Arming for Impact: Empowering Cavalry to Enhance Joint Combined-Arms Operations

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Figure 1. The battle-tested M1 Abrams main battle tank has historically empowered Cavalry in reconnaissance-and-security maneuvers.
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Figure 2. The European Pandur series and its scalable weapons systems offers a possible mobility solution for IBCT Cavalry. The Pandur shown is in Austrian service. The Pandur II is available in a number of variants and can take a variety of turret systems, according to its manufacturer. (Photo by Austrian armed forces)
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Figure 3. General Dynamics’ combat-proven LAV serves as an example for upgrading the SRV’s lethality profile.

“A numerous cavalry, whether regular or irregular, must have a great influence in giving a turn to the events of a war.” –Antoine-Henri Jomini

The U.S. Cavalry’s role in facilitating multi-echeloned maneuver through mobile protected firepower is a decisive component of American expeditionary superiority. Once called the “illuminating torch and protective shield of the army” by Napoleonic generals, Cavalry has long specialized in reconnaissance and security at both tactical and operational levels.1 Looking forward to the myriad challenges over coming decades, this imperative will prove more crucial as mounted formations dynamically shape joint combined-arms operations that must, according to the 2014Army Operating Concept, “possess the ability to operate dispersed over wide areas because they are able to integrate intelligence and operations to develop situational understanding through action while possessing the mobility to concentrate rapidly.”2

Emerging trends in 21st-Century conflict – such as population shifts toward mega-cities, social instability and resource competition – will only increase challenges for American units.3 Simultaneously, information technologies will continue to accelerate operational tempos as networked formations increasingly synchronize and synergize. These demands will ultimately require that fewer brigade combat teams (BCTs), enabled by their most mobile elements, wield greater versatility as they establish landpower dominance across expeditionary theaters.

One way to enhance the Army’s capacity to influence operational environments is to reconceptualize the role of Cavalry squadrons in armored (ABCTs), Stryker (SBCTs) and infantry BCTs (IBCTs) from limited intelligence-collection elements to more lethal, and thus more tactically versatile, fighting formations. Due to economized brigade modularization over the previous decade, and the corresponding elimination of division Cavalry squadrons and armored Cavalry regiments (ACR), tactical-level squadrons have emerged as nearly single-dimensional formations lacking enough firepower or survivability to fight through high-intensity contests.

This dilemma, centering on the current Cavalry fleet’s inadequate contributions relative to their parent BCT’s mechanized, motorized or airmobile profiles, consequently limit potential scope of maneuver for planners and commanders. While comprehensive improvement in mobility, protection and armament to all reconnaissance platforms would be an ideal, if unrealistic, remedy, in an era of fiscal constraints, the Army should prioritize upgrading vehicle weapons to the highest lethality appropriate to BCT type.

This expansion of combat versatility would empower the 32 maneuver brigades and Cavalry squadrons that will likely remain after BCT reorganization – reflecting a 28-percent reduction in the total Cavalry force since 2010 – to provide more dynamic contributions to joint efforts.4 As doctrinally required by Field Manual (FM) 3-20.96, Reconnaissance and Cavalry Squadron, the improvement would allow each squadron to provide their BCT, joint task force or multinational headquarters with expanded “freedom of maneuver and initiative over the enemy.”5 With deactivation of the battlefield surveillance brigades (BfSB), and despite ongoing initiatives to create Cavalry at division or corps echelons, BCT Cavalry may also shape outcomes at operational levels.

Necessary superiority to achieve these missions could pragmatically and rapidly be achieved by adding proven armored platforms with more powerful armaments to deficient squadron fleets, or by installing larger-caliber weapon systems on the current “recce” vehicles within each unit. The resulting lethality would allow the Army’s most mobile ground formations expanded utility in both perception and reality.

