this"? The kinds of special operations forces that can do SR are qualified for a variety of functions, and an SR mission may, quite reasonably, be one of information gathering in support of another function, such as counterinsurgency (FID), (DA) such as raids by larger forces, etc. Broadly speaking, these are all intelligence-related.

Another class of mission deals with locating targets, and planning, guiding, and evaluating attacks against them.

Target analysis could go in either place. If air or missile strikes are to be delivered after the SR team leaves the AO, the SR aspect is intelligence, but if the strikes are to be delivered while the SR team is present, possibly corrected by it, and the SR team will do post-strike assessment, the SR mission is fires-related.

Intelligence Related Missions

Every SR mission will collect intelligence, if only incidentally. Competent SR teams will, before starting a mission, study all available and relevant information on the area of operations (AO). On their mission, they will confirm material that was uncertain but true, correct information that was partially accurate, and refute incorrect information.

Assessment, whether by clandestine SR or overt study teams, are a prerequisite for other special operations missions, such as UW or FID. Before DA or counterterror (CT), the reconnaissance will usually need to be clandestine.


Mission planners may not know key information that will tell them if a given force can move over a selected route. These variables may be hydrographic, meteorological, and geographic in nature. SF teams can be tasked to resolve trafficability or fordability, or locate obstacles or barriers.[7]

MASINT sensors exist for most of these requirements. The SR team can emplace remotely operated weather instrumentation. Portable devices to determine the depth and bottom characteristics of a body of water are readily available, both as commercial fishing equipment, and more sophisticated devices for naval operations.

While there are remote-viewing MASINT sensors to determine the trafficability of a beach, these are experimental. Sometimes, simple observation, or use of a penetrometer, or weighted cone that measures how deeply weights will sink into the surface, are needed, but these have to be done at the actual site. Beach measurements are apt to be assigned to naval SR units such as the United States Navy SEALs or UK Special Boat Service.

Beach and shallow water reconnaissance, immediately before an amphibious landing, is direct support to the invasion, not SR. SR would determine if a given beach is suitable for any landing, well before the operational decision to invade.

There is a blurred line between SR and Direct Action in support of amphibious operations, when an outlying island is captured, with the primary goal of using it as a surveillance base as well as for support functions. While the attack by elements of the 77th Infantry Division on Kerama Retto before the main battle was a large scale operation by SR standards, it is an early example. Much more in the SR/DA realm is Operation Trudy Jackson, the capture, before the Battle of Inchon, by a joint CIA/military team led by Navy LT Eugene Clark, landed at Yonghung-do, an island in the mouth of the harbor. Clark apparently led numerous SR and DA operations during the Korean War, some of which may still be classified.


Basic photography [8] and sketching, should be a skill of all personnel on SR missions. More advanced photographic technique may involve additional training of SR personnel, or attaching specialists if appropriate.

The availability of lightweight Unmanned Aerial Vehicles with imagery and other intelligence collection capability is potentially useful for SR, since small UAVs have low observability. Again, either members of the SR organization can be trained to use them, or specialists can be attached. Depending on the UAV, it may transmit what it sees, using one or more sensors, either to the SR team or a monitoring headquarters. Potential sensors include stabilized and highly magnified photography, low-light television, thermal imagers and imaging radar. Larger UAVs, which could be under the operational control of the SR team, could use additional sensors including portable acoustic and electro-optical systems.


When there is a ground SIGINT requirement deep behind enemy lines, an appropriate technical detachment may be attached to an appropriate SR element. For SIGINT operations, the basic US Marine augmentation to Marine Force Recon is a 6-man detachment from a Radio Reconnaissance Platoon. There is a SIGINT platoon within the Intelligence Company of the new Marine Special Operations Support Group. [9]. See SIGINT ground-based platforms#US special operations ground equipment for equipment designed for Army and Marine SR SIGINT.

