Developing the Future Armor Brigade Combat Team’s Cavalry Squadron

Slide 1
Figure 1. Armored-unit reconnaissance capability by echelon and era. This chart provides an overview of organizational change in Cavalry formations at the division, brigade and battalion level from World War II to the present, and highlights the development of the brigade Cavalry squadron from Force XXI to today. (From the author’s 2014 Command and General Staff College (CGSC) master’s thesis in military arts and science, “Transforming Mechanized Reconnaissance: How the [ABCT] Cavalry Squadron Should Be Structured for Reconnaissance and Security in the Near Future”)
Slide 2
Figure 2. The “Cavalry squadron, armored,” improves on the 6x36 concept through the addition of a tank company, UAV platoon and MI platoon. (From the author’s 2014 CGSC master’s thesis, “Transforming Mechanized Reconnaissance: How the [ABCT] Cavalry Squadron Should Be Structured for Reconnaissance and Security in the Near Future”)

The Armor community is facing another period of change during which the development of reconnaissance formations will be crucial to future success. The change began in 2013 when the Army announced it would increase the size of its armored brigade combat teams (ABCTs) while decreasing the aggregate number of ABCTs in the force.1 Part of the reason for this change was to provide the Army with fewer but more capable BCTs.2

The most significant organizational adjustment within the ABCT was the addition of a third combined-arms battalion (CAB).3 This provides the brigade commander with more combat power to execute decisive action in pursuit of mission accomplishment. However, while this force structure change affords greater maneuver flexibility to the ABCT commander, it does not address two key capabilities that enable an ABCT to conduct decisive action: reconnaissance and security.

The responsibility for those missions resides with the ABCT Cavalry squadron.4 Therefore, to give the future brigade commander the complete flexibility offered by a third CAB, there must be changes to the ABCT Cavalry squadron’s organizational structure.

Problems of not reorganizing

Increasing maneuver capability in the ABCT without changing the structure of the Cavalry squadron poses several interesting problems. First, there is the assumption that the addition of a third CAB increases reconnaissance and security capability within the ABCT. This argument is doctrinally valid, as BCTs are capable of conducting the complete range of security missions to enable its own maneuver or that of another BCT.5 However, this capability proves difficult when conducting missions that require the dedication of all three CABs to other tactical tasks (for example, a BCT combined-arms breach). Furthermore, history and military theory have established the missions of reconnaissance, security and limited offensive operations as standard roles for Cavalry organizations.6 Over time, those missions, specifically security operations, have become specific operations requiring Cavalry expertise.

The second issue is the paradox between current reconnaissance doctrine and the squadron’s actual capability. Current reconnaissance doctrine emphasizes the use of all forms of reconnaissance and security missions through guard to enable maneuver.7 However, the current ABCT Cavalry squadron (formerly called the armored reconnaissance squadron (ARS)) is not capable of conducting either reconnaissance-in-force or guard missions to enable the ABCT to maneuver without augmentation (normally coming from the CABs).8

Finally, it is not clear how a Cavalry squadron designed for a smaller ABCT could be capable of supporting a larger one without changing its organizational structure.9 Now may be the best time to capitalize on the organizational change that is already taking place, to align doctrinal purpose with capability and provide the future ABCT commander with a Cavalry squadron that allows him to capitalize on the additional maneuver capability provided by the third CAB.

Tension between doctrine and capability

If larger ABCTs provide fewer but more robust BCTs to the Army, each ABCT should be more capable of conducting decisive action. Reconnaissance and security operations enable decisive action.10 Furthermore, reconnaissance and security operations provide the commander with improved understanding of the tactical situation and enable him to mass combat power at the decisive point.11 Although all formations perform some rudimentary form of reconnaissance, Cavalry squadrons are the dedicated reconnaissance elements and have the potential to be the ABCT’s security element. Developing the Cavalry squadron to completely fulfill its traditional doctrinal role would allow the brigade commander to make contact with the smallest unit possible, develop the situation and mass the propensity of forces at the decisive point.

