01 January 2015

FWS Topics: Patrolling

One of the most common operational types for any soldier or airman is the patrol. These mission types are at the heart of basic military operations, and are some of the first types of operations taught to new troopers. While this operational type is very important to the military, they seem to be forgotten by most military sci-fi authors and creators, and hopefully this blogpost could change some of that.  Much thanks goes to William S. Frisbee Jr. for his excellent Tips on Writing Military Science Fiction website for the topic idea and some of the information presented here.

What is an Military Patrol?

According to online military field manuals I found, an patrol is "a detachment sent out by a larger body to conduct a specific mission. Patrols operate semi-independently and return to the main body upon completion of their mission". These mission types can vary, but the sources I checked with explicitly say that most patrols are not combat focused as a general rule. Any patrol operates under the risk of encountering the enemy, but given the smaller size of the patrol force, they would attempt to avoid contact whenever possible. The majority of the time, patrols are used to gather intelligence on the terrain, the populace, possible positions of the enemy forces, possible natural resources or positions, securing an area or reassuring the local population. Patrolling is one of the longest conducted types of operations in military history, from our ancestors in caves to the streets of Kabul, and it will endure to have soldiers in spacesuits walking patrols on the sands of Mars.

The Types of Patrols

Search and Destroy Patrol
The term "search and destory" was popularized during the Vietnam War, and was altered to the aggressive nature of the term that was unpopular politically. Today, "search and attack" patrols are designed to be an aggressive tool to hunt down enemy forces and destroy them far from base before they can mount an attack. As the name implies, the unit that is sent out on patrol has to hunt down the enemy force prior to the destroying. Normally, the search and destroy patrol is conduct after several RECON patrols and the AO is well known to prevent the S&D patrol from being ambushed after their own assault as well as developing an E&E route that allows the patrol to move quickly and quietly back to base. While the S&D Patrol is out in the field, another unit is kept on hot-standby, acting as an QRF...just in case.

Contact Patrol
According to William S. Frisbee Jr.'s website, there are two types of Contact Patrols. One is to literally make contact with friendly or allied forces to determine their status of these allied patrols, give them information, supplies, or lead them back to base. These are dangerous missions due to the increased risk of friendly fire or exposing your allied force to an enemy unit. Another type of Contact Patrol is used to purse an enemy force after another unit has made hostile contact with them. For some reason, the original patrol cannot purse the enemy force, and another patrol is called to engage in a running gun battle with the enemy.

Ambush Patrol
One type of combat patrol is the ambush patrol that is specifically tasked with waiting for the enemy and overwhelm them with suppressive fire and surprise....always a bad combination. If you accurate intelligence on enemy movements and positions, an ammbush patrol can be formed and conducted. Normally conducted on a road or trail against infantry or even armored units, ambush patrols can be a smaller force that engages a larger force. While killing the enemy is always good, ambush patrols reek a psychologically toll on the enemy force. They are less likely to use a certain route or even move through an area if there have been successful ambushes conducted against them.

Security Patrol

One of the most common patrols seen by military and civilians is the security patrol. There is another type of security patrol in the USMC patrol manual, and that one is used to screen the flanks of an larger force. However, the most common security patrol is what we've seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, military unit patrolling in either vehicles or on foot to ensure the security of an area or even their own base perimeter. This was common during the Vietnam and Korean Wars, to prevent enemy sappers from slipping into the base. On larger bases, security patrols are handled by Military Police units, and it likely in the future that security patrols will be handled by UGVs.

Clearing Patrol
When an unit occupies newly gained territory, a clearing patrol is formed to ensure that the area is indeed secure, especially during the night hours when an enemy counterattack could occur. I've also read that "clearing" patrols were used in urban combat environments to literary clearing the path for vehicles and tanks. Ensuring that mines, snipers, and anti-tank weaponry were not laying in wait, but these were very dangerous for the soldiers on the patrol.

