The Army’s Long-Range Reconnaissance Forces

Long-range reconnaissance forces are the eyes of the Army deep behind enemy lines. They operate in small teams and on their own. Being a long-range scout means infiltrating an adversary’s territory on foot and by helicopter and undergoing gruelling survival exercises as well as jungle training in the tropics and winter combat training at the Arctic Circle.

Two soldiers with balaclavas, packs and weapons stand in a forest area: One briefs the other.

Deep behind the adversary’s lines

Long-range reconnaissance forces operate on their own for days on end, deep in the adversary’s territory. Their mission: observe and report. Chris is one of them. To master this challenge, he underwent three years of training.

A soldier prepares food on a small fire.

Long-range reconnaissance troops must be able to survive using the simplest of means.

Bundeswehr/Christian Vierfuss

“We are the eyes of the Army, deep behind the adversary’s lines,” says Chris, describing the mission of the long-range reconnaissance forces – his mission. Long-range reconnaissance forces operate in six-person teams and up to 150 km behind an adversary’s lines, in areas that reconnaissance drones cannot reach. In contrast to technological tools, which record only snapshots, the long-range reconnaissance troops are able to observe for longer periods of time as well as to detect, evaluate and report events.

Long-range reconnaissance forces are deployed in all climate zones and are completely on their own when on operations. They usually move on foot and avoid confronting the adversary, as they need to remain undetected. “It’s dangerous, but you already know what you’re getting yourself into. Thanks to our training and the strict selection process, we know that we can all count on each other,” says Chris.

A certain vibe

Chris began his Bundeswehr career as a conscript in 1 Light Infantry Battalion in Berlin in 2002. After basic training, he trained as a paratrooper in the Bavarian town of Altenstadt. It was there that he discovered his fascination with the Bundeswehr’s long-range reconnaissance forces and its special forces.

“I decided to join the long-range reconnaissance forces because I always saw them doing parachute jumps in Altenstadt. They definitely had a certain vibe. So then I thought: I might just give that a try.” In 2006, he started as a commando candidate in Pfullendorf, the training model at the time. Together with special forces applicants, he completed advanced individual training. The curriculum included marches, building concealed positions, radio communications, firearms training, rappelling and survival training. “That was essentially the first part of the selection process. We started out with 80 people. Six made it,” the 36-year-old recounts.

A soldier uses branches to build a shelter in the forest.

The hideout provides temporary shelter.

Bundeswehr/Christian Vierfuss

Giving up was never an option

When he decided to join the long-range reconnaissance forces, Chris also had to change to the senior non-commissioned officer career track. Training for the long-range reconnaissance troops includes parachuting, marksmanship, survival and close-quarters combat, among other things. “You are constantly out of doors and always under pressure to prove yourself. Training is demanding, but doable. Giving up was never an option,” Chris recalls.

The long-range reconnaissance teams are usually made up of noncoms, although a team is sometimes led by an officer. Three teams make a platoon. The Bundeswehr has four long-range reconnaissance platoons – two in 310 Airborne Reconnaissance Company at Seedorf and two in 260 Airborne Reconnaissance Company at Lebach. The long-range reconnaissance forces are assigned to the ISRIntelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Corps.

Specialists on the team

Every team member has an additional specialty. “The long-range reconnaissance forces have snipers, medics, JTACs, radio communication specialists and people who do optoelectronic special reconnaissance,” says Chris. Depending on personal preference, every soldier can choose a specialisation. “My English was decent, so they sent me to JTACJoint Terminal Attack Controller training in France.”

Joint terminal attack controllers – JTACs – coordinate air attacks from the ground, for instance. “We are there on order to direct and coordinate long-range fires to engage high-value targets, such as an adversary’s headquarters.”

One after another, uniformed soldiers swim across a stretch of water.

Bodies of water are also no obstacle to long-range reconnaissance troops.

Bundeswehr/Torsten Kraatz

Deployments are part of the deal

Chris was then stationed for six years in Pfullendorf as a long-range scout and JTACJoint Terminal Attack Controller. In that time, he deployed to Afghanistan three times for five months each – and became a father for the first time. “That was hard. I didn’t see a lot of my son for the first three years. But now with our second, I get to be home,” the long-range scout says, adding: “I signed up for this job. I knew if I joined the long-range reconnaissance forces and became a JTACJoint Terminal Attack Controller, I would go on deployments – those are part of the deal.”