Increasing the size of the ABCT, combined with the current tension in reconnaissance doctrine and capability, create a consistent need to allocate other forces to the Cavalry squadron to conduct the reconnaissance and security fight. Those additional forces are likely to come from the third CAB, thereby limiting the capability and flexibility of the ABCT as a whole. The current disconnect in doctrine, combined with the force-structure change to the ABCT, highlight the need to develop the Cavalry squadron, but what should it look like and what capabilities are required? To recommend a viable solution for the future, one must first look to the past.

Lessons of history

History can provide applicable lessons from the past that can assist in future development. Every organization has a culture and history that in many ways defines it over time and sets patterns of acceptable change. Those patterns can indicate required capabilities of any mechanized reconnaissance unit in the future. Cavalry organizations are no different in this regard. Examining the modern development of mechanized Cavalry units uncovers distinct debates that have driven patterns of change since 1943.12 These debates have defined what change is acceptable within the reconnaissance community and, to a large degree, have driven change over time.

First is the passive vs. aggressive reconnaissance debate. The advent and development of tanks and armored vehicles after World War I posed a distinct challenge to the concept of mechanized reconnaissance. The debate revolves around whether mechanized reconnaissance organizations should fight for information or gather intelligence through more passive forms of reconnaissance.13

The second debate that has defined the development of Cavalry formations is the technologist vs. traditionalist debate. The rapid development of surveillance technology further divided the reconnaissance community into those who believe that technology could rid warfare of friction and fog, and those who believe that, no matter how advanced technology becomes, friction and fog will always exist.14

Both these debates have converged, diverged and combined over time to shape the development mechanized reconnaissance units. Figure 1 illustrates how these debates have influenced the development of mechanized Cavalry organizations from World War II to today.

The most distinctive change noted in Figure 1 occurs at the division and brigade level from Operation Desert Storm to the present. Based on performance during Desert Storm, specifically the need for augmentation to conduct guard and economy-of-force missions, division Cavalry squadrons transitioned back to combined-arms organizations.15 Then the advent of modularity removed division Cavalry squadrons from the force structure. The Force XXI brigade reconnaissance troop (BRT), organized for surveillance and target acquisition, lacked the capability to perform aggressive forms of reconnaissance for the brigade. Therefore, it developed from a wheeled Cavalry unit to the wheeled and mechanized Cavalry squadron (ARS) of today.

The current Cavalry squadron combines the anti-tank capability of the heavier division Cavalry squadron with the BRT’s reconnaissance and surveillance capability. Indeed, the contemporary ABCT Cavalry squadron appears to be an organizational compromise between the Force XXI division Cavalry squadron and the BRT.16

Thus, the back-and-forth nature of debates within the reconnaissance community has established what could be defined as a pattern. If the reconnaissance unit requires significant augmentation to conduct standard reconnaissance, security or economy-of-force missions, its organization changes. Specifically, if the Cavalry organization is unable to conduct all forms of reconnaissance, security missions through guard or economy-of-force missions without significant augmentation, it is subject to change.17 Therefore, these observations suggest that a trigger for development is associated with the need for habitual augmentation from the parent unit to accomplish requisite reconnaissance and security missions.

Requirements of future

An examination of the future is critical to determine what challenges lie ahead; however, determining the future is at best a difficult endeavor. Predictions of future conflict are varied in purpose and sometimes rife with bias, which makes the future of conflict highly uncertain. However, the nature of war will not likely change, and this is likely to drive the conduct of war in the future. The strength of this assumption lies in the military theory of Carl Von Clausewitz,18 who classified the nature of war as one of constant competition.19 If competition is constant within the nature of war, then examining current trends of conduct that exemplify that competition should better suggest capabilities required in the future.

