Over the last several years, the Department of Defense (DoD) has shut down training programs, disbanded specialized units, and wholly eliminated occupational specialties in certain branches. Unfortunately, the senior officers and government officials behind these decisions do so at the U.S.’s peril. Moreover, these actions will undoubtedly reduce military preparedness and effectiveness of response in future conflicts. Generally, decision-makers base these cuts on budgetary concerns, program redundancy, or perceived obsoleteness, but they can be strategically shortsighted, as history has shown.
In the past, whenever the DoD suspended a specialization or training program, it later found it needed it again for a later war and had to rebuild it from the ground up, often with a significant deficit of qualified personnel to train and lead these units or programs. For example, the U.S. Army Ranger School’s Desert Phase was first integrated into the course in 1983 and discontinued in 1995, despite ongoing operations in the Middle East and Africa. Almost a generation removed from the removal of Desert Phase, the U.S. Army lost invaluable personnel trained in desert warfare and survival in the years leading up to Operation Iraqi Freedom. Another perfect example to demonstrate this failure of foresight relates to the U.S. Army’s Sniper School.
During World War I, the Army did not have a formal advanced marksmanship course. Without a sharpshooter training program of their own, American snipers primarily heralded from the British 1st Army Sniping, Observation, and Scouting School led by Major Hesketh-Prichard. In World War II, the Army established an advanced marksmanship school in Camp Perry, OH, and officially created its first U.S. sniper school in 1955. However, the school was closed down in 1956 with the cessation of fighting at the end of the Korean War because senior Pentagon officials failed to identify or understand the tactical and operational effectiveness and benefits of snipers. In 1968, during the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army began training snipers in theater for rapid deployment into the field but suspended the program at the end of the conflict.
Finally, the U.S. Army Sniper School in Fort Benning, GA, was established in 1987 with a second school opening in 1993 at the National Guard Marksmanship Training Center in Camp Robinson, AR [the B4 (Sniper) course recently moved to Arkansas National Guard 233rd Regional Training Institute still on Camp Robinson]. Unfortunately, every time the Army suspended their sniper program, they lost valuable knowledge and experience as those trained in the skill transitioned out of the service, often taking years to develop the rekindled programs.
As the potential for an armed conflict with a peer or near-peer rival looms, the U.S. may soon face the same issues it did with the sniper program in the past. The National Defense Strategy and DoD training doctrine is transitioning away from counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations and low-intensity conflicts and back to force-on-force warfare. Still, the focus seemingly has shifted towards a greater reliance on advanced technology over skilled personnel. This article will address the recent disbanding of the Long-Range Surveillance (LRS) detachments and Asymmetric Warfare Group (AWG) and closure of Pathfinder School, and how these decisions will negatively impact the U.S. military’s combat capabilities and adaptability to dynamic engagements.
Long-Range Surveillance (LRS) Detachments
In 2017, the U.S. Army disbanded its one remaining LRS detachment, and by 2018 the remaining National Guard recon units were similarly disbanded. The primary reasons for this decision were that technological methods such as UASs (Unmanned Aerial Systems or drones) would fill the void left by the downsizing of the dismounted reconnaissance elements. Additionally, most Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs, the Army’s new unit organizational structure) already have recon platoons (twenty-five to forty personnel each) internal to their respective battalion or squadron commands. Unfortunately, commanders of these lower echelons often do not utilize their recon elements for their intended purpose. Instead, they relegate them to other duties such as protective security details (bodyguards), force protection (base security), or serving in traditional combat roles. The reasoning for this is two-fold.
First, man commanders often do not fully understand the capabilities of dismounted reconnaissance over UASs or the latter’s limitations. For example, UASs cannot often accurately determine if roads or bridges are traversable, notably heavier vehicles like tanks. Adverse weather or overhead foliage can limit operability and visibility for all but a drone’s most sophisticated sensors. Similarly, UASs cannot collect invaluable intelligence on various human security elements such as food, health, community, and politics. UASs are also mechanical and technological systems requiring constant repair and maintenance and are also vulnerable to electronic interference and cyber attack. Moreover, American air superiority is not assured in a conflict with a peer or near pear force, and UASs would also be susceptible to kinetic attacks. Finally, there are massive costs associated with the prolonged operation of UASs in an operational area, far more than even training a revolving door of specialized personnel.