He now works as an assistant section chief in long-range reconnaissance force development at the Army Concepts and Capabilities Development Centre in Cologne. “That was a sea change. Before, I was out on field exercises with weapons and equipment. And then all of a sudden, I’m at a desk fighting Windows and Excel,” Chris laughs. Of course, he is still in touch with his “family”, the long-range reconnaissance forces. Especially so as not to lose his expertise: “When you’re at a desk, you can very quickly no longer have any idea what you’re talking about if you’ve lost touch with how things really are.”

by Alexandra Möckel

Long-range reconnaissance force selection

  • Several soldiers carry a heavy crate.

    The aptitude assessment procedure

    The aptitude assessment procedure for long-range reconnaissance training takes two weeks. During the first week, the soldiers need to demonstrate their physical fitness: pull-ups, backpack run, obstacle course, swimming fully clothed, land navigation – always racing the clock. There is barely enough time for a breather in between tests. Failing a test means failing out of the entire selection process.

    The survival exercise in the second week is also a test of character. For days, the soldiers simulate being on the run: long days of marching, little sleep and barely any food. Character traits the instructors want to see are absolute determination, stamina, and a high tolerance for frustration.

  • A group of soldiers carry tree trunks on their shoulders during a march.

    On their own

    Long-range reconnaissance troops are specialised forces. The demands placed on body, mind and character are correspondingly high. The soldiers operate in six-man teams up to 150 km deep in the adversary’s territory. Their mission: observe and report.

    “When we’re on the move, we’re on our own. Nobody is coming to help us. We can’t simply abort when we are on a mission,” Major Frederik Vestergaard explains. He is the chief instructor at the Munster Training Centre in the training division of the ISRIntelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Corps, the branch to which the long-range reconnaissance forces belong. Should a team member be injured or something go wrong, that person would still have to be ready to continue on. They would need to have the will to get home, says Vestergaard.

    “Long-range reconnaissance forces need a high tolerance for frustration. If they fail, they need to be able to deal with that, because everyone fails at some point. What we want to see during the selection process isn’t anything out of this world. It’s not arbitrary. It is based on operational reality,” Vestergaard adds. He oversees the process and is responsible for the safety of the participants.

  • A soldier's foot with blisters on the heel and the sole.

    Going beyond limits – but safely

    “We provide very close support throughout the process,” Vestergaard explains. Eight instructors, a psychologist, a physician and the officer in charge accompany the soldiers. “The instructors need to have gone through the process themselves.” Only that way will they be able to realize when a participant is in danger of going beyond his or her personal limits – and intervene. “Also, the participants are constantly accompanied by at least two instructors. In our buddy system, one experienced non-commissioned officer is always partnered with a slightly younger colleague.”

    Doctors with borders

    Before the soldiers are even allowed to participate in the aptitude assessment procedure, they have to undergo a medical examination. “All the candidates have an up-to-date 90/5,” Stefanie Meier (not her real name), captain in the Medical Corps and neurosurgical resident at the Bundeswehr hospital in Berlin, explains. The “90/5” is a military medical fitness examination form. “This means that the soldiers were examined by colleagues beforehand to determine whether they are physically capable of enduring such levels of strain,” the doctor explains. It is already her second time accompanying soldiers during the selection process. “My job is not to treat scrapes or scratches right away, in the field, on demand. That also doesn’t reflect operational reality, because there won’t always be a doctor nearby. I see my role more as saving the participants from themselves if necessary,” Meier says. If soldiers are in danger of going beyond their limits, she intervenes and pulls them from the process. “The point isn’t to have the participants get hurt. People will sometimes overestimate themselves under stress.”

  • Soldiers put down their backpacks in the forest. In the foreground, a soldier sits on a tree stump.

    A question of safety

    For Markus Auschek, special branch instructor for psychology at the Training Centre in Pfullendorf, selecting the right soldiers plays a decisive role in terms of safety: “When it comes to the question of safety, the most important thing is to train the right person. If I choose the wrong person and our people are out 150 km behind the adversary’s lines, and that person cracks under the strain, it could cost the lives of the whole team. That’s why they brought me on board, so that we make the right choice.”

  • A soldier takes a bearing using the compass he holds in his hand.

    Individualist meets team player

    But who is a good fit? Auschek has clear-cut ideas: “The person we choose must combine different personality traits. I need somebody who really is able to put up with hardship, to a much greater extent than in the rest of the force. If your team’s radio specialist has to carry an eighty-kilo backpack for kilometres on end, I have no use for anybody who will then start to question the meaning of life. That would be counter-productive. The person we want is somebody who, when they finally get to where they’re going, is still motivated enough to set up a concealed position, because any negligence here might also cost someone their life. And once our people have occupied their position, they need to immediately shift gears again and be wide awake so that they can work their radios properly.”