To ensure flexibility within the future Cavalry squadron, it is necessary to look at two trends. The first trend is a low-tech threat adaptation to overcome technological disadvantage. Unconventional forces that blend in with populations and operate in vast urban centers consistently offset the surveillance advantages afforded by our use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). This simple adjustment by competitors requires conventional forces on the ground in close proximity to guide the UAV to the known target, thereby offsetting a technological disadvantage.

The second trend is the growing emphasis on cyberwarfare. The threat in this case possesses the capability to degrade surveillance systems through direct and indirect fires or targeted cyberattack. Degradation of surveillance systems in this manner would force the maneuver commander to turn to more low-tech solutions.

The future Cavalry squadron must be rapidly adaptable to remain competitive in this dynamic threat environment. Balanced reconnaissance and combat capability would provide the ABCT commander with a squadron that possesses redundancy in collection and offensive capability to remain competitive and flexible across the spectrum of conflict in an uncertain and dynamic future environment.

The ‘Cavalry squadron, armored’

In a broad sense, these collective observations highlight the need for a reconnaissance organization that requires minimal augmentation from its parent organization to conduct reconnaissance, security and limited offensive operations. This article does not account for more demands on the ABCT such as division and theater reserve requirements that will also require combat power from the larger ABCT. Doctrine establishes that the current Cavalry squadron lacks the capability to conduct reconnaissance-in-force and guard missions without some level of augmentation from the ABCT.20 For future conflict, and to maximize on the flexibility provided by a larger ABCT, the Army must address the lacking capabilities in the Cavalry squadron.

The Maneuver Center of Excellence (MCoE) is already working a solution to this issue with the 6x36 initiative.21 The MCoE initiative increases the anti-tank capability of the ABCT Cavalry squadron, standardizes all scout platoons within ABCTs and provides a common level of mobility with the CABs.22 Although the 6x36 initiative improves the Cavalry squadron’s firepower and mobility (by organizing it entirely with M3A2 Cavalry Fighting Vehicles (CFVs)), it is arguable that the squadron will still require augmentation to conduct guard, economy-of-force missions and some reconnaissance-in-force missions (especially against armored threats).23 Therefore, any recommendation for the future ABCT Cavalry squadron should improve on the added capabilities offered by the 6x36 initiative. One such solution this article proposes is the “Cavalry squadron, armored.”

The “Cavalry squadron, armored,” provides a reconnaissance unit with equal passive and aggressive reconnaissance capability to the ABCT. It also provides requisite organic capability to conduct security missions, as well as limited offensive, defensive and stability operations without significant augmentation from the ABCT. Organizing the Cavalry squadron along these lines provides the ABCT commander with a reconnaissance organization that incurs minimal force-ratio risks. A reconnaissance squadron with the appropriate organic capability preserves the increased combat power within the future ABCT. This preservation of combat power through proper organization of the reconnaissance squadron provides the ABCT commander with more tactical options when called upon to conduct decisive action.

An in-depth review of the improved capabilities the “Cavalry squadron, armored” provides to the ABCT highlights how this squadron can allow a brigade commander to maximize the third CAB’s combat power. The increased flexibility, firepower and maneuverability provided by the addition of a tank company – and the surveillance capability provided by the introduction of UAV and military-intelligence (MI) platoons in the headquarters and headquarters troop (HHT) – make this categorization possible.

The purpose of organizing the squadron in this manner is to provide the ABCT commander with a mechanized reconnaissance organization that can operate without significant augmentation from other ABCT assets. The squadron maintains the core organization of the 6x36 initiative, and adds the offensive capability of a tank company and more surveillance assets to the squadron (around 600 Soldiers total):

  • The tank company provides the ABCT with a more complete reconnaissance organization that can guard or conduct reconnaissance-in-force against enemy armored formations.
  • The tank company provides another maneuver unit that either can be task-organized among the Cavalry troops or used as an independent element to extend the squadron’s tactical reach.
  • For initial or precision-targeting capability in a variety of operations, the addition of surveillance assets such as the UAV platoon and MI platoon in the HHT provide the squadron with the requisite passive-surveillance capability.
  • The UAV platoon allows the squadron to conduct surveillance in a much larger geographic area since the RQ-7B (Shadow) provides a much greater range and more station time than the Raven UAV.