The squadrons in each type of maneuver brigade, or any potential operational-level Cavalry formation, would accordingly require different enhancement. Beginning with the ABCTs, incorporation of the venerable M1A2 Abrams main battle tank into the mechanized Cavalry would allow them highest destructive capacity. For the medium-level SBCTs, adding 25 or 30mm autocannons to existing Stryker recce vehicles, similar to General Dynamics’ Light Armored Vehicle III (LAV III), would empower far more aggressive maneuver. And in the IBCTs, where ground mobility is a perennial structural issue, likewise upgrading motorized troops with a 25mm-capable light tactical vehicle would substantially increase their utility while adding critical maneuver independence to the “light” brigades. With such improvement, essentially transforming America’s challenged reconnaissance squadrons into operationally impactful organizations, all Cavalry units would prove far more effective in supporting combined-arms efforts ranging from forced-entry invasion to wide-area security (WAS).

ABCT Cavalry squadrons

The squadrons of the ABCTs are currently the only mechanized reconnaissance elements in the Army, and by 2016 will represent 31 percent of the nation’s Active-Component tactical-level Cavalry at 10 squadrons and 30 troops.6 Doctrinally assigned to conduct reconnaissance and security for the heavily armed and armored tanks and infantry fighting vehicles of the combined-arms battalions (CAB), the heavy reconnaissance squadron – with its deficient pairing of M3 Cavalry Fighting Vehicles (CFV) and up-armored humvees in six scout platoons across three troops – cannot forcefully negotiate the highest-intensity contests of maneuver combat.7 While the CFV is an effective scouting vehicle due to its protected hull, tracked mobility, 7.62mm coaxial machinegun, 25mm autocannon and anti-tank missile armament, the diminutive humvee is a grossly inferior “guntruck” without adequate mobility, survivability or stabilized weapons to dynamically fight through mechanized battles.8

The resulting inadequacy of the ABCT Cavalry – centering on its limited ability to fight for information, attack and defend against armored opponents in the ultimate crucible of 21st-Century armored combat – can be remedied with a relatively simple fix. By replacing the humvees with the M1A2 Abrams and its peerless hull protection and 120mm smooth-bore cannon, and by restructuring along legacy ACR troop configurations, the heavy squadrons would instantly become formations capable of not only matching the mobility of CABs, but would own the organic ability to conduct high-tempo reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance against enemy armor, and to maintain fighting screens in the face of combined arms and joint attacks.9

The unrivaled potency of Abrams/CFV teams across diverse combat environments is a historically proven quantity. While the U.S. Armor School’s initiative to upgrade ABCT Cavalry troops with Bradley-pure scout platoons provides substantial improvement, CFVs alone are simply not armed or armored enough to dominate heavy reconnaissance and security. Instead, the ACR’s battle-tested “slant” of two tank and two CFV platoons per troop offers a more capable alternative.10

Demonstrated in both the 1991 and 2003 American invasions of Iraq, the pairing of tanks and CFVs brings the highest degree of combined-arms potency to joint forces during forcible-entry operations. As advocated by co-authors LTC Chris McKinney, COL Mark Elfendahl and LTG H.R. McMaster in their 2013 Foreign Affairs article, “Why the U.S. Army Needs Armor,” such mechanized partnership possesses the exclusive capacity to “keep pace with fast-moving aircraft” and “maneuver quickly to strike the enemy from unexpected directions with multiple forms of firepower.”11 Simultaneously, as seen during counterinsurgency operations in Iraq, heavy Cavalry also allows parent brigades expanded flexibility for patrolling in stability endeavors.

Taken in the context of evolving operational settings like Mesopotamia and Eastern Europe, this platform upgrade would prove beneficial in security challenges of the future. As information, signals and surveillance technologies improve, operational tempos will drive compressed decision cycles that demand increased rapidity and synchronization in digitally networked maneuver.12 To excel in this environment, which may include hybrid and asymmetric attacks that will stymie less armored formations, ABCT squadrons need the peerless firepower and protection of the tank.

As defined by FM 3-20.971, Reconnaissance and Cavalry Troop, the enhanced formations would then have the capability to truly “fight for information in full-spectrum operations” while executing reconnaissance-in-force and contested surveillance.13 This reconfiguration would not only make each armored squadron a multifunctional asset to its brigade, but would allow rates of situational development commensurate to the capabilities of affiliated CABs.