Army Special Forces have the Support Operations Team-Alpha that can operate with a SF team, or independently. This is a low-level collection team,which typically has four personnel. [10] Their primary equipment is the AN/PRD-13 SOF SIGINT Manpack System (SSMS), with capabilities including direction-finding capability from 2 MHz to 2 GHz, and monitoring from 1 to 1400 MHz [11].

The British 18 (UKSF) Signals Regiment provides SIGINT [12] personnel, including from the preexisting 264 (SAS) Signals Squadron and SBS Signals Squadron to provide specialist SIGINT, secure communications, and information technology augmentation to operational units. They may be operating in counterterror roles in Iraq in the joint UK/US TASK FORCE BLACK [13].

All these SIGINT units may also provide the SR team with intelligence-grade secure communications, for reporting information gained by SIGINT or other sensitive intelligence collection missions. If the unit needs to conduct offensive EW, clandestinity requires that, at the very least, that any ECM devices be operated remotely, either by the SR force or, preferably, by remote electronic warfare personnel after the SR team leaves the area.Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; invalid names, e.g. too many

MASINT and remote surveillance

Passive measurement and signature intelligence sensors can be used tactically by the SR mission. SR personnel also may emplace unmanned MASINT sensors, such as seismic, magnetic, and other personnel and vehicle detectors, for subsequent remote activation, so their data transmission allows the emplacement to remain clandestine. Remote sensing, in the broadest sense, began with US operations against the Laotian part of the Ho Chi Minh trail, in 1961. Under CIA direction, Lao nationals were trained to observe and photograph traffic on the Trail [14]. This produced quite limited results, and, in 1964, Project LEAPING LENA parachuted in teams of Vietnamese Montagnards led by Vietnamese Special Forces.

The very limited results from LEAPING LENA led to two changes. First, US-led SR teams, under Project DELTA, sent in US-led teams. Second, these Army teams worked closely with US Air Force Forward Air Controllers (FAC), which were enormously helpful in directing US air attacks by high-speed fighter-bombers, BARREL ROLL in northern Laos and Operation STEEL TIGER. While the FACs immediately helped, air-ground cooperation improved significantly with the use of remote geophysical MASINT sensors, although MASINT had not yet been coined as a term. [15]

The original sensors, a dim ancestor of today's technologies, started with air-delivered sensors under Operation Igloo White, such as air-delivered Acoubuoy and Spikebuoy acoustic sensors [16]. These cued monitoring aircraft, which sent the data to a processing center in Thailand, from which target information was sent to the DELTA teams.

Closer to today's SR-emplaced sensors were the Mini-Seismic Intrusion Detector (MINISID), unlike other sensors employed along the trail, was specifically designed to be delivered and implanted by hand. The MINISID, as well as its smaller version, the MICROSID, was a personnel detection device that was often used in combination with the magnetic intrusiondetector (MAGID). Combining sensors in this way improved the ability of individual sensors to detect different types of targets in a variety of ways, and reduced the number of false alarms. With today's AN/GSQ-187 Improved Remote Battlefield Sensor System (I-REMBASS) is a passive acoustic sensor, which, with other MASINT sensors, detects venicles and personnel on a battlefield [17], multiple acoustic, seismic, and magnetic sensors combine modes to discriminate real targets. It will be routine for SR units both to emplace such sensors for regional monitoring by higher headquarters' remote sensing centers, but also as an improvement over tripwires and other improvised warnings for the patrol.

Passive acoustic sensors provide additional measurements that can be compared with signatures, and used to complement other sensors. For example, a ground search radar may not be able to differentiate between a tank and a truck moving at the same speed. Adding acoustic information, however, may quickly distinguish between them.


Capture of enemy equipment for TECHINT analysis is a basic SR mission. Capture of enemy equipment for examination by TECHINT specialists may be a principal part of SR patrols and larger raids, such as the WWII Operation Biting raid on Bruneval, France, to capture a German Würzburg radar. They also captured a German radar technician.

