Persistent Surveillance and Joint Fires in the Horn of Panjwai

Slide 1
Figure 1. A PGSS is equipped with an AN/PRC 117G radio to extend its range of communications during preparations for Capability Set 13 network-verification testing at the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Develop-ment and Engineering Center, Fort Dix, NJ. The network-verification testing was the equipment’s final check-out before PGSS was deployed overseas. (Photo by Claire Heininger,

The 1st Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, recently returned from its deployment to Afghanistan. During its deployment, the squadron partnered with two Afghan National Army (ANA) kandaks (battalions) in the conduct of operations to secure a small section of Regional Command-South. Based on reductions in the size of the force in Afghanistan, the squadron deployed with about one-half its authorized personnel. Despite the small size of the unit, the squadron was able to support the development of the Afghan forces while maintaining pressure on Taliban forces operating in the area.

Two capabilities enabled the squadron’s success: outstanding security-force assistance advisory teams (SFAATs) and the application of joint fires through persistent surveillance. While the SFAATs’ contributions were likely more important to the long-term success of the Afghan forces, they are not the topic of this brief article. The focus of this article is the application of joint fires at the squadron level in security operations.

It is important to note up front that while the squadron achieved a high level of success against the Taliban in this case, this article does not imply that such results are replicable across all formations or in all situations. Traditional factors still affect the outcome of any operation: enemy, equipment, time, terrain, weather, etc. In the case of 1st Squadron, they either had favorable conditions for joint fires or, for the most part, were able to overcome unfavorable conditions.

Because the squadron had limited combat power, opportunities for employing traditional means for gaining and maintaining contact with the enemy (in other words, reconnaissance-and-security operations) were infrequent. Working within the means available, the squadron learned to maximize the capabilities of persistent surveillance and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to locate and direct fires against enemy forces. This was a critical task not only to support ANA operations, but also to protect the force and support base defense. The ability to locate and strike enemy forces in close proximity to the base helped deny the enemy opportunities to mass for attacks or employ long-range weapons against the base. The primary platform used to locate enemy forces was the Persistent Ground-Surveillance System (PGSS).


A quick explanation of the basic capabilities of the PGSS is in order. The PGSS has a suite of capabilities mounted on a tethered balloon that floats above the ground-control station at varying altitudes. Operators on the ground use information collected by the systems on the balloon to direct operations, locate forces and assist in fire direction.

The squadron employed a PGSS operated by a team of Soldiers from Romania specially trained for the mission, supported by a small team of contractors responsible for maintenance. As with any piece of equipment, it was only as good as the people using it. In this case, the Romanian team was highly skilled, dedicated to the mission and very familiar with the area, maximizing the system’s effectiveness.

Where should the squadron orient the PGSS to locate enemy forces? The squadron developed a reconnaissance-and-surveillance matrix based on historical enemy activity and patterns of movement observed by the previous unit. The personnel in the squadron’s tactical-operations center (TOC) recorded every observed enemy movement and activity and plotted them digitally on a map with size, activity, location, time and composition annotated. Through these efforts, led by the squadron fire-support element, patterns of enemy activity began to emerge, which enabled the squadron to develop named areas of interest (NAI) for further reconnaissance and surveillance. Using the reconnaissance-and-surveillance matrix, the squadron TOC could shift observation to specific areas at specific times to identify enemy activity.

R&S matrix

Using the reconnaissance-and-surveillance matrix as a planning tool, the squadron staff also requested assets at specific times to observe specific NAI in efforts either to refine situational awareness or to execute strikes to destroy enemy forces. This method made clear the task and purpose for close combat attack, close air support or other surveillance platforms ahead of time, which aided in mission planning for supporting elements. Because the squadron shared the developed patterns of enemy activity, supporting elements had a shared understanding of the situation and rapidly gained familiarity with the squadron’s area of operations and NAIs.

The reconnaissance-and-surveillance matrix also enabled the squadron to provide immediate task and purpose to aerial assets that would often arrive unexpectedly. This was usually the result of a previous mission ending earlier than expected. Assets operated by units that frequented the squadron area were familiar with the NAIs and enemy patterns and were able to quickly orient based on task and purpose provided by the squadron. Decisions regarding which NAI to assign to these unexpected assets were quick because the reconnaissance-and-surveillance matrix was broken down by times when enemy forces were typically active in each NAI.

The squadron was also successful in coordinating other collection capabilities to further refine enemy force locations and gain contact to enable the application of fires. In operations conducted with limited combat power, maximization of all available capabilities is critical. Although not specifically trained for such coordination in tactical operations, the expertise and creativity of the personnel in the squadron TOC enabled synchronization of all elements of combat power and contributed directly to the mission’s success.

Close coordination with the ANA before and during operations included operational planning and intelligence sharing, and enabled the combined team to employ their strengths in concert. The ANA was the primary maneuver force clearing roads, engaging enemy forces with direct fires, and clearing and searching villages for enemy personnel and materiel. The squadron provided real-time updates on enemy locations and movements, friendly force (ANA) locations and indirect and non-lethal fires. The squadron also coordinated the employment of joint fires in support of ANA maneuver. The SFAATs were critical as the conduit of information between the squadron and the ANA.