Standing Patrol
Much like RECON patrols, Standing Patrols are used to setup observation posts and/or listening posts to watch an region for enemy activity or gather intelligence on the region in question, such as use as an landing zone. Standing Patrols are similar in mission to RECON, but they are in a static position, and thus requiring more planning on placing the standing patrol in a the right area to make their observations without being exposed to the enemy. This type of patrol was seen in the episode "toy soldiers" of Space: Above and Beyond, when the 58th and a very green Marine 5th Force Recon unit dig in on the planet Mors.

Reconnaissance Patrol
This is a smaller patrol, comprised of a squad or even a smaller unit of soldiers. Their primary goal is see the enemy, but not have the enemy see them, and gather as much intelligence on a specific point on a map. Often Recon patrols are the vanguard of the larger force, and the information they bring back often determines the overall strategy for the commanders. Often, RECON patrols are conducted by specialized units trained in RECON tactics with specialized gear. A good example of a modern RECON patrol is the Navy SEAL Recon and Surveillance team (drawn from SEAL Delivery teams) that was part of Operation: RED WINGS in Afghanistan around Sawtalo Sar mountains in summer of 2005. Another example was MAKO-31, the DEVGRU RECON unit during Operation ANACONDA that setup an OBS post to recon LZs for the main force. Not all RECON patrols are designed for stealth, Recon-by-Force and Recon-by-Fire are two examples of tactics to gauge an area by sending a larger force or probing enemy positions by firing on them.

The Organization and Planning of Patrols
Anytime that soldiers are ordered out of their base and sent into hostile territory, planning is key. Entire manuals have been authored on the subject, and they often information in-depth on every element of an patrol. Unlike some patrols seen in media, most of the time, patrols are highly planned and organized to allow for success of the operation and the soldiers coming back to base alive. Before the patrol is sent outside the wire, the patrol and all the troopers involved are informed of the goals, the intelligence on the area, length of time in the field, transportation, and a plan if the patrol should run into trouble.
Patrols are lead by the patrol leader, and s/he orders an Warning Order to inform the lucky troopers that are being sent outside the wire. During this phase, weapons are drawn, gear packed, radios checked, maps are pulled, and the soldiers are informed of their mission by the patrol leader. If the soldiers are lucky, terrain models are used instead of maps to allow them a sense of the terrain and how the next few days are going to be like. Recently, the use of 3D technology allows for commanders to brief the soldiers without these terrain models. Everything is checked and rechecked, and the patrol is sent out, and then the real fun begins.
In the patrol itself, there is an logical organization of the men, the gear, time, and the overall plan. In the patrol, there is an overall leader is normally near the front of the patrol formation with their radio operator. There is also an assistant patrol leader, and is near the rear of the formation to make sure that the commander's orders are being followed and the soldiers are doing their jobs. Leading this merry band of warfighters through the wildness is the navigator. They guide the patrol via maps and GPS, along with knowing where they are and where they need to get to. Being an navigator is a tough job, and easy to fuck up.
When it comes to the soldiers that comprise the patrol, there is several jobs. The pointman takes point and is front security, and advance out in front of the patrol formation to scout ahead. The navigator gives the pointman information on what to expect. These pointman are normally armed with assault rifles. Then we come to the coverman, armed with the light machine gun and is general behind the pointman. In case the shit gets thick, the coverman opens up with the SAW, and lays down suppressive fire. Flank security is handled by one soldier on each flank of the patrol formation and is there to watch for the enemy, and not allowing the patrol to fall into an ambush. However, there is a chance of being lost from the rest of the patrol.
Bring up the rear, is tail-end charlie or rear security. At the end of the patrol formation is the assistant patrol leader, and can lead another element of the patrol if there is a problem. Rear security is important, because an enemy would be foolish to attack head on, and the flank and rear are the the best targets. Much like the pointman, rear security needs to be on the ball, or else the patrol could be cut down from behind. Normally parred with the rear guy is an SAW gunner...just in case the shit hits the fan. That brings us to the paceman. These soldiers are tasked with keeping a count of the number of steps that they take, and this allows the navigator to gauge their speed and distance.
When the patrol stops and regroups, there is another job: the terrain model man. Until recently, the TMM would design a 3D map with the help of the navigator using string, dirt, coffee grounds. However, with the advent of ruggedized military laptop computers, the TMM can access other applications to communicate their current position, path, and possible battle path to attack an enemy unit. In the modern patrol, technology helps, allowing soldiers to be updated when conditions change in their AO due to current intelligence. Just pray that there is a Starbuck's for WiFi access.

