Inside The Pentagon
by Elaine M. Grossman
February 10, 2005
Pg. 1

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Does the modular brigade need armed recon facilitators?

Army cavalry officers are engaged in a heated debate with others in the service — and the Defense Department more broadly over the question of whether U.S. forces will be required to “fight for information” into the future, or if instead advanced sensors and computers will render that longstanding mission obsolete.

At service headquarters and the Joint Staff, nearly all contemplation of the nature of future combat centers on such concepts as employing “network-centric warfare” and achieving “full-spectrum dominance” through “information superiority.” The Army has built these ideas into its notional force of the future, in which the service reorganizes around brigade-size units that are to be “modular” and operate more independently.

But even amid a growing swell of excitement throughout the services for these “transformational” ideas, Army cavalry officers largely shun the catch phrases in favor of embracing an old-fashioned approach they call the “fight for information.”

Perhaps nowhere has that view coalesced more than at Ft. Carson, CO. The Colorado Springs base may be just a two-hour drive from Denver, but in some respects officers serving with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment there could be light years away from many of their Pentagon counterparts.

Drawing off lessons U.S. troops have learned from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, cavalry leaders — many of them now war veterans themselves — say the best understanding U.S. forces have developed about insurgents and other enemy fighters has come only after making direct contact in battle. Before forcing an enemy’s hand, it is often difficult to understand his true intentions, motives, morale or capabilities, these officers say. Wartime lessons show that reliably predicting an adversary’s behavior prior to engaging in battle could be impossible, they say.

That view may be regarded as near heresy among those who believe advanced sensors and computers can someday soon virtually eliminate the fog of war by erasing uncertainty about an adversary’s stance and perhaps even his plans.

“We must acknowledge the fact that forces will have to continue to fight for information and we must continue to organize, train and equip formations to do so,” Col. H.R. McMaster, the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment commander, wrote last summer in an e-mail widely circulated in the Army. Enemy countermeasures like concealment, dispersion, deception and intermingling with civilian populations will continue to vex America’s advanced technologies, he wrote.

“The information we desire most about the enemy — his real fighting power and his intentions — lie in the psychological and human dimensions rather than the physical,” McMaster wrote. “We must … acknowledge that the enemy plays a role in the future course of events and recognize that the enemy will develop countermeasures (tactical as well as technological) to any capability we develop.”

Despite that view, the Army’s initial concept for modular “units of action” assumes technology will offer troops such a clear picture of the enemy before a battle begins that these new brigades will be able to operate with near impunity, assaulting at times and places of their own choosing, according to an issue paper McMaster wrote in November 2003 while completing a fellowship at Stanford University in California.

The unit of action — or “UA” — under development and experimentation by the Army “is intended to be a ‘system of systems’ that is ‘empowered by dominant situational understanding resident in a vibrant knowledge network,’” McMaster wrote in the paper, quoting a 2003 Army posture statement.

But trimmed down for quick deployment and agility, the UA will lack an adequate ability to probe enemy disposition and intentions, or protect itself when surprised by enemy attack, McMaster argues.

Enter the cavalry regiment. The “3rd ACR” — as McMaster’s unit is known for short — is the last of its kind, with the Army last year converting the 2nd Cavalry Regiment into a light “Stryker Brigade.” Among the capabilities that make the 3rd ACR unique is that every soldier — regardless of mission specialty — is trained as a reconnaissance “scout,” able to collect and disseminate intelligence. Further, air-ground capabilities and support functions are built into the regiment, training and operating year-round with one another.

McMaster argues that as part of the Army’s new force concept, his 5,200-troop regiment not only should be maintained into the future, but become a model for more such brigade-sized units. The cavalry regiment might act as a facilitator for the swifter and more agile UAs, he says.

The regiment boasts 123 M1A2 main battle tanks, 125 M3A2 Bradley fighting vehicles, 16 AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, 24 OH-58D Kiowa reconnaissance helos and 15 UH-60L troop-carrying helos, among other weapon and support platforms.

“A cavalry formation, with its integrated air and ground capabilities — the mobile protected firepower that we have — compensates for the small [UA] packages that we can put out widely dispersed,” McMaster told Inside the Pentagon in a Jan. 7 interview at his home. The regiment has “the ability to integrate air-ground [capabilities] and conduct logistical support … We could secure those wide areas,” he said.