As is not atypical for such operations, a technical specialist, radar engineer Flight Sergeant C.W.H. Cox, was attached to the SR unit. On a number of occasions, technical specialists without SR training, some taking their first parachute jump, have gone with TECHINT-oriented missions.

Cox told them what to take, and what to photograph that could not be moved. Cox had significant knowledge of British radar, and there have been conflicting reports that the force was under orders to kill him rather than let him be captured. [18]. This was suggested an after-the-action rumor, as Cox was a technician, and the true radar expert that could not be captured, Don Preist, stayed offshore but in communications with the raiders.[18] Preist also had ELINT equipment to gain information on the radar.

While publicizing this operation helped British morale, it was poor security. Had the force destroyed the site and retreated without any notice, the Germans might have suspected, but could not know, what technology had been compromised. As a result, the Germans fortified their radar sites, and the British, realizing similar raids could be directed at them, moved their radar research center, the Telecommunications Research Establishment, farther inland.[18]

A mixture of SR, DA, and seizing opportunities characterized Operation Rooster 53, originally planned as a mission to locate and disable a radar, but that turned into an opportunity to capture the radar and, flying in overloaded helicopters, to bring the entire radar back to the electronic TECHINT analysts. This was a mission by Israel, centered around its Sayeret Matkal reconnaissance unit.

Specific Data Collection

SR teams may be assigned to observe and measure specific site or enemy facility information, in a manner similar to that done for targeting, but in this case for ground operations rather than suppression by fire. Regular ground forces, for example, might need a road and bridge surveyed to know whether heavy vehicles can cross it. The SR may be able to obtain the needed information with observation, photography, and other measurements, or they may need to be sure that an engineering specialist, preferably from a special operations organization, augments the team.

SR commanders need to make very sure that missions of these types cannot be performed by the organic reconnaissance and other elements of a maneuver force commander that is supported by the SR organization, as well as other supporting reconnaissance services such as IMINT.

For example, during the Falklands campaign of 1982, the UK Special Air Service delivered, using helicopters, eight 4-man patrols deep into enemy-held territory up to 20 miles from their hide sites, several weeks before the main conventional force landings. Each man carried equipment to last him up to 25 days or more due to resupply limitations (cf. the 7-day limits of conventional LRS patrols discussed above). The patrols surveyed major centers of enemy activity. The patrols reconnoitred the Argentinean positions at night, and then, due to the lack of cover, moved to distant observation posts (OP). Information gathered by these teams was relayed to the fleet by [secure radio] that was still not impervious from SIGINT that could locate their OPs. There was no common understanding of the threat of Argentinean direction finding, and different teams developed individual solutions. Both the value of the information, and the stress on the SR teams, was tremendous. Their activities were a major part of the force, limited in its sensors, developing an accurate operational picture of the opposition. [6].

Fire Related Missions

SR units do have the capability, as opposed to LRS troops, to engage targets of opportunity, but current doctrine emphasizes avoiding direct engagement as much as possible, concentrating on directing air (e.g., GAPS as well as CAS), artillery, and other heavy fire support onto targets. The doctrine of bringing increasingly more accurate and potent firepower, however, has been evolving significantly since the early days of Vietnam.[14]

SR units are trained for target analysis, which combines both engineer reconnaissance and special forces assessment to identify targets for subsequent attack by fire support, conventional units, or special operations (i.e., direct action or unconventional warfare behind enemy lines). They evaluate targets using the CARVER mnemonic[19]:

  • Criticality: How important, in a strategic context, is the target? What effect will its destruction have on other elements of the target system? Is it more important to have real-time surveillance of the target (e.g., a road junction) than its physical destruction?
  • Accessibility: Can an SR team reach or sense the target, keep it under surveillance for the appropriate time, and then exfiltrate after the target is struck?
  • Recuperability: When the target is destroyed by fire support or direct action, In the case of DA missions, can the enemy repair, replace, or bypass it quickly, minimum resources? If so, it may not be a viable target.
  • Vulnerability: do SR (including DA) and suporting units have the capability to destroy the target?
  • Effect: Beyond pure military effect are the political, economic, legal, and psychological effects of destroying the target? How would the attack affect local civilians?
  • Recognizability: Can the target be recognized clearly, by SR and attack forces, under the prevailing weather, light, and in its terrain? If there are critical points within the target, they also must be recognizable by the means of destruction used.