The addition of a tank company and UAV platoon increase the squadron’s direct-fire and observation range, thereby increasing its lethality and reach. These additional assets make it possible for the squadron to conduct operations across the breadth and depth of a larger ABCT’s area of operations without augmentation.24

Since the squadron has a similar organization to that of the 6x36 initiative, it is equally capable of conducting three of the four required forms of reconnaissance (route, zone, area). The addition of a tank company provides the ABCT commander with a squadron capable of finding enemy armored formations and developing the situation (through limited offensive action) so the brigade can close with and destroy the enemy force. This description is fundamentally the definition of reconnaissance-in-force.25 This makes the “Cavalry squadron, armored,” capable of executing reconnaissance-in-force without augmentation; therefore, the squadron can execute all forms of required reconnaissance missions.

The squadron is capable of limited offensive or defensive operations, which makes it incapable of economy-of-force missions. As for security missions, maintaining the organization of the 6x36 initiative and adding the tank company provide the firepower and protection necessary to conduct both screen and guard missions without augmentation.26

The addition of more organic surveillance assets improves the squadron’s targeting capability by combining intelligence analyzers and collectors with surveillance technology in a single reconnaissance unit. This presents the squadron as a balanced organization with regard to surveillance technology and human-intelligence (HUMINT) collection capability. The aforementioned assets, plus the tank company, provide the ABCT with a squadron that possesses the flexibility to execute both passive and aggressive forms of reconnaissance without augmentation. Therefore, it also provides the ABCT commander a reconnaissance organization with organic and balanced combat and surveillance capability.

To field the “Cavalry squadron, armored,” resources will have to come from somewhere. The recent structure change to BCTs across the Army has reduced the overall amount of BCTs in the force.27 The four deactivated ABCTs can provide the resources for the additional tank companies required in the 12 remaining ABCTs.28 The 12 BCTs that will be deactivated between now and 2017 can provide the UAV platoons, HUMINT and signal-intelligence (SIGINT) assets required.29 It may even be possible to integrate the entire MI company, currently residing in the brigade engineer battalion, from the active ABCTs into the Cavalry squadron to combine intelligence analysts with collectors.

The addition of these assets would also require additions to the Cavalry squadron’s forward-support company (FSC). First, adjustment to the FSC must include the appropriate maintenance capabilities to support tank, sensor and UAV maintenance activities. Second, to support the additional assets, fuel- and cargo-transportation capacity in the FSC must increase. Some would argue that current monetary and personnel constraints preclude developing the ABCT Cavalry squadron in this manner; however, even if current constraints preclude its development in the near term, the recommendation in this article provides a framework for development in the long term.


The 6x36 initiative makes great strides in improving the capability of the ABCT Cavalry squadron. However, the “Cavalry squadron, armored” provides the best option for the future of mechanized reconnaissance. It offers the future ABCT a reconnaissance organization that requires less augmentation to conduct reconnaissance and security operations.

Developing the Cavalry squadron through the examination of doctrine, past development and the future addresses many capability shortfalls usually dealt with through task organization. Organic capability within the squadron allows the brigade commander to manage combat power among the three CABs to mass forces at the decisive point vs. allocating them to reconnaissance and security efforts.

The “Cavalry squadron, armored” is capable of fulfilling Cavalry’s historic purpose and roles. Its capability to conduct reconnaissance-in-force, guard and some economy-of-force missions breaks the change paradigm established during the past development of mechanized reconnaissance organizations.

Finally, with regard to future conflict, the squadron is flexible and capable enough to remain competitive in operations that range from general war to protracted stability operations.

