The Many Flavors of Strategic Reconnaissance

RT Asp, ready to go, 6 men. Top center is CPT Garry Robb, later Recon Co. Commander.

There’s combat reconnaissance, and there’s strategic reconnaissance.

What’s the difference, and why is one a SOF mission?

Combat reconnaissance is conducted locally by troops in contact or close to the battle area, in order to gather combat intelligence about the organization, disposition, and (ideally) intentions of the enemy. It is a standard infantry mission that every rifle unit from the fire team up can and does train on and conduct. Other branches also conduct combat reconnaissance — it;’s a major raison d’être for cavalry, and armor units often task-organize a reconnaissance element. It’s just good business. Reconnaissance elements try to be a stealthy as possible, without sacrificing mission accomplishment, and in the best cases conduct their reconnaissance covertly, undetected by the enemy. (This is very difficult to do. When the enemy’s  in range of your observations, you’re ipso facto in range of his).

Strategic reconnaissance is meant to winkle out the enemy’s organization, disposition, and (ideally) intentions from far beyond the battle area, including in his rear areas, safe areas or sanctuaries, and even his home bases and home nation. It often requires long and technical infiltrations (HALO, kayaks, scout swimming, crossing “impassible” mountains, SDVs). Some operations may be covert, some must be clandestine, and some may proceed under (in technical, tradecraft terms) cover. These technicalities are what pushes SR to SOF.

Strategic reconnaissance can be carried out, after a fashion, by aircraft, spacecraft, and drones, but so can tactical, combat reconnaissance. The initial use of aircraft in World War I was exclusively for combat intelligence, although both Germany and Britain evolved strategic aerial reconnaissance to support their early efforts at strategic bombing by the end of hostilities.

This RE. 8 was typical of Great War reconnaissance planes.

Some forms of reconnaissance, those involving your armed military personnel on, over, or under your enemy’s land, airspace or water, are violations of international law and present a potential casus belli. This type of strategic reconnaissance generally is kept on a short leash by national political authorities. For one example, during the Vietnam War, operations to penetrate North Vietnamese sanctuaries in nominally-neutral Cambodia and Laos — even reconnaissance operations — required National Command Authority (President/SECDEF) release, and in Laos, the longtime US Ambassador demanded to be notified of the insertion and extraction schedule and location of every reconnaissance team. Normally such high-ranking political officials do not concern themselves with the actions of six men led, usually, by a first- or second-enlistment sergeant; but when that sergeant is on a mission with high “International Incident” potential, all bets are off.

In the Vietnam War, one thing we did was determine the ground truth inside South Vietnam — something that the RVN would lie to each other about, never mind us longnoses — through a strategic process of area reconnaissance. The way this worked was to emplace Special Forces camps in all four military regions of South Vietnam, but especially in areas where enemy activity (combat or transit) was heavy. Each camp was manned by an A-Team, often some attachments, and a force of local combatants who were hired directly by SF, which got them higher pay than an ARVN draftee, arguably better leadership, and exemption from the RVN draft. Each team conducted reconnaissance around its camp and reported this ground truth back to Nha Trang, whence it went to RVN and US generals in Saigon and Cam Ranh Bay.

In the consolidation phase of the Afghanistan war, we did something similar, with teams sent to locations — the terminology for the locations varied, with safe house, team house, operating location and FOB all having a moment in the sun (here or there, now or then). The guys operating didn’t much care what home plate was called, as it was just a place to operate from and the unit was known by its callsign, wherever it was. (Use of 100% encrypted communications meant that awkward random callsigns could be dropped, and commanders could pick their callsigns, a temptation to grandiloquence that few commanders resisted).

Historically, there have been many brilliant reconnaissance operations that deserve deep study. One we have always admired for its practicality and daring was the Australian Coast Watchers in World War II. One-man (!) observation posts, defended and supported only by the loyalty of natives and relying on the jungle telegraph to stay ahead of Japanese patrols, kept the Allies informed of the travels of Japanese naval units and troopships, but also of the Achilles’s Heel of the Japanese Empire, merchant freighters and tankers. That information was put to work immediately to begin the long, hard work of strangling Japan.

(Interesting that earlier we wrote that it was a wartime adaptation, but actually, the site above reveals that Australian Naval Intelligence started a coast watcher network as early as 1919, and expanded it in 1935 in anticipation of hostilities. Good call).

