LRRPs, LRSDs, SEALs, Marine Recon, Scout Snipers. These elite units and others like them specialize in special reconnaissance gathering among other things. Reconnaissance missions are significantly different from other types of combat actions. While all units attempt to evade detection and gather information about their enemies, these units live and die by that ability.
Anatomy of a Recon Unit
Because of their need to remain undetected, recon teams are small, generally consisting of 2-8 soldiers. This gives the team enough firepower to defend themselves in very short engagements without making them too large to hide. It is common for all members to cross train in the duties of all other members so that anyone in the team can perform any job.
Team Leader: The team leader is responsible for the actions of his team and for accomplishing the mission. As such, he will focus on his team’s status, progress through the different aspects of the mission and location at all times. At base, the TL focuses on planning the next mission and coordinates with higher to assist with the commander’s intent for the operation. If the reconnaissance unit is also a sniper team, the TL is generally the one to carry the team’s bolt action precision rifle.
Assistant Team Leader: The ATL is the mother of the unit. On mission he focuses on the condition of the team members so that the team leader can focus on the mission. If a reconnaissance unit is large enough to split into two elements the ATL will be responsible for the second element. While at base, the ATL is responsible for team training, equipment and assisting the team leader plan missions. If the team leader carries a bolt action precision rifle on mission the ATL will often carry a designated marksman weapon to supplement the team’s long range capabilities and defend the team if fired upon from distance.
RTO: Reconnaissance units are useless if they are unable to report the information they collect. As such, a Radio Transmission Operator, or RTO is extremely valuable. The RTO is responsible for updating command on the findings of the unit and remaining on the radio net at all or predetermined times to receive incoming traffic from command or other units in the field. If a team is large enough to split into two units it may have a second RTO carrying a second radio. If the unit is not large enough to have a dedicated RTO, one of the other team members will also assume RTO duties.
Security Element: The remainder of the team would consist of the security element. They would be issued weapon systems according to the mission and are expected to be proficient in all of them. On mission, they will provide security for the team, allowing other members to man observation posts and focus on other duties.
Recon patrols avoid combat like the plague, yet they come prepared to dominate a short contact. Unless precision rifle fire is called for in the mission, don’t expect to see many heavy caliber weapons here. When 5.56 squad automatic weapons became available, elite reconnaissance units were among the first to request them, allowing them to to carry more ammunition and less weight. 40mm launchers are also popular among reconnaissance teams because of their ability to launch flechette, high explosive and smoke rounds. These (generally in that order) are very useful in a break contact situation. In some units, every member of a recon unit will carry a belt fed weapon or a 40mm launcher to increase the team’s overall firepower. From time to time they may also have a member carry a captured enemy weapon. This is used to make the enemy think they are firing on a friendly unit.
One of the most influential weapons available to the Reconnaissance unit is their access to air support and indirect ordinance. By calling in a target to be demolished, the unit does not give away their own position like they would if they used their personal weapons to take it down.
Lastly and arguably most importantly, the modern reconnaissance unit carries a plethora of photography and imaging devices like thermal and night vision optics. This allows the unit to take photographs and video of their target and send it to their command in real time. In this way they literally become the eyes and ears of the commanding officer. This enables a commander to see his target before he attacks it, watch the attack unfold, and assess damage to the target after the attack.
Traditionally, body armor was not generally used by reconnaissance units because weight is so critical. Because of this, recon units often use patrol vests, belt and suspenders or chest rigs to transport their gear. However, today’s reconnaissance soldiers are forced to work in urban environments and body armor is often issued.
Over the years, reconnaissance patrols have modified their equipment in numerous ways. They wear mismatched camouflage uniforms, tape their gear and weapons to keep it quiet and at times don partial or full ghillie suits. The purpose of all this is to break up recognizable shapes, and to make absolutely no noises that are not naturally occurring.
Today, it is common to see reconnaissance units wearing the same uniforms as normal soldiers and they may even carry a second primary weapon in order to blend in with regular units. This is often a reaction to the enemy targeting marksmen and other specialized troops.
While the reconnaissance units of the Vietnam war had the mission of moving through the jungle to find the enemy, most units employed since then have been tasked with setting up observation/listening posts and gathering information from there. Much like sniper teams, reconnaissance units will build hides in their environments and occupy them for hours or days. These hides can be in any type of terrain, including occupied buildings. As such, ghillie suits and hide construction materials may be carried as the mission dictates.
Reconnaissance units are all given special training to be able to perform their specific mission. All graduate basic and advanced infantry training. Most are airborne qualified and all attend some sort of advanced small unit training such as Ranger School. Additionally, many will receive advanced medical, communications, demolition and weapons training. Many current reconnaissance troops are also scout snipers, especially those int he Marine Corps. Their mastery of long range weapons and camouflage translates nicely into the reconnaissance role.
It is currently common to send out multiple reconnaissance units to observe a single large target. This gives the commanders multiple points of observation and if one unit is compromised, the others can remain in place gathering intelligence. This also allows the units to communicate with one another in the field and get a better picture of the situation as it unfolds. They can also coordinate attacks via calling in ordinance or by using their precision rifles.
While on mission, the reconnaissance patrol takes it’s time. It’s easy to walk from point A to point B, but if there are exposed areas along the route, a recon patrol will not take a direct route. SEALs in Vietnam were famous for using streams, swamps and rivers to move to their objective. Where would the enemy expect soldiers to be even less than snake and leech infested waters!? As a recon patrol member you can expect to move through the thickest and nastiest terrain in your AO, often on your stomach. The best way to remain undetected is to use the areas that the enemy looks at and says to himself, “there’s no way anyone would go in there!”
On contact, the recon unit immediately breaks contact. Depending on the situation they may strike back with deadly force, overwhelming the enemy and then quickly withdraw. At other times they may simply not return fire or only return fire with an enemy weapon, hoping to fool the enemy into thinking they had killed the entire unit or were firing on friendly soldiers. These are all split second decisions that had to be made by the team leaders in the field. Regardless, making contact is always a break contact situation and usually results in mission failure.
On Through The Years
Reconnaissance units have been born out of necessity in almost every theater of battle across history. Their weapons, equipment and tactics have changed but their mission remains the same: gain information for their commander and report it without being discovered. If you wish to portray a reconnaissance unit in your MilSim games know that it is often a very difficult, thankless role with a very high price to be paid for mistakes. That said, in my opinion it is also one of the most rewarding units to be a part of and it provides commanders with a capability that is far and few between even in the real world. For further information, check out the Ranger Handbook as revised by TMP or a TMP training class.