Target Acquisition

There are some differences between the general and the SR process of target acquisition: conventional units identify targets that directly affects the performance of their mission, while SR target acquisition includes identifying enemy locations or resources of strategic significance to a much wider scope. Examples of difficult strategic targets included Ho Chi Minh trail infrastructures and logistic concentrations, and the Scud hunt during Operation Desert Storm.[19]

SR units detect, identify, and locate targets to be engaged by lethal or nonlethal attack systems under the control of higher headquarters. SR also provides information on weather, obscuring factors such as terrain masking and camouflage, friendly or civilian presence in the target area, and other information that will be needed in targeting by independent attack systems.

During Operation Desert Storm, the US senior commanders, Colin Powell and H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr., were opposed to using ground troops to search for Iraqi mobile Scud launchers. Under Israeli pressure to send its own SOF teams into western Iraq, and the realization that British SAS were already hunting Scuds, US Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney proposed using US SR teams as well as SAS [20]. The senior British officer of the Coalition, Peter de la Billiere, was himself a former SAS commander, and was well-disposed to SAS use. While Schwarzkopf was known to be a general opponent of SOF, Cheney approved the use of US SOF to hunt for the launchers.[14]

On February 7, US SR teams joined British teams in the hunt for mobile Scud launchers [21]. Open sources contain relatively little operational information about U.S. SOF activities in western Iraq. Some basic elements have emerged, however. Operating at night, Air Force MH-53 Pave Low and Army MH-47E helicopters would ferry SOF ground teams and their specially equipped four-wheel-drive vehicles from bases in Saudi Arabia to Iraq [22]. The SOF personnel would patrol during the night and hide during the day. When targets were discovered, Air Force Combat Control teams accompanying the ground forces would communicate over secure radios to AWACS.

Directing fire support

SR, going back to Vietnam, were far more potent when they directed external firepower onto the target than engaging it with their own weapons. Early coordination between SR and air support in Vietnam depended on visual and voice communications, without any electronics to make the delivery precise. SR teams could throw colored smoke grenades as a visual reference, but they needed to be in dangerously close range to the enemy to do so. A slightly improved method involved their directing a Forward Air Controller aircraft to fire marking rockets onto the target, but the method was fraught with chances for error.

In Vietnam, the support was usually aircraft-delivered, although in some cases, the target might be in range of cannon artillery. Today, the distance to which SR teams penetrate will usually be out of the range of artillery, but ground-launched missiles might support them. In either case, directing any support relies on one of two basic guidance paradigms:

  • Go-Onto-Target (GOT) for moving targets,
  • Go-Onto-Location-in-Space (GOLIS) for fixed targets

For close air support (CAS), the assumption had been that rapidly changing tactical situations, including sudden changes in geometry between friendly forces and the target, GOT was assumed. If the attack was to be guided from the ground, either the target would be directly illuminated with some equivalent way of putting a virtual "hit me here" indication on the target, such as a laser designator.

Offset GOLIS

An alternative, although less preferred because it was much more error-prone, was to put a reference point on the ground that told the weapon "hit over there in relation to my position." A smoke grenade, indeed, was a reference point, but an imprecise one from the air.

Offset beacons work reasonably well for direct-fire helicopter and fixed-wing gunships (e.g., AC-130), and for "dumb" bomb drops by fighter-bombers. Offset is not as accurate as straight-line firing, but, especially when night or weather effects limit visibility, it may be the only alternative. Offset beacons, as well as passive reflectors, can be used for radar attack, although it is not as accurate as radar. Gunships typically make multiple passes, with the SR team air controller giving corrections by voice.

