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.
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.