If one of the reasons for expanding the ABCT’s capabilities is to provide a more robust organization capable of conducting decisive action in uncertain future environments, then development of the Cavalry squadron must be a consideration to enable tactical and operational success into the future.


1 Daniel Wasserbly, “U.S. Army Leaders Outline Major Reorganization,” Jane’s International Defense Review,46 (2013).

2 Lance M. Bacon, “Odierno: Brigade Cuts Need to Reorganize,” Army Times, March 3, 2012,

3 Ibid.

4 There is doctrinal tension on this point between the brigade and Cavalry squadron field manuals (FMs). FM 3-90.6 assigns the Cavalry squadron a reconnaissance-only role. FM 3-20.96 defines its role as reconnaissance or security. FM 3-90.6, Brigade Combat Team, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office (GPO), 2010, and FM 3-20.96, Reconnaissance and Cavalry Squadron, Washington, DC: GPO, 2010.

5 FM 3-90.6.

6 MAJ Todd L. Poindexter, “Transforming Mechanized Reconnaissance: How the Armor Brigade Combat Team (ABCT) Cavalry Squadron Should Be Structured for Reconnaissance and Security in the Near Future,” Fort Leavenworth, KS: thesis for CGSC master’s degree in military arts and science, 2014.

7 FM 3-90.2, Reconnaissance, Security and Tactical Enabling Tasks, Vol. 2, Washington, DC: GPO, 2013.

8 FM 3-20.96.

9 The estimated frontage for the larger ABCT is 16 kilometers at standard distance and 24 kilometers at extended distance. Although these distances are not represented in current doctrine, the assets within the current Cavalry squadron are not capable of securing these frontages. See the author’s 2014 thesis for his CGSC master’s in military arts and science.

10 FM 3-90.2.

11 Ibid.

12 Dr. Robert S. Cameron, To Fight or Not to Fight: Organizational and Doctrinal Trends in Mounted Maneuver Reconnaissance from the Interwar Years to Operation Iraqi Freedom, Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2010.

13 Ibid.

14 COL Curtis D. Taylor, “Transformation of Reconnaissance: Who Will Fight for Information on the Future Battlefield?”, Fort Leavenworth, KS: thesis for CGSC master’s degree in military arts and science, 2005.

15 Cameron.

16 Poindexter.

17 In this case, the forms of reconnaissance required are route, zone, area and reconnaissance-in-force. Special reconnaissance is omitted due to the fact it is generally executed by Special Forces units. See FM 3-90.2 and Cameron.

18 Carl von Clausewitz concluded that the nature of warfare remains constant while the environment within which warfare occurs constantly changes. See “On the Nature of War” in On War, edited by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

19 Ibid.

20 FM 3-20.96.

21 MCoE, “Force Design Update Cycle 13-01: The Standard ABCT Scout Platoon,” presentation at Fort Benning, GA, 2013.

22 Ibid. The 6x36 concept consists of three Cavalry troops with two platoons each and a mortar section. Each platoon consists of six CFVs and 36 Soldiers. Platoons also possess Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below Long-Range Advance Scout Surveillance System (LRAS3) and Raven UAV systems.

23 Poindexter.

24 Ibid. The estimated frontage for the larger ABCT is 16 kilometers at standard distance and 24 kilometers at extended distance. Although these figures are not represented in current doctrine, the additional assets within the “Cavalry squadron, armored” proved capable of securing both distances.

25 FM 3-90.2.

26 Ibid. Screen is a security task that primarily provides early warning to the protected force, while guard is a security task to protect the main body by fighting to gain time – while also observing and reporting information, and preventing enemy ground observation of and direct fire against the main body. The addition of a tank company provides the squadron the requisite firepower to fight to gain time for the BCT.

27 Wasserbly.

28 Andrew Feickhart, “Army Drawdown and Restructuring: Background and Issues for Congress,” Washington, DC: the Congressional Research Service.

29 Ibid.