Foot Patrol
Since the first footsoldiers, there has been foot patrols, and that tradition carries onward today. As said above, the average foot patrol involves a great deal of planning, organization, and soldiers to carry out the task at hand. Foot Patrols by soldiers can be carried out in a variety of terrain, from mountains to cities to jungles with all manner of peoples and enemy forces in their path. Unlike vehicle or air patrols, the foot patrol is the most exposed and naked if anything should happen.

Vehicle Patrol
Since World War II, there have been patrols conducted by mounted soldiers in all manner of light military utility vehicles. Before that, there were horses. While the horse, and the modified Jeeps of the Long Range Desert Group are gone, soldiers today use Humvees, Land Rovers, and the MRAP to patrol places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Within vehicle patrols, communication is critical and planning. When or if an vehicle goes down in the formation, soldiers have to know what to do, and what their role is to get the downed vehicle out of the hot zone. Unlike foot patrols, vehicle based patrols are much more difficult to maintain sheath and a low-profile, especially with vehicles like the MRAP. However, as the soldiers of the LRDG showed us, it can be done. With vehicle patrols, fuel must be considered.

Combat Air Patrol
Air space is as critical as the ground in modern warfare, and to ensure the control over the sky, combat air patrols are flown to protect the carrier or advancing ground units, while maintaining domination of the skies. CAPS allow for reduced response times to incoming threats, this was used in BSG to defend the fleet against Cylon raiders. After the First Gulf War, the US and her allies flow CAPs over the northern and southern regions of Iraq to maintain the UN No Fly Zones. After 9/11, CAPs were flown over the United States in case of further terrorist activities.

The Future of Patrolling
Given what we've seen in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, patrolling was a key element in maintaining control and a presence in an unstable situation on the ground. This was also an opportunity for rebel and terrorist forces to strike at the coalition forces, who stood out in their HUMMVs and MRAPs. With the risk of death and injury, but the need still for patrolling, future warfighters could turn to unmanned vehicles for the answer. Already, UAVs patrol vast regions of airspace, watching and waiting. These unmanned aircraft can stay aloft for 24 hours, gathering intelligence on a region or even waiting on a target.
The same concept could be applied to the Unmanned Ground Vehicle. These wheeled robotic vehicles (or bipedal robots in the future) could take the place of those dangerous foot and vehicles patrols in hostile cities, like what we've seen in Neill Blomkamp's Tetra Vaal from 2004. These vehicles would be piloted from behind the wire or even be programed like the iRobot Roomba to survey an area over and over, without the risk of boredom or distraction as human soldier would experience on very long foot patrols. However, these UGVs or even humanform robots could not engage the local populace like human soldiers, or build a relationship. Instead, the local population would most likely be scared of seeing robotic vehicle or Terminators on their streets...can't win them all. Of course, with the recent advent of micro-UAVs, robotic patrolling could be accomplished without the local being fully aware of the robots that are watching them. We could also see the advent of real-time battlefield video, linking the patrol to the base, much like we witness in ALIENS. Instead of the experience and report of the soldiers, the commanders would also have video to analyze.    

