Gunner’s Seat: Manning, Equipping and Resourcing Cavalry Organizations

by CSM Michael Clemens

“The importance of reconnaissance cannot be overemphasized. There is typically a battle which precedes the battle – a confrontation of opposing reconnaissance units – and the winner of that preliminary battle is most often the victor in the main event.” –BG Edwin S. Leland Jr.

Is the Army adequately organized and equipped to perform effective reconnaissance and security operations? As the force reorients on a decisive-action training environment, maintaining and potentially expanding organizations capable of fulfilling the roles outlined in the Army’s capstone concept are paramount. (“Countering enemy adaptations and retaining the initiative in future armed conflict will require a balance of forces capable of conducting effective reconnaissance operations, overcoming increasingly sophisticated anti-access technologies, integrating the complementary effect of combined arms and joint capabilities and performing long-duration area security operations over wide areas.”) These should be guiding principles of both our organization and capability. In an Army tasked to operate in expeditionary, austere environments at the limit of extended lines of supply, an organized cavalry squadron becomes increasingly significant to a higher headquarters in meeting the demands of Army 2025.

Countering enemy adaptations and retaining – or, better yet, exploiting – the initiative is certainly a hallmark of our cavalry organizations. Nothing better illustrates this point than 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry’s operations around the Iraqi city of Najaf in 2003. At 6 a.m. March 25, 3/7 Cavalry attacked Objective Floyd. Fighting took place in a sandstorm, which reduced visibility to 25 meters, causing the Americans to rely on thermal imaging to target Iraqi troops. At 10:43 a.m., U.S. Soldiers reached the bridge and found it to be free of wiring for detonation.

After crossing the bridge, the 3-7 Cav sent Troops A and B north to secure a dam and bridge and to set up blocking positions to further isolate Najaf. This group came under attack by hundreds of Iraqi paramilitaries, who snuck up to close quarters during the sandstorm. At the same time, Troop C, securing the bridge around Objective Floyd, came under heavy attack by Iraqi forces charging their positions in civilian vehicles, which even went so far as to ram an M3 Bradley with a city bus and crash a loaded fuel tanker through American lines. While Troop B was moving northward, the unit was ambushed by Iraqi forces at close range. During this engagement, two Abrams tanks and one Bradley were knocked out, and their ammunition ignited. However, the blast panels worked as they were designed, and no crewmen were killed. Troop B continued to fight and reached their blocking positions as nightfall put an end to the Iraqi attacks.

After nightfall March 26, 2nd Battalion, 69th Armored Regiment, attacked south from Objective Jenkins in an attempt to link up with 7th Cavalry Regiment at Objective Floyd and thereby complete the encirclement of Najaf. That night they successfully linked up with 7th Cavalry.

On March 27, 7th Cavalry withdrew after 120 hours of continuous combat. This certainly demonstrates a cavalry squadron’s ability to counter adaptation and exploit initiative.

Conducting effective reconnaissance operations and integrating the complementary effects of combined-arms capabilities is another area where the cavalry, properly organized and employed, excels. An outstanding example comes from the account of 113th Cavalry Group’s operations in XIX Corps’ zone in Belgium in early September 1944. The 113th Cavalry Group was to reconnoiter aggressively east and northeast in advance of XIX Corps. The group was to conduct a reconnaissance of five main routes the corps would use, reporting road and bridge conditions and enemy positions while bypassing any heavy resistance. The two-squadron cavalry group (113th and 125th cavalry squadrons) were augmented by Company B, 82nd Engineers, and Company C, 803rd Tank Destroyer Battalion.

Commencing Sept. 5, the group conducted reconnaissance over a 20-mile front for more than 125 miles. Encountering resistance ranging from light to determined, the group moved on its own for three days, brushing aside, defeating or bypassing the enemy until it reached the Albert Canal and the fortress of Eben Emeal, where it established a screen and was joined by 30th Infantry Division. After conducting a battle handover with the 30th, the 113th crossed the canal 35 miles south of its position and pushed north against stiff opposition until the Soldiers secured the bridge south of Vise, which allowed 30th Infantry to cross. Effective reconnaissance, led by a cavalry organization, allowed a corps to retain the initiative while its divisional assets were conducting refueling-and-resupply operations, and then attack along the most advantageous route and seize a crossing into Holland.

Long-duration area security operations are the final trademark capability of well-trained cavalry organizations. During the Vietnam War, 11th Cavalry Regiment – properly task-organized and equipped – conducted Operation Kittyhawk April 1967 through March 21, 1968. The regiment was tasked to secure and pacify Long Khánh District. It achieved three objectives: Viet Cong (VC) were kept from interfering with travel on the main roads; Vietnamese were provided medical treatment in civic-action programs like Medical Civic Action Program, or MEDCAP, and Dental Civic Action Program, or DENTCAP; and, finally, reconnaissance-in-force (RIF) operations were employed to keep the VC off balance, making it impossible for them to mount offensive operations.

Immediately following Kittyhawk were Operations Emporia I and II – a road-clearing operation with limited RIF missions by the 1st and 3rd squadrons in Long Khánh District – and Operations Valdosta I and II, a regimental-sized operation. Valdosta’s purpose was to provide security at polling places during elections and to maintain reaction forces to counter VC agitation. Because of the operation, 84.7 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in Long Khánh District in the first general election and 78 percent in the second. Wide-area security missions conducted for more than two years across the 200 kilometers of the Long Khanh District allowed both II U.S. Field Force and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam’s 3rd Corps freedom of maneuver.

In closing and as demonstrated by real-world examples, the U.S. Army’s cavalry organizations – when properly manned, equipped and resourced – have a unique function on our combined-arms teams. The value of an organization missioned and trained from the outset to conduct reconnaissance and security missions with leaders well-versed in the application of those specialized skills is invaluable to our formations and cannot be cheaply duplicated. It is a skill the expeditionary Army cannot afford to lose.