Incidentally, the planned complement of 96 mounted troops to just 66 tank companies across the entire maneuver force will ensure that Cavalry retains a decisive 59-percent majority within Armor Branch.14

SBCT Cavalry squadrons

The wheeled Stryker brigades and their subordinate reconnaissance elements first deployed to combat in 2003, according to U.S. Army doctrine, as a BCT that is “more deployable than the [heavy] BCT” yet has “greater tactical mobility, protection and firepower than the IBCT.”15 In this capabilities-bridging context, the planned array of eight Stryker Cavalry squadrons and 24 troops offer exceptional potential to conduct full-spectrum operations, and specifically reconnaissance and security tasks, in multi-dimensional urban settings. Destined to comprise 25 percent of the total Cavalry force, these squadrons support their brigades with a composition of three reconnaissance troops (with three scout platoons each) while benefiting from an advanced complement of sensory systems and unmanned aerial surveillance (UAS).16

Despite the unique and proven value of the SBCT as a maneuver force that possesses a singular combination of mobility and dismount capability, the brigade suffers from a dearth of dominating and scalable firepower. In both the infantry battalions and Cavalry squadrons, the eight-wheeled Stryker carrier vehicle operates with freestanding or remotely operated machineguns with limited support from a low density of Mobile Gun System (MGS) platoons armed with 105mm cannons. In the Cavalry in particular, where scouts patrol with the Stryker Reconnaissance Vehicle (SRV), the potential for counter-reconnaissance against superior armed opponents like the Russian-grade BRDM-3 and BTR-82, each with larger 30mm cannons, creates disadvantage at the moment of contact.

The answer to this deficiency is clear: Stryker Cavalrymen must deploy with stabilized vehicle weapons and volume of firepower large enough to allow dominance across full-spectrum environments. This superiority is equally crucial whether enabling higher-echelon schemes or conducting independent maneuver. Since the Stryker platform has proven ideal for its mission with balance between protection, crew space and urban trafficability, the Army should upgrade the existing reconnaissance vehicle with either an externally mounted and remotely operated 30mm autocannon, or a manned 25mm turret system like the LAV III. While a lighter and miniaturized remotely controlled innovation may be ideal, arming Stryker scouts with the proven M242 Bushmaster, enhanced by magnification and thermal optics within an armored turret, would offer an immediate solution. Needless to say, the latter option would substantially increase the weight of a Stryker platform.

Regardless of the choice for unmanned or manned vehicle weapons, Stryker Cavalry wielding larger autocannons would instantly adopt more aggressive reconnaissance-and-security profiles in support of combined-arms maneuver (CAM). The scalability of 25mm effects, in contrast with the more destructive and less nuanced impacts of the Abrams’ and MGS’ main guns, would also provide greater patrol flexibility to joint headquarters during WAS. Commanders could task-organize troops to enhance infantry-battalion firepower or disperse the squadron’s tactical independence to economize control of peripheral sectors.

Looking toward the future of Cavalry utility, this increased lethality will be as crucial to empowering the Stryker squadrons as the addition of tanks could be for their tracked counterparts. Able to confidently fight through contested landscapes, the nation’s medium-grade squadrons would maximize the convergence of information superiority, urban mobility and aerial integration with better armament to increase SBCT value in strategic landpower.

IBCT Cavalry squadrons

The final type of Cavalry that require improvements are the 14 motorized squadrons of the IBCTs that will likely remain after reorganization. Unfortunately, due to diverse expeditionary postures and doctrinal imperatives to be “capable in complex terrain defense, urban combat, mobile security missions and stability operations,” identifying a universal armament enhancement for the planned eventuality of 42 wheeled troops across six ground, five airborne and three air-assault squadrons is challenging.17 Making a holistic upgrade even more critical, the IBCT mounted reconnaissance forces – which will represent a significant proportion of the Army’s Cavalry squadrons and troops at about 43 percent each – suffer from reliance on the inferior humvee platform with unstabilized machineguns.18

Given these limitations, even when considering the planned reorganization of the light squadrons’ single infantry companies into a third Cavalry troop, IBCT mounted scouts are currently unable to adopt aggressive reconnaissance-and-security maneuvers in even moderately contested environments without inducing unacceptable risk. Given the fact that they are markedly outclassed by peer-competitors in both armament and protection, and only match weaponry of developing world militias, they cannot achieve their doctrinal assignment to “fight for information against light/motorized forces” without submitting to an extremely deliberate movement rate.