Each of the regiment’s battalion commanders — called “squadron” commanders in the cavalry — can draw off of not only the normal complement of company-level elements, but also an organic howitzer battery they train with all the time. And each squadron has its own aviation and tank companies.

“In a typical divisional brigade, they’ll task-organize when they go.

They’ll bring in tanks, and they’ll give up some of their Bradley vehicles to that other brigade,” Maj. Robert Short, the 3rd ACR intelligence director, told ITP in a Jan. 6 interview. “We already have that mix put together. It’s already tied in and our guys are always operating together.”

The ability to carry out even some traditionally depot-level maintenance on aircraft and vehicles within the regiment is particularly critical to uninterrupted operations, officers say.

One disadvantage to relying on tracked vehicles like the tanks and Bradleys is they require steady maintenance to keep running. They are generally more difficult to transport to hotspots and, once there, slower on-the-move than their lightly armored, wheeled counterparts. But they also generally provide greater force protection, more firepower and better maneuverability over difficult terrain.

At the regiment, Short has his own 70-person intelligence center — normally found at the division level — to collect, analyze and disseminate battlefield information.

The cavalry unit typically is assigned to a three-star general who commands a corps or joint task force.

“We’ve got fighting vehicles and combat vehicles that allow us to position ourselves and gain contact with an enemy and maintain that contact. And [we] report back to that corps commander, ‘Hey, this is where the bad guys are. You need to start moving,’” Short said. “He makes the decision to reposition a typical division-type element so you can come back in there and fight. Meanwhile, we maintain the contact and let him know what’s going on.”

The armored cavalry also is considered an “economy of force” unit trained to operate over wide areas, officers say. After U.S. forces took Baghdad in the 2003 war in Iraq, the 3rd ACR was assigned to Anbar province, a vast swath of land the size of California that includes borders with Syria and Saudi Arabia. Some troops refer to the area as the “Wild West,” as it has served as terrain for nomadic tribes, smugglers, fugitives and insurgent resupply.

During that period, the regiment was augmented with infantry, engineers, military police and civil affairs troops, swelling its numbers to 8,200, Short said.

Without the cavalry’s big guns from the air and ground, “what you think of as an intelligence collector would walk in and get killed,” Short said of such an environment. Conversely, in the cavalry, “these guys bring a little backup and fight. They can fight their way in and fight their way out.”

Though “accountants will not like this,” that kind of reconnaissance and security support is exactly what the UAs require if they are to operate on a widespread, “distributed” battlefield, as the Army envisions, McMaster argued in the e-mail last summer.

“Cavalry is combined arms and cavalry represents our whole Army in one little package,” McMaster said in the interview. But it does not exist in isolation, he said. The cavalry’s key principle for security operations is, “Orient on the main body,” he said. That means “everything we do has to be relevant and useful to the forces that we’re there supporting by conducting reconnaissance and security,” McMaster explained.

“We could also conduct a security operation forward of these units of action so they can move unimpeded [and] keep the maximum numbers uncommitted to fights, so they can achieve greater speed of action,” the colonel said. “We could also help transition between a fight . . . that employs surveillance platforms and joint fires to a close fight with the enemy, based on the enemy’s ability to foil those technological capabilities with dispersion, concealment [or] intermingling with civilian populations.”

Lacking the tools to fight for information in a future, sensor-dependent world, the UAs might be anything but aggressive when faced with an ill-understood adversary, McMaster worries.

“Leaders will be predispositioned to wait for information rather than take resolute action,” he writes in his 2003 paper. “Indeed, they will have to act cautiously to ensure their force’s survival. Ironically, a force that was designed to be fast and agile will operate ponderously.”

UA commanders might alternatively use the cavalry to facilitate their own missions: “We can find that enemy. We could isolate strong enemy positions, we can determine what their real fighting power is based on their training level, morale, their intentions,” he argued in last month’s interview. “We can reveal their intentions.”

In this way, “when these units of action are employed, they’re employed in such a way as to maximize their capabilities, strike against enemy weakness while we help isolate the strength. That’s what cavalry has always done,” he said.

The alternative could be that the 3rd ACR will be converted into a UA identical to others being formed, Army officials say. The Fort Carson unit is slated to undergo a transformation in fiscal year 2006, after it returns from its second yearlong deployment to Iraq, according to these officials.