Second, commanders do not want to assume the increased risk of sending small units far forward of friendly lines. In the last twenty years of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other obscure theaters of operation, the American public and by proxy military leaders, have increasingly shied from seemingly unnecessary risk. The firmly held belief is that UASs can do the job just as well as dismounted units, so risk the seven million dollar drone instead of American service members. Unfortunately, as explained above, the risk can be worth the reward.
Reinstating LRS would also allow lower echelon commanders to draw on other assets to support their missions, potentially leading to better utilization of their internal recon elements. The argument that a higher echelon element is redundant and unnecessary because of the smaller organizational sections is disingenuous and duplicitous. The irony in this justification is precisely why decision-makers also disbanded the U.S. Army Special Forces CRFs (Crisis Response Forces).
The rationale was that the CRFs’ primary mission was Counterterrorism, Hostage Rescue, and Direct-Action, which was redundantly covered. CAG (Combat Applications Group, 1st SFOD-D, or Delta Force) and DEVGRU (Development Group or SEAL Team 6) were already the primary units with these particular missions. Once again, commanders underutilized individual Special Forces Group CRFs because individual leaders did not use them adequately or efficiently. The Tier 1 units have counterterrorism, hostage rescue, and direct action missions covered runs counter to the justifications presented to disband LRS. The DoD should reinstate and retain CRFs and LRS for improved combat capability and versatility long-term and in the face of more significant threats.
Senior DoD decision-makers should give significant consideration to standing the LRS detachments back up, but with some slight organizational modifications to supplement current strategies and threats. Each Army division should have a dedicated LRS detachment assigned to support its operations with subspecialties such as military freefall/HALO (High Altitude-Low Opening), mountain warfare, jungle warfare, and combat divers for the versatility of deployment. Senior leaders could independently deploy these reconnaissance units to forward areas to supplement intelligence collected by UASs, providing commanders with better battlespace preparation and awareness. The cost and redundancy are worth the cost and risk.
Asymmetric Warfare Group (AWG)
The Department of the Army established the Asymmetric Warfare Group (AWG) in early 2006 and, after almost fifteen years of providing unique solutions to complex problems, shut down the unit this summer . The AWG was essentially a military think-tank that examined battlefield challenges and provided atypical tactical, operational, and strategic tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) to solve them. The trainers for the AWG drew upon their knowledge and combat experience to create nearly one hundred fifty material, non-material, and material-hybrid fixes for challenges facing warfighters and national defense. In addition, the AWG often partnered with the REF (Rapid Equipping Force), another now-shuttered organization, to develop technological systems to mitigate asymmetric or emerging threats and challenges. Unfortunately, the standdown order for both AWG and REF was over budgetary cuts and organizational restructuring during force modernization.
Despite its founding to improve service member survivability from unconventional warfare threats, the AWG also provided numerous white papers and recommendations for future warfare challenges. For example, AWG produced publications running the gamut from analyzing Chinese land warfare strategy and Russian New Generation Warfare to electronic signature reduction and counter-UAS TTPs. There is no end to which the AWG would enhance force capability and survivability in the coming conflicts.
Understandably, the DoD wants to cut costs and divert funds to where it believes priorities should lie, but this decision was a poor one. An organization like the AWG, able to quickly develop solutions based on real-time observations and data, is invaluable, especially in the face of a potential large-scale engagement with a near-peer rival in the foreseeable future. The AWG and REF could easily be adapted and modernized to reflect the new defense strategies and focuses. There are other ways in which the Dod could utilize these organizations. The AWG to train and implement Resistance Operating Concept (ROC) and the “Operation Washtub” model for strategic deterrence immediately come to mind.
Operation Washtub was a joint plan between the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI) and FBI during the Cold War to train Alaskan civilians as an intelligence collecting guerrilla warfare militia force should the Soviet Union invade. The OSI and FBI focused recruitment on individuals with unique skills like bush pilots, adaptable to harsh conditions like hunting guides and trappers, and those in positions to easily collect valuable intelligence or sabotage an invasion force such as fishermen and dock workers.
