Surveillance Teams and the Battle Hand-Off

Usually in the Military there are not many stand-alone operations (operations that have nothing to do with any other mission). Most missions are a part of something larger that is always trying to be tracked and directed. For instance, your mission may be to transport water to and from a combat zone, but the purpose of your mission is not transporting the water, it is to keep your comrades in the combat zone hydrated. This, like many operational environments can easily be related to surveillance. While working on a surveillance team, you may have the “mission” to check out a few houses, find some license plates, locate a person, document an area, etc. However, those tasks, like delivering water, are not stand-alone missions… and technically speaking, those are reconnaissance tasks, not surveillance.

Surveillance is the act of generating a report based on the reconnaissance operations that were conducted in support of the larger scope of intelligence gathering. Getting back on topic, the reason that surveillance teams were originally broken into rotations was so that a smaller force could surveille a larger force without much support i.e. four soldiers could watch four thousand people on a six-hour rotation. The immediate issue that arose with rotating shifts of dislocated, observation teams was continuity of information. And so, I have finally, finally reached the thesis of my blog: Surveillance Teams and the Battle Hand-off.

I’m not sure what the continuity of readers is like for my blogs, so: to quickly introduce myself, I will go by JJH for the purposes of this blog. I am a nine-year Army Combat Vet who spent the entirety of his time in the Army as a Forward Observer. In my twilight years (2014-2017) I spent the majority of my time traveling around the U.S and sometimes Europe teaching, coaching, training and mentoring local and foreign militaries / governments to do what I do. It sounds cooler than it was, mostly I just tried to keep officers with 10 minutes of experience from putting out bad information.

The Battle Hand-off is easily one of the most important parts of reconnaissance (recon). Even if, by some luck of the draw, you get to go out on a stand-alone recon mission. You would still write up a report (surveillance) that gets dissected and applied anywhere, in anyway it can be e.g. people involved, geography, cultural stability, time, duration, weather, population density etc. That way there’s a continuity of information that can be built upon in order to maximize efficiency. The manner in which you choose to report is entirely up to the two entities (whether it be a person or a team) that relieve each other. Most of the time, it is very informal. The purpose of it being informal, is so that no information is lost in translation. Only in two other country’s (out of 10 or so that I have worked with) armies have I ever seen the requirement that an informal battle hand-off be recorded (thus creating a formal, non-formal report and ripping the fabric of time and space).

In general, differing levels of required formality in reporting lead to two things: The more formal the report is, the less likely it is something critical is missed, however, it then becomes more likely that opportunities are missed due to the inability to communicate seemingly innocuous details. The inverse is also true that the less formal the report writing, the more likely it is that something critical is missed, however every team member is more likely to have a better common operating picture. Which is a cool phrase that I will use to segue into…

Common Operating Picture (COP) is the term that defines the operational awareness that everyone has of a common, or communal thing. Now I know what you must be thinking, isn’t COP already an acronym I hear every other day that describes a smaller base overseas, a ‘combat out-post’? To that I say: yes, you have. The military, in its infinite wisdom has decided to move towards simplicity and reuse acronyms. I can list about four different things that “M.R.E.” is being used for right now… but I digress.

A COP (Common Operating Picture) is a picture-puzzle that everyone from the recon team, up to the intelligence analyst officers that compile theater-wide surveillance reports, is trying to solve. Each entity involved puts their picture on a puzzle piece and they all get handed up to some general somewhere who then gives it to some private to put together and explain to him. If everyone involved in the recon/surveillance team effort was able to understand what they were doing and why, then that synchronous effort leads to a picture of dogs playing poker, or whatever. However, if everyone involved is not aware of how their piece fits in the larger puzzle, then you would probably just get a Salvador Dali painting, or something. This Common Operating Picture leads to increasing levels of overall efficiency which can build upon itself and become an outrageously effect tool. However, if there are no Battle Hand-offs, it leads to mixed signals and lost opportunities and chaos.

You see, the Battle Hand-off is really the very first form of surveillance in any recon operation. After you recon an area and collect intelligence, whoever relieves you is briefed with your informal surveillance report. If for whatever reason the information is not handed off, then not only does your relief have no idea what their walking into (operationally speaking), but your puzzle piece at the higher levels, become less and less useful. This effect cascades up-hill until eventually all the clocks are melting and no one around you has any idea what is going on… which ironically, is the opposite purpose of surveillance. I could give a hundred examples of how a seemingly insignificant detail got lost and ultimately ruined an operation, but I don’t think it takes much imagination to see my point of view… but I mean when the Scooby-Gang is running back and forth from room to room trying to find a ghost, it wouldn’t take much to just have a conversation in the hallway about the rooms they’ve already been in.

To signal the outro of this blog, I will summarize by saying that if you are involved in any form of rotating surveillance and do not have some way to build off your teammates success or failures, you are doing yourself a great disservice. Synchronicity cannot be achieved without a directed unity of effort, and Battle Hand-offs are at the root of unity of effort. When you are on a surveillance team for a long period of time and have disjointed rotations, it is easy to forget that you are a part of a team. This leads to losing the perceived worth of a Battle Hand-off because of the disconnection from the team. At that point, there is no surveillance team, just multiple individuals trying to accomplish the same thing, separately. At that point, the concept of a team even becomes a hindrance because you have introduced a dissonance from reality for those people who are now both on, and not on a team. And at that point: chaos. Nobody likes chaos; do a Battle Hand-off.

PS. The “Picture-Puzzle” of surveillance was a metaphor, they never actually let us play with puzzles.