But Army headquarters has not yet said how 3rd ACR will change. Though McMaster and his top officers would like to play a role in that discussion, their immediate focus has been preparing for Iraq, they say.

Generally, the Army has delineated two major types of UAs: “maneuver” and “support.” Among the maneuver UAs, the service is creating some “heavy” brigades and other, lighter “infantry” brigades. As a vanguard unit in the transformation plan, the 3rd Infantry Division at Ft. Stewart, GA, has reorganized its maneuver brigades into heavy UAs (ITP, Jan. 22, 2004, p1). At the same time, the 10th and 101st divisions are converting their combat brigades to infantry UAs, according to the Army.

Support UAs come in different varieties, including: “aviation,” “maneuver enhancement,” “fires,” “sustainment,” and “reconnaissance and surveillance,” according to the Army.

The reconnaissance and surveillance UAs have officially been termed “RSTA,” short for “reconnaissance, surveillance and target attack.” The service reportedly intends to build about five such RSTA brigades.

But there has been great concern in the cavalry community — which extends beyond the 3rd ACR to those who have previously served in such regiments or in smaller cavalry units tied to divisions — that these new RSTA UAs would be ill-equipped and inadequately trained to fight for information or to defend themselves, Army officials say.

Moreover, it appears plans for similarly structured reconnaissance battalions — which would be part of infantry UAs — regard these units as relatively interchangeable with other battalions. They may be limited to performing intelligence functions solely within their battalion area rather than for the higher headquarters’ entire area of operations, as cavalry units have done in the past, sources tell ITP.

If the same approach is taken to creating the larger RSTA brigades, the concern is that a division commander will lack “organic” reconnaissance assets that he can tap to advise him on enemy disposition anywhere in his area of responsibility.

“Is that exactly the right organization for the unit of action — the way the RSTA squadron is organized?” McMaster asked in the interview last month, using the cavalry term “squadron” for what are called “battalions” in the infantry. “The Army is taking a hard look at that now.”

In fact, Army officers hotly debated the issue during a “reconnaissance summit” held at Ft. Benning, GA, in mid-January, service officials say. The discussion revealed some stark differences in thinking. One official reportedly argued the term “cavalry” should be eliminated from discussion of the RSTA battalions, while others insisted the Army must retain a significant capability to fight for information, according to sources familiar with the event.

“I would argue that we need to take a hard look at it, and that the [RSTA] structure may have been influenced by some flawed assumptions about not having to fight for information,” McMaster told ITP. “You know, being able to use surveillance and information technologies to lift the fog of war, remove ambiguity — and I think we’ve proven every day in Afghanistan and Iraq that’s not the case.”

The regiment commander added that the Army has begun calling the reconnaissance elements of heavy UAs “armed reconnaissance squadrons,” which he regards as an affirmation that intelligence collection must continue to be backed up by weapons.

“The Army’s already moving in that direction, to make that squadron more capable of fighting for information,” McMaster said. “I think we’ll get it right, over time, as long as we keep an open mind and don’t try to force this thing to work. If we don’t think it’s working, [we] keep modifying it.”

During a Jan. 6 regiment-wide exercise at Ft. Carson, McMaster urged his unit leaders to continuously view the battlespace as a whole and visualize the enemy’s evolving disposition in it (ITP, Jan. 27, p1). He urged them to use the new technologies as tools to aid their understanding, but not to rely on sensors alone to tell them all that they need to know.

“We need a holistic, unified view of what is happening in our training area,” McMaster said at the battlefield update briefing. “Because the value of this information is limited in time, we need to react to it very quickly. The drag on that is we are reacting to the incident itself … We need to get inside the mind of the enemy who is doing this attack.”

“Our Army is striving to be a campaign quality Army, which implies the ability to sustain operations — high speed, offensive operations without pause,” McMaster told ITP in the interview. That requires an “the ability to deliver multiple blows against the enemy from unexpected directions so that you seize and retain the initiative so you can finish a campaign rapidly,” he said. “And then transition quickly into the kind of security [and stability] role that we find ourselves in in Iraq. And I think cavalry assists you in doing all that.”

“Just like the 82nd Airborne is its own unique unit, we are our own unique unit,” Short agreed in the interview last month. “Occasionally you’ve just got to have that one thing, and we bring that one [capability] for fighting for information.”

Elaine M. Grossman

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