Science Fiction and Patrolling
Despite patrolling being one of the cornerstones of infantry operations, it is not seen that often in military science fiction works. Sure, the word "patrol" is used, but it is rarely the certain centerpiece of the storyline. Sure, back in the more pulp era of science fiction, you had novel by E.E. "Doc" Smith like Galactic Patrol and the old Black-and-White TV show Space Patrol from the 1950's and 1960's. However, while these terms were used for mostly describing an futuristic space military organization, they were not the actual patrols that are conducted by military personnel. I believe that given the rash of the usage "patrol" in pulp sci-fi may have something to do with World War II veterans writing these works. Only on the rare occasion, I've I read an science fiction that contained an actual patrol that conforms to SOP, and often it is in video games, as an excuse to get the player into messy situations, as in some of the KillzoneHalo games or even the recent Destiny. Type in "patrol" into Google, and a great deal of Deviantart art pieces pop up, but few works were it takes the primary role. Why is the realistic military patrol ignored by science fiction creators? I am not sure, it would seem that patrols would be at the heart of most military sci-fi novels and other works, but outside of some video games and RPG situations conducted by the Dungeon-Master, military sci-fi creators use more specialized "missions" more than a general patrols. I have put patrols into several of my military sci-fi novels after reading William S. Frisbee Jr. during the writing of my first military science fiction novel.  


Tech 49 Jack Harper from Oblivion 
I might be in the minority here, but I rather enjoyed 2013's Oblivion, and it contains a rather good example of an science fiction aerial patrol. In the film, Tech 4-9, Jack Harper is tasked with repairing the drones used to defend the sea water powered Fusion power generators and patrolling the radiation-free zones of NW America in his amazingly designed "bubble ship". At some points, Jack is forced to a ground-game, and he uses an fuel-cell powered motorcycle. The patrol portion of Jack's mission is brief, but an interesting element in a mainstream big budget sci-fi film. We also see towards the end of the film, there are more than one Jack Harper Tech, and like Jack-4-9, Jack-5-2 patrols and repairs.

The Overmind Bio-Mech Patrols from Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future
Taking a healthy helping from 1984's The Terminator, 1987's Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future was about a machine intelligence taking power via advancements in AI and waging a war against the meatbags called "The Metal Wars" in the mid-22st century. We lost, and the machines, with help from race-traitor Lord Dread, won. The wastelands of former cites are patrolled by a number of Overmind's Bio-Mechs humanform soldiers. Some of these robot patrols are commanded by human officers loyal to the Machine Order and the new Bio-Dread Empire, while other times, smaller wheeled machines patrol the ruins for humans. During the series, Lord Dread and Overmind developed Bio-Dreads. These more advanced machines like Soaron and Blastarr, are designed to patrol and aid other machine units. We often see Soaron and Blastarr on-patrol and just waiting to intercept Power and his merry band of freedom fighters. Throughout the one-season show, machine patrols are often ambushed by Captain Power or other human resistance fighters.

Kyle Reese's L.A. Patrol from The Terminator
In of the great "future war" scenes from the original 1984 The Terminator, we see Kyle Reese in active military service with the 132nd under Justin Perry as a tech-segerant in the Tech-Com group (whatever the hell that is). During one 2029 scene, Kyle leads an recon patrol observing Skynet aerial patrol activity. The reason for the patrol is never stated, and it likely a normal function of any resistance unit. In my opinion, Kyle's patrol is either to watch Skynet activity near their base, acting as outside-the-wire security, watching to see if Skynet is moving onto their location. Or, the 132nd is planning a strike on a Skynet facility, and Kyle's scout patrol is reconing the AO in preparation. Of course, minutes after Kyle and his soldiers return to their underground base, an Terminator 800 series infiltration unit enters the base with an GE RSB-80 Plasma machine gun and lays waste to the base. When I've imagined the dark world of 2029 AD in the The Terminator universe, patrolling is key element in resistance and Skynet military operations.