It was a perfect example of a reconnaissance mode adapted to the enemy and the local conditions. Such a technique would not have worked as well against the Germans, given the much more built-up nature of Europe, and the deadly sophistication of Gestapo and Sicherheitsdienst radio direction-finding and cryptanalysis. In Norway, similar coast-watching by agents of the government in exile or of separate British SIS or SOE networks found transmitting very hazardous, and were forced to adopt stringent transmission security measures. (They still were usually successful, as a group, in keeping London informed of the comings and goings of the Kriegsmarine, but at the cost of several individual radiomen),

It is likely that the Japanese broke the simple Playfair cipher used by the early Coastwatchers, if they collected enough ciphertext. The IJA and especially the IJN had sophisticated signals intelligence and cryptanalysis capabilities, and broke many Allied codes and ciphers. What the Japanese didn’t seem to have was a way to operationalize this codebreaking and use it to target the Coastwatchers. Those Coastwatchers who were rolled up (usually to be murdered by the Japanese) were usually betrayed by natives, or caught by dismounted patrols.

For a strategic reconnaissance element, fixed positions can be hazardous, but so can moving. That is one reason that good, effective SR teams tend to be small. Your chance of exposure increases exponentially with each additional man in your moving element, and exposure need not be directly to the enemy, to lead the enemy to you regardless.

22 thoughts on “The Many Flavors of Strategic Reconnaissance


    Well Holy Coincidence Batman. I was going to suggest the Coastwatchers as a counter example to Rule 4 in the “Rules of SOF” post as I thought they’d been set up in response to the commencement of hostilities, only to also discover that they were a post WW1 innovation.

    If ever there was a courageous bunch of bastards, those blokes were it. Their effect on the Pacific war was vastly out of proportion to the numbers involved, so thanks for mentioning them here as I think very few people are aware of their efforts and they surely deserve to be remembered and honoured.

    And for the trivia fans…the WW1 RE-8 recce aircraft was universally known as the “Harry Tate”, thanks to the joys of Cockney rhyming slang.

  2. Chris

    When we went into Iraq, the various teams in our task force all chose their call-signs on a “marine life” theme. My team was Orca, buddies team was Stingray, so on and so forth. I shit you not, the battalion commander’s team was SpongeBob.

  3. robroysimmons

    And I thought the call signs in Generation Kill were Hollywood bullshit

    1. SemperFi, 0321

      Read up on SOG and how they named their teams for their regional AO.
      I’m extremely proud to have been taught by former SOG members at Counter Guerrilla Warfare School, Ft. Bragg, 1976, several of the instructor SNCO’s from 5th and 7th SFG had served in the teams in VN.
      Also got a chance to try their STABO rigs as opposed to our SPIE rigs for fast insert/extract.
      Still have my copy of B-52 tips from then, highly suggest you make a copy along with newer revisions and keep copy with your web gear.
      They were running a Recondo School at Ft. Bragg back then, had no idea it was a carryover from the same school in MACV. One of our other platoons got to go and now I wish like hell I’d made it also. I’m sure it was pretty much run by former SOG instructors also.

      1. Hognose Post author

        Recondo was a William Westmoreland innovation when he was in the 101st Airborne (I think when he was the DC). It lasted through Vietnam and for about a decade afterward. Units had their own schools and there was a pocket patch that you could only wear while in that unit.

        1. SemperFi, 0321

          Even though Marines don’t wear patches, I’m now pissed I didn’t get a Recondo patch (minus the MACV)!
          Hell, toughest school I ever went thru, Amphib Recon, had no pin, no patch, just a paper diploma, and most folks don’t even have a clue what it encompassed or how hard it was. Back then they rated it just under BUD/S and Ranger.

  4. Keith

    In the Battleline/AH game ‘Flattop’ the coast watchers were represented by a special rule that if an IJN ship passed by an island in daylight the player was required to give a full data spotting report. In Tom Kratman’s Terra Nova books there is a section were version of that worlds SF on a deep recon gets rolled up by the Balboan ‘s (Panama basically) and what happens to them shows the risks involved in doing that.

    Keep your powder dry and your faith in God.

  5. Aesop

    “Each team conducted reconnaissance around its camp and reported this ground truth back to Nha Trang, whence it went to RVN and US generals in Saigon and Cam Ranh Bay.”

    And from there, on to NVA generals in Hanoi, and back down to regional VC/NVA commanders.

    “Your chance of exposure increases exponentially with each additional man in your moving element, and exposure need not be directly to the enemy, to lead the enemy to you regardless.”
    As the few survivors of SAS team Bravo 20, ODA-525, and the Seals of Operation Redwing could all attest.

    While it may not be cricket to whack children and other civilians, if someone hasn’t developed some sort of hypo or aerosol spray concoction to knock ’em out for 24 hours or so, so they can be left behind, they’re still f***ing it up by the numbers.

  6. runalltheway

    I have a great book on the Australian Coast Watchers, will have to dig it out at home. From memory most of those guys were ex Police or plantation owners who had lived in the Islands for decades. The book I’m thinking of really brought across the toll that constantly waiting for your position to be betrayed took on the guys.

      1. runalltheway

        Apologies for a tardy reply – you’re correct, the book by Feldt is the one I have. Highly recommended.