Offset firing is not as accurate as direct mode of fire and are normally used in poor weather conditions with the ground commander or team leader calling misses and corrections to the aircraft. As a rule, the shorter the offset distance, the more accurate the weapon. [23]

The early Afghanistan attempts still required voice coordination to give the bomber the coordinates [24]. This led to one "friendly fire" incident killed three United States Army Special Forces soldiers and wounded 19 others. A controller had been using a hand-held GPS receiver, whose battery failed. On replacing the battery, the unit reinitialized to show the controller's own position, not the offset from it he had been targeting. He passed the coordinates to a B-52 crew, who had no way of knowing it was the wrong position. They entered it as given, and the JDAM flew accurately and unfortunately onto its own controller's position.[25]

Ground-Aided Precision Strike (GAPS)

It had long been assumed that close air support needed direct target marking by a ground or air observer, typically with a laser. Another approach was to specify the target in relation to a beacon. SR had had the capability to use laser designators for the GOT model, but that required they stay in line of sight of the target, possibly exposing themselves. Another model, more precise than the smoke grenade, was to place a radio or radar offset beacon near the target, but the SR troops still face the problem of precise angular and distance measurement from the beacon to the target. In the Afghanistan campaign of 2001, a new technique was adopted, only recently believed possible: ground-aided precision strike (GAPS)[25]. To put GAPS in practice, MG Daniel Leaf, USAF Director of Operational Requirements for Air and Space Operations said, in 2002, "If you had offered the B-1 with JDAMs in direct support of ground forces as a solution 10 years ago, I would have laughed heartily because it’s not what we envisioned." The JDAM's principal guidance mechanism is inertial, with a GPS correction option: a GOLIS model.

"CAS and GAPS operations do not care what color of airpower is delivering the weapons. Certain segments of the USAF wanted to break out the use of heavy bombers and term it “bomber CAS. However, at the joint CAS symposium held at Eglin, the Navy and Marine Corps were successful in not letting the Air Force call this by a different name.

"If heavy bombers are supporting ground troops in the traditional CAS role, then a name change for that aspect is not needed. [What is being discussed, however, is a new mission:] "Precision firepower called in by TACPs on the ground [is] GAPS and [needs its own doctrine]. The situation in Afghanistan was unique; there was not a large-standing opposing army that was conducting maneuvers to bring firepower to bear against our forces... Airpower was the maneuvering element that was supported by the small fire support teams on the ground. The small ground units have been instrumental in calling in the precise air strikes [especially when Army Special Forces were augmented with Air Force combat controllers]. This emerging mission goes beyond the joint definition of CAS.[25]

At first, US Special Forces teams used COTS device, called the Viper, which combined off-the-shelf Leica GeoSystems Viper laser range finder binoculars, with integral compass and inclinometer but no GPS, to triangulate targets in Afghanistan. The Viper is capable of a lasing distance from 25 meters to 4,000 meters. The unit runs off of a commercial camera battery. The Special Forces operator radioed their own location, as determined by a separate GPS, and gave Viper-derived coordinates relative to that position, to the bomber. [24] Voice communication did not provide full situation awareness for all forces involved.

General Chuck Horner, the joint air commander during Desert Storm, likened it to giving infantrymen a "2000 pound hand grenade" (i.e., a 2000 pound JDAM guided bomb) from a long-range bomber loitering overhead [26].

Enhanced GAPS

In the Air Force GAPS doctrine, Army SR teams are augmented with Air Force combat controllers. The Viper system, however, allowed communications between one team and only one aircraft. More advanced systems allow network-centric warfare that can send the optimal aircraft to the target, using linkages with the Joint Tactical Information Distribution System (JTIDS), especially the Link-16 [27] variant that can send information to fighters and Army Enhanced Position Location Reporting System (EPLRS) terminals.