This operation was not unlike modern resistance operating concepts in development for Eastern European and Pacific theaters. ROC expands on the initial model for Operation Washtub and applies it towards training and standing up citizen militias and sovereign insurgencies in foreign states at risk of military occupation by a hostile power. The AWG is ideally suited to train SFAB (Security Force Assistance Brigade) personnel and provide supplemental TTPs for Special Forces’ foreign internal defense mission parameters.
The loss of the AWG as an organic unit with a focused mission to develop unique solutions to emerging and persistent threats will have consequences that will leave the DoD scrambling to address rapidly. Similarly, the apparent lack of imagination in how they can modernize and adapt the AWG to the new defense strategies over budgetary concerns also indicates diminished vision by senior decision-makers. The DoD’s ROC for Eastern Europe and the Pacific is the perfect mission for AWG and the primary reason to reactivate the unit as part of the U.S.’s strategic deterrence plans against Russia and China.
As in the cases above, it is understandable from a cost-benefit analysis and redundancy perspective why decision-makers at the Pentagon have decided to close the U.S. Army Pathfinder School, but it, like the Sniper School example, lacks a long-term strategic vision. Many of the skills trained in Pathfinder School, such as sling-loading (transporting cargo beneath a helicopter by a lead line and swivel), are already taught, albeit in lesser detail at Air Assault School. However, more complex operations such as setting up parachute landing or drop zones (PLZs or DZs), landing zones (LZs) for both fixed-wing (planes) and rotary-wing (helicopters) aircraft, and air traffic control, all in both day and nighttime conditions. These skills are not easily replaceable or trainable in an “on-the-job” setting to the standard held at the school, and the Army may very well need personnel with these competencies in a future conflict with a near-peer rival.
The U.S. military has gotten too accustomed to falling in on established bases and airfields during its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that will not always be the case. There may be instances where a mission will require dropping airborne troops (paratroopers) into an unsecured area, necessitating prior reconnaissance and setup from advance personnel like Pathfinders. For example, one of the missions of the Regimental Reconnaissance Company (RRC; an elite LRS detachment for the 75th Ranger Regiment) is inserting into and securing an area of operations ahead of the main body marking out or creating a DZ or LZ for follow-on forces’ arrival.
While the military has downgraded its use of airborne operations to insert personnel in large volumes into a combat zone, the applications for parachuting logistical support equipment and resources are still very much a valuable capability. Throughout history, there have been countless occasions where military advances stalled because they outpaced their logistical supply columns. The ability to refit and resupply everything from fuel and rations to equipment and vehicles quickly by airdrops is a significant force multiplier that is now in jeopardy as the numbers of qualified Pathfinders begin to dwindle. A conflict with Russia, China, or Iran in Eastern Europe, the Pacific region, or Southwestern Asia would be far more challenging without this combat capability to aid in the rapid airborne resupply of personnel and equipment.
As the Department of Defense transitions its doctrine and defense strategies from counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations to force-on-force engagements with a near-peer rival, it is reasonable that they would make cuts and reprioritize funds and training programs. Unfortunately, some of the recent decisions to disband the long-range surveillance detachments and Asymmetric Warfare Group and close the U.S. Army Pathfinder School is unwise in the long term. The ability of senior leaders to deploy independent recon elements for better intelligence and battlespace awareness is an invaluable asset, and limiting this capability to lower-echelon commanders is needlessly constraining.
The untold potential for quick problem-solving for tactical, operational, and strategic challenges and the development of new and unconventional tactics, techniques, and procedures only provide improved survivability and adaptability to the American fighting force. Finally, the loss of the knowledge and experience to effectively deploy airborne forces and rapidly reinforce personnel and equipment via airdrop will likely require replacing when the need arises again during a future conflict. Military decision-makers should seriously consider reinstating the LRS detachments, AWG, and reopening the Pathfinder School.
Ben Varlese is a former U.S. Army Mountain Infantry Platoon Sergeant and served in domestic and overseas roles from 2001-2018, including, from 2003-2005, as a sniper section leader. Besides his military service, Ben worked on the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq’s protective security detail in various roles, and since 2018, he has also provided security consulting services for public and private sectors, including tactical training, physical and information security, executive protection, protective intelligence, risk management, insider threat mitigation, and anti-terrorism. He earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies from American Military University, a graduate certificate in Cyber Security from Colorado State University and is currently in his second year of AMU’s Doctorate of Global Security program.