Also, with pintle-mounted machineguns and anti-tank missiles that are essentially redundant in capability to the IBCT rifle battalion’s organic heavy-weapons company, the squadron fails to fulfill another doctrinal intent: to provide its brigade with “enhanced firepower and mobility for offensive or defensive operations.”19 These Cavalry thus require complete replacement of vehicles and weapons to improve structural limitations inherent to their BCTs.

The answer to this deficiency begins with repurposing the lightest squadrons as the mobile protected firepower component of each IBCT instead of posturing for economized intelligence collection. Due to requirements for significant restructuring, the enhancement demands not just lethal improvement but also upgrades in mobility and protection with a new light tactical vehicle. Similar to the needed improvement to the Stryker Cavalry, these motorized scouts should also equip with 25mm or 30mm autocannons to expand their higher headquarters’ organic arsenal, as opposed to using redundant .50 caliber or 7.62mm machineguns already possessed by rifle battalions. These higher-caliber systems must also be stabilized with thermal, magnified and laser-ranged targeting, ensuring an immediate qualitative advantage against likely motorized opponents across all operational landscapes.

Given these demands, Army planners should first explore adopting the Stryker platform, which would admittedly sacrifice air-mobility, as an immediate and interim “off the shelf” improvement to IBCT Cavalry. Since even the up-armored humvee units of airborne brigades realistically conduct only ground insertion due to air-dropability restrictions, the larger size and weight of the Stryker may prove minimally detrimental.

Alternatively, the Army should continue the development of a light tactical vehicle slightly larger than the humvee, perhaps similar to the six-wheeled Armored Ground Mobility System (Pandur series), but with the mandate that it can support a miniaturized 25mm cannon. While seemingly contradictory to the IBCT’s necessarily lightened posture, the organic availability of greater mobile lethality would actually increase its versatility. In this manner, restructuring U.S. light Cavalry as forces capable of destroying armored personnel carriers, disabling tanks and penetrating urban infrastructure would prove critical supporting joint efforts in both CAM and task-organized security.

Reconceptualizing Cavalry lethality

The potential enhancement of organic lethality of all squadrons across ABCTs, SBCTs and IBCTs offers a new scope of utility for American Cavalry in joint combined-arms operations. Yet despite the upgrades, larger weapons would not be a panacea to the challenges of mounted warfare. Scouts with better armament will still rely on traditional strengths of stealthy maneuver, navigation expertise and indirect-fire skills – in concert with mastery of newer enablers like UAS and digitized information superiority – to acquire information about enemy and terrain. As with most large-scale redesigns, improvements in vehicles and weaponry would incur substantial costs. Integrating heavier platforms would require fiscal prioritization, marginally decrease deployability in lighter formations and likely require prepositioned fleets to achieve expeditionary rapidity.

Despite these obstacles, restructuring Cavalry forces as empowered formations would allow them to fulfill the Army’s imperative to “conduct operations consistent with the tenet of adaptability, anticipating dangers and opportunities and adjusting operations to seize, retain and exploit the initiative.”20 Moving beyond optimization for lightly contested intelligence collection, upgrading all 32 future Cavalry squadrons with stabilized, high-caliber weaponry would position them as dynamic force-multipliers to expand BCT options in both decisive action and stability operations.

By adding tanks to the ABCT Cavalry, enhancing the SBCT squadrons with 25mm cannons and redesigning IBCT motorized scouts with more capable light tactical vehicles, each brigade would enjoy the qualitative advantage it needs to dominate reconnaissance-and-security arenas. This versatility would result in the confidence to execute high-tempo reconnaissance at the tactical level while maintaining capacity to attack and defend.

If arming for greater impact provides immediate tactical dividends, it likewise offers expanded utility during echeloned operations. More heavily armed and armored BCT squadrons would be structured, with modest augmentation, to shape limited maneuver for joint headquarters with degrees of the autonomy once owned by division Cavalry and ACRs.

Similarly, as the Army explores options for reconstituting Cavalry formations at division and corps echelons, the imperative for dominance in hybrid environments holds even greater import. Whether structuring as divisional squadrons or modular reconnaissance brigades, the requirement to maneuver farther and faster to shape joint and multinational operations will necessitate even greater independence in forcible maneuver.