The current combined Modular Advance Reconnaissance System (MARS) combines the Viper laser range finder, GPS receiver, and appropriate computing and display. The terminal controller would then transmit the coordinates via voice radio to the aircraft. Systems that give better situation awareness are under development.

Basic Fire Support Safety

In fire support, the aircraft does not just need a position to destroy the target. In CAS operations there will always be friendly troops in near proximity to the enemy. In order to bomb the target without killing the friendlies, the aircrew must be in voice contact with the TACP who guides the aircraft to the correct target. In other words, it is not enough just to lase the target and pass the location to the aircrew while calling GAPS. The MARS equipment provided the location of the target and the terminal controller position on a moving map display to the aircraft would greatly benefit situational awareness. After a friendly fire incident, however, deficiencies in giving the bomber the precise location of the SR tem became apparent.

To assist the bomber in identifying the target, the Air Force combat controller with the SR could lase prominent terrain features as well as the target.The aircrew could watch their aircraft on a display as it flew to the correct target. Other possible applications of this electro-optical viewing system could include images of the post-strike damage.

Reducing Fratricide

The friendly fire incident, caused by battery replacement and reinitialization of the GPS not to the target location but that of the SR team, could have been avoided. It could have been avoided if someone, on the bomber, on a command & control aircraft, or at an operations center, had full awareness of the situation. Situational awareness, in this case, means having positive confirmation of several key data:

  1. Positions, and movement if any, of any friendly forces and civilians in the area
  2. Positions, and movement if any, of the target
  3. Means by which the TACP identified the target and the precision of those means, and positive verification of the TACP's identity
  4. A means of communicating with the TACP, and with the bomber if another center is controlling the attack
  5. Location, course, and speed of all aircraft that could deliver the requested attack
  6. Nature of the weapon requested, including its delivery precision

Accurate situational awareness also requires minimizing human error in data entry. Inputting errors are fallibilities that can be removed from the system. US Air Force Chief of Staff John P. Jumper said data is best fed directly into a weapon and then merely confirmed by the human in the loop. Manual data entry, particularly in the cockpit, should be avoided wherever possible.

A radar or other electronic beacon, separate from the targeting system, meets the first requirement. For example, the US is providing the SMP-1000 beacons to TACP parties. It weighs approximately one pound, and the B-52 radar can detect it from 90 miles away within 1000 feet of precision.

Another system, the Grenadier beyond line-of-sight reporting and tracking (BRAT) provides more information than the simple beacon, but is not man-portable. A smaller version, the minitransmitter—MTX—system, is under development, which will not rely only on the bomber's radar, but will have its own GPS receiver and radio transmitter to send .s grid location, speed, direction, and mission status of the aircraft and the TACP. Alternate developments also are underway.

Poststrike Reconnaissance

Poststrike reconnaissance is the distant or close visual, photographic, and/or electronic surveillance of a specific point or area of operational or strategic significance that has been subjected to attack (lethal or nonlethal). Its purpose is to measure results of such activity. SR units carry out these missions when no other capabilities, such as conventional ground forces, local scouts and aviation, UAVs and other systems under the control of higher headquarters, and national-level intelligence collection capabilities cannot obtain the needed information.

GAPS doctrinal changes

JDAM has brought a new dimension to the GAPS mission. Rules of engagement changes are necessary to allow full-unrestricted use of this capability[25]. Bombers and other aircraft can deliver the JDAM precisely on known coordinates through the weather, miles away from the target. The terminal controller will not have the delivering aircraft in sight. Different ROE that is flexible enough to support JDAM deliveries must be instituted to allow future use ofthis unique capability.

The decision to fully develop which system is long overdue. If GAPS is to mature, then a positive means for identifying the friendly ground forces to the attacking aircraft is required. A common system that allows the services to talk to one another is necessary. This is the only way to ensure reduction of friendly fire incidents.