  • A soldier jumps over an obstacle of wooden beams

    Stamina beats strength

    To pass the selection process, physical fitness is an essential requirement. “It’s primarily about muscular endurance,” Captain Meier says. That is why intense training is important. However: “Don’t overtrain. During the previous selection process, we had several participants who’d overdone it on the weights beforehand – and then in the critical phase, their bodies couldn’t handle the strain anymore and they had to drop out. That’s why it is more important to focus on endurance,” she adds.

    In chief instructor Major Vestergaard’s estimation, the candidates should have good land-navigation skills. “Long-range reconnaissance forces spend 90 percent of their time in the forest or in extreme terrain. Which means that anything that helps you find your way around is certainly also an important military skill.”

    The right motivation

    Mentally preparing for the aptitude assessment procedure is also important. “There are two aspects. First, you need to reflect on why you want to do this. The motive, the ‘why’, is the foundation for enduring the ‘how’,” Auschek says. There is no right or wrong motive. Wanting to follow in the footsteps of your father is just as legitimate as looking for a training programme that promises to be challenging and exciting.

    The second pillar is the how. “There are certain techniques, for instance how to talk to yourself. If you beat yourself up mentally during the high-pressure phases, you will not make it.” The trick is to keep the mind occupied. “Otherwise, your mind will occupy itself with itself and that usually goes wrong,” Auschek explains.

    Good self-distraction methods, for instance during a high-pressure phase, can include visualisation techniques such as thinking positive thoughts, like past experiences with friends and family, or even simply going through a recipe. Breathing techniques can also help in stress situations to avoid mistakes and accomplish the mission.

Aptitude assessment procedure: stress test for long-range reconnaissance candidates

The long-range reconnaissance forces accept only the pick of the lot. Applicants will have to march for hundreds of kilometres, on water, on land and mostly at night. Only the ones who make it through will be admitted to long-range reconnaissance training. Is it worth the struggle?


Bodies of water: Long-range reconnaissance forces in one of their elements

On the water behind enemy lines

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Long-range reconnaissance forces collect information about the adversary – also in the adversary’s hinterland. But first they need to get there unnoticed. Waterways are especially suitable for such an infiltration. In the Klietz training area, the …

Interview: New situation, same mission

Colonel Aslak Heisner is Deputy Commander of 1 Airborne Brigade in Saarlouis and commander of the brigade units of the Airborne Brigade. For him, the mission of the long-range reconnaissance forces has not fundamentally changed.

3 Questions to Oberst Aslak Heisner

Deputy Commander of 1 Airborne Brigade and commander of the brigade units of the Airborne Brigade.

Portrait of a soldier in uniform
Bundeswehr/Christian Vierfuß

For some time now, the focus has been more on national and collective defence. In what way does this change the mission of the long-range reconnaissance forces?

Portrait of a soldier in uniform

Initially, not at all. Accurate reconnaissance far behind enemy lines remains crucial for operations planning. Our long-range reconnaissance forces operate with an extremely low signature. That means that they are very inconspicuous. At the same time, they provide precise results, such as photos from a short distance away. We do currently have a good sensor mix in terms of reconnaissance – drones, for instance, play an important role. But they are not equally effective everywhere.

Why do you focus mainly on training amphibious infiltration here?

Portrait of a soldier in uniform

That is simply part of the task profile. We can employ our long-range reconnaissance forces around the world. And many regions are accessible by water. That is something we need to take advantage of, and we train some of the required basic techniques here in Klietz as well. Riding a folding boat may look easy. But having a team manoeuvre three boats in a way that is tactically sound is no trifling matter.

So what is the challenge?

Portrait of a soldier in uniform

Anything can happen at any time. Long-range reconnaissance forces generally move at night and usually on and in unknown waters. Especially in emergencies, that is particularly challenging. Not every body of water is as calm as the Havel river. That is why the basic skill set must be completely internalised.

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    In the concealed observation post

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  • A soldier with equipment raises a fist above his head.

    Under fire

    As specialised scouts, long-range reconnaissance forces operate far behind enemy lines. Remaining unobserved is essential for their survival.

Long-range reconnaissance forces during Cold Response 2020

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