With expanded requirements to fight for information independently while potentially conducting guard and covering assignments, armored Cavalry at echelons above brigade should include tanks, while their Stryker counterparts should have more lethal armament. Taking the combined-arms concept farther, the Army should task-organize attack aviation and unmanned platforms directly into these squadrons, similar to the legacy division-Cavalry structure.21

Looking toward the coming decades, the U.S. Army will have to, according to its 38th Chief of Staff, “prevent wars and shape security environments” while conducting “sophisticated expeditionary maneuver” with fewer BCTs and subordinate elements.22 When accounting for the ongoing brigade reorganization and deactivation of the three Active-Component BfSBs – and excluding potential restructuring for creation of operational Cavalry – remaining squadrons will likely represent 25 percent of all maneuver battalions across the force.23 While yet capable, this reduced mounted corps will embrace ever-higher maneuver tempos with greater versatility as they enable joint task forces across diverse operating environments.

A panoply of technological advancements in net-centric synchronization, signals innovation and aerial and high-altitude surveillance will compel forceful reconnaissance and increasingly complex security requirements. To meet these challenges, the Army should reconceptualize its single-dimensional Cavalry squadrons as the ultimate heavy-weapons component within each brigade, division and corps. Rising to a new level of confidence, let the American Cavalry tradition ride into the 21st Century wielding a new range of dynamic versatility.


1 Jean Roemer, Cavalry: Its History, Management and Uses in War, New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1862.

2 U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command Pamphlet 525-3-1, The U.S. Army Operating Concept: Win in a Complex World 2020-2040, Oct. 31, 2014; MAJ Irvin W. Oliver, “Cavalry in the Future Fight: An Environment for Cavalry Forces,” ARMOR, January-March 2013.

3 CSA Strategic Studies Group brief to USMA faculty, Feb. 27, 2014.

4 Michelle Tan, “Army outlines plan to inactivate 7 brigade combat teams,” Army Times, May 5, 2014; CPT Amos Fox, “Reconnaissance Training: a Time for Innovation,” ARMOR, October-December 2013; FM 3-90.6, Brigade Combat Team, September 2010. This quantity does not include 11th ACR, 75th Ranger Regiment or BfSBs.

5 FM 3-20.96, Reconnaissance and Cavalry Squadron, March 2010.

6 Tan.

7 FM 3-20.971, Reconnaissance and Cavalry Troop, August 2009.

8 Technical Manual 9-2350-294-10; “Bradley M2/M3 Tracked Armored Fighting Vehicle,”, accessed May 1, 2014.

9 Cole Pinheiro, “The Armored Cavalry Regiment: Battle Proven and Future Primed,” ARMOR, June-August 2010.

10 FM 3-20.971.

11 LTC Chris McKinney, COL Mark Elfendahl and LTG H.R. McMaster, “Why the U.S. Army Needs Armor,” Foreign Affairs, May-June 2013; for more on Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), see “On Point: The United States Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom,” OIF Study Group, 2004.

12See FM 3-21.21, The Stryker Brigade Combat Team Infantry Battalion, for a description of how digitalized networks like Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below enhance and drive tempo in maneuver operations.

13 FM 3-20.971.

14 Tan.

15 FM 3-90.6.

16 Tan.

17 Ibid.; this quantity accounts for the expected deactivation of the BfSBs and the eventual reorganizing of a third motorized reconnaissance troop in IBCT Cavalry squadrons as forecast by BG Lee Quintas, “Commandant’s Hatch: Cavalry Update,” ARMOR, July-September 2014.

18 Ibid.; LTC Brian Flood, MAJ James Hayes and MAJ Forrest Cook, “IBCT’s Reconnaissance Squadron in Full-Spectrum Operations,” ARMOR, March-April 2011.

19 FM 3-20.96; FM 3-21.12, The Infantry Weapons Company, July 2008.

20 Army Capstone Concept.

21 See MAJ William Nance, “Lost Sabers: Why We Need Operational Cavalry and How to Get it Back,” ARMOR, October-December 2014, for more on this topic.

22 Army Capstone Concept.

23 C. Todd Lopez, “Reorganization Hits Brigade Combat Teams,” Army News Service, July 3, 2013; see also “Army Drawdown and Restructuring: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service Report, Feb. 28, 2014.