Newer versions of JDAM and other precision-guided munitions have even more complex implications. The laser offset technique allows a SR party to laser-designate a spot in the general vicinity in the target, but not close enough to it to activate laser warning receivers. The incoming munition senses the spot and uses it to identify the area that it should search with its autonomous terminal guidance sensor.

Operational Techniques

Their mission is not to engage in direct combat. It may be to observe and report, or it may include directing air or artillery attacks on enemy positions. If the latter is the case, the patrol still tries to stay covert; the idea is that the enemy obviously knows they are being attacked, but not who is directing fire.

While it is rare for a single man to do a special reconnaissance mission, it does happen. More commonly, the smallest unit is a two-man sniper team. Even though snipers teams' basic mission is to shoot enemy personnel or equipment, they are skilled in concealment and observation, and can carry out pure reconnaissance missions of limited durations. The US Marine Corps often detaches sniper teams organic to combat units, to establish clandestine observation posts.

Marine Force Recon Greenside Operations are those in which combat is not expected. US Army Special Forces SR operations commonly are built around 12-man "A detachments" or 6-man "split A detachments". UK Special Air Service operations build up from four-man units.


Special reconnaissance teams, depending on training and resources, may enter the area of operations in many ways. They may stay behind, where the unit deliberately stays hidden in an area that is expected to be overrun by advancing enemy forces. They may infiltrate by foot, used when the enemy does not have full view of his own lines, such that skilled soldiers can move through their own front lines and, as a small unit, penetrate those of the enemy. Such movement is most often by night.

They may have mechanical help on the ground, such as tactical four-wheel-drive vehicles (e.g., dune buggies or long-wheelbase Land Rovers) or motorcycles. The British Special Air Service pioneered in vehicle SR, going back to North Africa in WWII. In Desert Storm, US SR forces used medium and heavy helicopters to carry in vehicles for the Scud Hunt.

US Army Special Forces units working with the Afghan Northern Alliance did ride horses, and there may be other pack or riding animals capabilities.

SR units can move by air, especially with special operations helicopters such as the MH-53 Pave Low or the MH-47, both of which can carry vehicles; these will be joined by the CV-22 special operations tilt-rotor aircraft. They can use a variety of helicopter techniques, using fast disembarking by rope, ladder, or fast exit, at night; on shorter-range missions, they might operated from the lighter MH-6 or MH-60 Nighthawk special operations helicopters. Alternatively, they can parachute, typically by night, and using the HALO or HAHO jump technique so their airplane does not alert the enemy.

Appropriately trained and equipped SR personnel can come by sea. They can use boats across inland water or from a surface ship or even a helicopter-launched boat. Another option is underwater movement, by swimming or delivery vehicle, from a submarine or an offshore surface ship. Some highly trained troops, such as US Navy SEALs or British Special Boat Service may parachute into open water, go underwater, and swim to the target.


Units on short missions may carry all their own supplies, but, on longer missions, will need resupply. Typically, SR units are used to the area of operations, and are quite comfortable with local food if necessary. Since highly secure radios can be detected and located, although a very sophisticated enemy, using airborne or spaceborne receivers, may be needed. It is simply good practice to make transmissions as short and precise as possible. One way of shortening messages is to define a set of codes, typically two-letter, for various prearranged packages of equipment. Those starting with "A" might be for ammunition, "F" for food, and "M" for medical. Burst transmission is another radio security technique.

When long-range or long-duration patrols need resupply, a variety of techniques are used, all involving tradeoffs of security, resupply platform range and stealth, and the type and amount of resupply needed. When the SR patrol is in an area where the enemy knows there might be some patrol activity, helicopters may make a number of quick touchdowns, all but one simply to mislead the enemy. If it reasonably certain that the enemy knows some patrols are present, but not where, the helicopters may even make some touchdowns more likely to be observed, but leave boobytrapped supplies.