While the squadron was able to achieve success in its mission, there were several areas where more emphasis during predeployment training would have been beneficial:

  • Predeployment training for TOC personnel on the incorporation of persistent-surveillance capabilities;
  • Predeployment training on realistic scenarios involving fires/airspace deconfliction;
  • Training for fires personnel on the correlation of locations observed through surveillance with imagery appropriate for clearance of fires regarding collateral concerns;
  • Training on the integration of multiple real-time collection capabilities in support of maneuver forces; and
  • Training for field-grade officers on the rules of engagement (RoE), weapons effects and engagement criteria in lethal-strike scenarios.

The following paragraphs discuss each challenge and offer methods to overcome or avoid these challenges in future operations.

Incorporation of persistent-surveillance capabilities in predeployment training and exercises would benefit personnel assigned to monitor and track operations. This would require more capabilities at combat training centers (CTCs) – as well as deployable training teams for units not scheduled to attend a CTC before they deploy, or for units on alert for contingency operations. Having persistent-surveillance capabilities available for predeployment training would facilitate proper TOC manning and standard-operating-procedure development, and would also support training to address the other gaps outlined previously. Training with persistent-surveillance capabilities allows units to deploy with a working knowledge of the systems’ capabilities and limitations, which factors into planning for operations, base defense, fires and force array. While the availability of persistent-surveillance systems in the combat zone may be a limiting factor, during predeployment training, the target audience should be company and above, if possible.

TOC ops

During combat operations, the airspace can often become very busy with fixed-wing aircraft (for example, jets, bombers and special-operations fixed-wing support), rotary-wing aircraft (e.g., attack aviation, scout aviation, lift aviation and air ambulances), UAVs (e.g., Predator, Reaper and Shadow), mortar fire and artillery fire. The persistent-surveillance system is also present, which requires standoff for aircraft as well as gun-target-line deconfliction. TOC personnel must be trained to manage all these assets to avoid incidents of collision or friendly fire during operations.

In the current operating environment, where collateral damage and civilian casualties are major concerns, opportunities to strike enemy personnel can be fleeting. TOC personnel must be able to deconflict the users of the airspace quickly to facilitate timely and accurate fires. This facet of predeployment training is probably the most difficult to replicate, as it requires live assets on station. Fixed-wing assets can probably be simulated, but rotary-wing assets should be on station for this training if possible.

Fires personnel operating in the TOC must be able to quickly associate activity observed via persistent surveillance (and other systems such as UAVs) with locations on current imagery to calculate the range to the target and gun target line (for ground-based fires) and the distance from the target to collateral concerns. Fires personnel must also be able to deconflict friendly-force locations. Fires personnel can use this information to make recommendations on the type of ordnance to be used based on the collateral effects of various munitions. This is another step that adds to the time required to execute a strike and must be done quickly and accurately to be successful. With a persistent-surveillance system available for training, units can easily train this step. It is also important to ensure aircrews conduct a proper check-in to ensure that personnel in the TOC know what types of munitions are available, as this factors into when and where a unit can strike enemy forces.

TOC personnel must be familiar with other means of collection that can provide a direction or location of enemy activity, or target confirmation. Incorporating such systems aids the unit in gaining and maintaining contact with the enemy and enhances the capabilities of persistent surveillance. Once a unit gains contact via other collection means, it can then orient the persistent surveillance (or other observation means such as UAVs or ground forces) onto the enemy. Such systems are also useful in confirming suspected enemy activity observed through the persistent-surveillance platform. This can be replicated either live or virtually during predeployment training and helps the TOC personnel understand how to employ all available capabilities in the fight.


In the end, a field-grade officer (usually the operations officer or executive officer) must make the decision whether to engage and the method of engagement. This depends on the RoE, the law of land warfare and the guidance for fires published by higher headquarters at each echelon. Knowing the RoE is not enough.

Those faced with making the decision whether to strike must also understand the collateral effects of the weapons systems available for employment, the basics of the law of land warfare and the reliability of the weapons systems. Location of friendly forces seems like an obvious requirement, but in the case of 1st Squadron’s deployment, it was not always easy. For example, Afghan local police would often patrol without prior notification, in plain clothes and in areas of known enemy activity. Prior to a strike, the TOC would always confirm through the SFAAT teams the locations of friendly forces.

Leaders must also understand the perceptions of the local populace, power brokers and government officials. Maintaining close ties with these groups is a must to prevent unintended negative consequences that could drive a wedge between our forces and the local population.

Methods that units may be able to use to assist in training field-grade officers to make these decisions include detailed discussions of the RoE and its application, review of storyboards and video footage of actual strikes, and discussion with those experienced in making these decisions. This would require access to products developed by units conducting combat operations in Afghanistan. The 1st Squadron alone conducted more than 30 strikes and produced storyboards, videos and current-operations reports for each. Should these products be available to deploying units, it would be very simple to develop a series of vignettes for use in training TOC personnel and field-grade officers who will have to make the call.

Also, other products developed during 1st Squadron’s deployment could be of use. These include the patterns of enemy activity and the reconnaissance-and-security matrices used to plan surveillance, combat operations and requests for supporting assets.

This article serves merely to highlight one method for employing joint fires and other assets in support of combat operations based on the recent deployment of 1st Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment. A more complete analysis would include greater discussion of the coordination of close air support and close combat attack during the deployment, preferably from the pilot and aviation staff perspective. Further, a detailed discussion of the effects of the various types of munitions employed would enhance the value of this article. Finally, the recommendations for expanded training to prepare units to employ the capabilities described in this article are based on the military aspects of the situation the squadron encountered during their deployment. Should forces deploy to areas with aspects differing from those in the Horn of Panjwai, predeployment training would likely require further modification.