        1. Hognose Post author

          I just pulled Walter Lord’s book off the shelf and was reading it in bed last night. It has considerable detail about the Coastwatchers it covers. What happened to them is, over 12-18 months of Japanese occupation, the natives previously loyal to white masters adapted to support yellow ones. Japanese propaganda themes were very effective. The fate of both Coastwatchers and some downed airmen they were trying to exfiltrate (by air or sub) was, in many cases, to be murdered by the Japanese when and where found, or to be held captive for a time and then murdered in captivity.

          Some of the natives that they made NCOs went out of their way to distinguish themselves.

          One counterpropaganda theme that was effective, when backed by action, was to target the native guides who led the Japs in to Watcher lairs. Many were doing this just for the benefits they were receiving. Adding a .303 slug to the benefits chart somewhat soured the picture, for those who were betraying for mercenary reasons.

          It was a vulnerability to be different, though. The Japanese were different, too, and few natives cared as much about either whites or east-asians enough to be loyal to them.

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  8. Lost in WV

    SR…. I always had an issue with the term ‘strategic’ as it is my opinion a misnomer.

    The execution of the reconnaissance mission may or may not include all the various facets of the SF toolkit, but the application of the toolkit is still conducted in a tactical SF manner, in any operational environment, whether covert, clandestine or even semi-overt.

    The execution is in itself not strategic…the information targeted or gained might be strategic import. The execution is still tactical (someone is going to be physically operating on the ground, whether hanging out in a coffee shop in town with long hair or all smelly and dirty while hunkered down in a hole in the ground near a line of communication).

    I applauded the adoption of the term Special Reconnaissance due to the above logic. Why? The term ‘special’ encompasses all of the so called ‘strategic’ toolkit facets that can also be applied to the more frequent need to employ these skills in support of ‘Tactical’ or ‘Operational’ levels/echelons of information requirements that might not be of the import to qualify as Strategic in nature.

    BTW…I was one of the “Tuna Fish Diet” boys…remember that one HG? Get your ketones kickin’!

  9. Swamp Fox

    SF version of SR should be a mix of tradecraft and field craft. Think Selous Scouts (Tracking Unit was a cover) or Road Runner teams and a recon team working the same target set.

    1. Lost in WV

      Bingo on your analysis. There were a couple of guys around in Group in the ’80s that had worked SS in a different life and their influence was felt by many of us who were fortunate to be in their informational blast radius.

  10. Some Guy in WA

    Thomas Leo Briggs wrote an outstanding book about his time as a CIA special operations officer in Laos, managing small teams who mainly conducted strategic reconnaissance and intelligence collection, as well as later managing air strikes.

    SOG guys crossing the border from RVN eventually became untenable due to the buildup of NVA forces along the trail, to where they would be intercepted almost immediately. Briggs’ solution with the Lao, who had the same issue, was to eliminate local insertion by helicopter and to give his guys cash to hitch a ride and walk the rest of the way! Fascinating and a story not covered in any of the histories of the US effort in Laos, of which I own essentially everything published – my father in law was a Forward Air Guide in a Savannakhet-based Special Guerrilla Unit.

    Cash on Delivery: CIA Special Operations During the Secret War in Laos

    1. Badger

      Ditto on the thanks; to be on the shelf shortly.

      I especially like the part about target area & insertion points not being phoned in & cc’d to the indigenous mole at MACV.

  11. Swamp Fox

    MACV-SOG failed when it did not establish a resistance movement in North Vietnam. All that SR stuff was an auxiliary task with the main effort to be the resistance movement in the North. They did a good job doing the SR but it had operational effects not strategic.

    Despite the tactical successes, SOG was neither strategically nor operationally useful in Vietnam. The ability to maneuver and conduct battles by the North Vietnamese was not impacted to any great degree by SOG’s activities other than what was already mentioned in the research. The unconventional war effort was more or less a nuisance to the North Vietnamese. History shows that they continued to maintain control of their rear area and move supplies and personnel to fight the war in South Vietnam. They were still strong enough to mount a major offensive in 1972 and again successfully in 1975. Thus, SOG did not contribute significantly to the Vietnam War effort. Had SOG operations been linked to the conventional fight and restrictions lessened or dropped, the unconventional war effort might have been more effective.

    The CIA partisan war in Laos was destine to fail as it was conventional in nature (natives dressed in ad hoc uniforms supplied by the CIA are still conventional if they conduct conventional TTP’s on the battlefield, different uniforms and sneaky Americans do not make it UW). There was no local political warfare going on in the villages of Laos to counter the communist lead village war, hell the Phoenix Program was only a half measure in SVN.

    Written by an SF officer who learned.

    Our generation is writing the same lesson learned, which is to bad.

    This ties it back to the Army Command Culture another SF officer

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