They may need to have wounded personnel replaced, and sometimes evacuated. In some extreme situations, and depending strongly on the particular organization, wounded personnel who cannot travel may be killed by their own side, to avoid capture, with potential interrogation, perhaps under torture, and compromise of the special reconnaissance mission. Killing wounded personnel is described as a feature of Soviet and Russian Spetsnaz doctrine[5]. A variant described for US personnel was explained to a US forward air controller, by a MACV-SOG officer,

"If I decide that there’s no way we can effect your rescue [in Cambodia], I’ll order the gunships to fire at you to prevent the enemy from getting their hands on you. I can’t risk having any of the [recon] teams compromised if they take you alive."[15]


Most of the same methods used to infiltrate may be used to exfiltrate. Stay-behind forces may wait until friendly forces arrive in their area.

One of the more common means of exfiltration is by special operations helicopters. There are a number of techniques that do not require the helicopter to land, in which the SR team clips harnesses to ropes or rope ladders, and the helicopter flies away to an area where it is safe for them to come aboard. Small helicopters, such as the MH-6, have benches outside the cabin, onto which trained soldiers can quickly jump and strap in.

SR Communications-Electronics

Without modern military electronics, and occasionally civilian ones, modern SR is fundamentally different than special soldiers that took on such risky missions, but with unreliable communications and a constant danger of being located through them. Human-to-human electronics are not the only critical advance. Navigational systems such as GPS, with backups to them, have immense value. GPS tells the patrol its location, but laser rangefinders and other equipment can tell them the exact location of a target, which they can then send to a fire support unit. Strong encryption, electronic counter-countermeasures, and mechanisms, such as burst transmission to reduce the chance of being located all play a role.

Current trends in secure communications, light and flexible enough for SR patrols to carry, are based on the evolving concept of software defined radio. The immensely flexible Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) is deployed with NATO special operations units, and can provide low-probability-of-intercept encrypted communications between ground units, from ground to aircraft, or from ground to satellite. It lets a SR team use the same radio to operate on several networks, also allowing a reduced number of spare radios. Some of the raiders on the Son Tay raid carried as many as five radios.

JTRS closely integrates with target designators that plug into it, so that a separate radio is not required to communicate with precision-guided munition launchers. While UAVs obviously involve more technologies than electronics, the availability of man-portable UAVs for launch by the patrol, as well as communications between the patrol and a high-performance UAV, may result in fundamentally new tactical doctrines.

Software defined radio, along with standard information exchange protocols such as JTIDS Link 16, are enabling appropriate communications and situation awareness, reducing the chance of fratricide, across multiple military services. The same basic electronic device [28] can be an Air Force Situation Awareness Data Link (SADL) device that communicates between aircraft doing close air support, but also can exchange mission data with Army Enhanced Position Location Reporting System (EPLRS) equipment. Again, the same basic equipment interconnects EPLRS ground units.

Reporting during and after the mission

The debriefing may be done by HUMINT officers of their own organization, who are most familiar with their information-gathering techniques. Information from SR patrols is likely to contribute to human intelligence (HUMINT) collection, but, depending on the mission, may also contribute to imagery intelligence (IMINT), TECHINT, SIGINT, and measurement and signature intelligence (MASINT) Some of those techniques may be extremely sensitive and held on a need-to-know basis within the special reconnaissance organization and the all-source intelligence cell.

SR will report the basic information, such as

  • Size
  • Activity
  • Location
  • Unit
  • Time
  • Equipment. They will provide map overlays, photography, and, when they have UAV/IMINT, SIGINT or MASINT augmentation, sensor data.

SR troops, however, also are trained in much more advanced reporting, such as preparing multiple map overlays of targets, lines of communications, civilian and friendly concentrations, etc. They can do target analysis, and also graph various activities on a polar chart centered either on an arbitrary reference or on the principal target.


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