The US Army has announced that it plans to deactivate its 9 remaining Long Range Surveillance companies this year, a move that’s already attracting a lot of criticism from analysts. The justification for dropping the axe is that modern surveillance assets are more capable, and that the need to add new capabilities means some older, low-priority ones have to be scrapped.
It’s true that even the huge US military budget can’t pay for everything commanders would like to have, but the LRS companies are very good value for not very much money. They employ a total of just under 900 soldiers, two-thirds of them National Guardsmen. The companies are attached to MI brigades, and each one is made up of fifteen six-man surveillance teams plus command and support elements. The troopers in the teams are all airborne-qualified and have a range of other specialist skills.
Each team can operate independently and carry out a range of tasks. They can collect information on the location, size and condition of enemy units, or mount OPs to give coverage of vital ground. They’re also taskable for combat search and rescue.
The Army argues that UAVs and other technical surveillance assets make the LRS companies obsolete; there’s also a strong feeling that commanders are more willing to risk a robot than a soldier. Modern surveillance gear is definitely great, and it adds some powerful new capabilities. It can be fooled though – in the Kosovo conflict the Serbs displayed a real genius for making crude decoys that were convincing enough to attract air attacks, while their actual armor and artillery hid under haystacks. Russia manufactures a whole range of inflatable decoys that exactly mimic combat vehicles and missile systems, right down to the correct radar and IR signature. LRS troops are capable of doing a close target recce that will uncover attempted deceptions. In fact, the best way to defeat enemy deception plans is to have a range of overlapping surveillance capabilities that can look at a target in different ways. One of those capabilities is about to be lost.
It might not be easy to rebuild, either, because many of the LRS soldiers are likely to leave the Army when the companies are deactivated. These troops have near special forces skills in many areas. They’re also trained and encouraged to act highly independently. For a motivated infantryman who can get through the selection process, it’s one of the most interesting jobs in the Army, and delegates responsibility to much lower ranks than most other jobs. A junior NCO in an LRS unit can find himself reporting directly to a brigade commander, passing on real-time information the general needs to plan his next move.
How many soldiers who’ve had the experience of working in an elite reconnaissance unit will be happy to move back to conventional infantry tasks? Probably not too many. When Maryland National Guard deactivated its LRS company a few years ago, most of its troops either transferred to units in other states or turned in their uniforms. The Maryland Guard had lost over half its Ranger-qualified soldiers by the time the dust settled. When the remaining companies are deactivated later this year, it’s likely most of their men will also be lost, along with the last real dismounted reconnaissance capability available to brigade and division commanders. This decision is a dangerous false economy.
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