The Skynet Hunter-Killer Patrol Machines from The Terminator Universe
To maintain control over the remains of the human population and keep a watchful eye on their activities, Skynet deploys a number of patrol machines on the ground and in the air. One of the iconic scenes in the original 1984 film, is the Skynet Hunter-Killer model A4 400c type patrolling the wasteland that is Los  Angles in the post-Skynet apocalypse. Machine like these forces the Resistance to keep their heads down during the daytime, and only operate at night. If that wasn't bad enough, the wasteland is patrol on the ground by the monstrous  Hunter-Killer Tank, that is used for urban suppression operations.
The smaller variant of the HK tank, the M250D was a smaller tracked vehicle that could maneuver through the rough conditions of post-nuclear strike urban wastelands that were a favorite operational area for the Resistance. Skynet even deployed a snake-like machine to monitor and patrol waterborne environments, as seen in Terminator: Salvation. According to some Terminator fan writers, the first time Skynet encountered the human survivors was when underground patrol machines came across humans hiding in sewers and other underground structures. Often, the Resistance low-level operations involve destroying Skynet patrol machines, and are the most replaced units in the war against the humans.

The Robotic Police from Neill Blomkamp's Tetra Vaal
There is little doubt that Neill Blomkamp is one of the brave new voices filmmaking and in his next film Chappie, he draws from this own previous work. In 2004, he created an  fake advisement about a law enforcement robots that patrols the dangerous region of urban centers of developing nations without risking flesh-&-blood human police officers. Tetra Vaal shows us patrol humanform armed robots and how patrolling could alter in the future with the advent of bipedal robotic technology.

Combat Air Patrols from Battlestar Galactica
In both the 1978 and 2003 TV series, Colonial pilots are seen conducting patrols in their Viper class space fighters or in the case of Ronald D. Moore series, the Raptor was also used to scout ahead and run patrols in   unexplored regions of space. Like most uses of concept of patrols in military science fiction, the writers used patrols to get our Colonial pilots into combat situations. In the original series, the very first episode has Apollo and Zac run a recon patrol, discovering the Cylon plot. This patrol results in the death of Zac. The theme of using patrols would continue throughout the series.
During the 2003 reimagined series, there is a combat air patrol or CAP flown in the fleet throughout the series. Normally, the CAP is flown by two Vipers and act as the primary defensive element for the fleet along being the rapid response military force inside of the fleet when Cylon jump in or a ship captain revolts. Deep space patrols are also undertaken by the Raptor class scout/utility vehicle that use their FTL capability and often this is an important plot device element of the series.

Combat Air Patrols from Space: Above and Beyond
Throughout this important, but short-lived military science fiction television series Space: Above and Beyond, space fighter patrols are launched from the space carrier Saratoga. Space fighter jocks in SA-43 Hammerhead fighters are seen patrolling regions of space to a similar degree as seen in Wing Commander and X-Wing computer games: to control and monitor space.  Some of the patrols last over a day in flight time, and one wonders how they stay awake flying for that long. One of the best examples of patrols was during the hunt for the new Chig fighter and the aliens' ace pilot: Chiggy Von Richthofen. Patrol after patrol was sent out after the new alien fighter, and he killed them one by one. Miss this series.

Combat Air Patrols from Wing Commander
Throughout the various Wing Commander video game titles, patrolling various Nav-Points was a staple of the gamers' experience. Often, when the space carrier jumped into a new system that was not secure by Terran forces from the killer space tigers, you were deployed to run a patrol of several navigation points in the star system. Often, you and your wingman get jumped by Kilrathi fighters, especially in Nav-Points with asteroids. Patrols were a way for the game designers to get the player use to the game or new fighter with a limited engagement scenario and since combat air patrols are a primary mission of any military pilot, it made sense to include them in the game.

Combat Air Patrols from Star Wars: X-Wing
One of the greatest computer games of my high school years was the ass kicking X-Wing along with its expansion packs, and patrolling was an important element in the a few of the missions of the brave rebel alliance pilots. Much like Wing Commander, the mission of this Lucasarts' game are patrol regions of space, and at times, return patrols are the reinforcements to your missions.

Next Time on FWS...
It has been some time since FWS last posted an Ships of the Line blogpost, and we will be picking back up with more cruisers. To speed things along, FWS will be covering two classifications of cruisers: light and medium. Unlike the Heavy Cruiser, there are just fewer explains to work with. Here, FWS will explore and explain the light and medium cruisers of navies past, present, and future.


  1. Once again a really great post. I've done fieldcraft exercises with Australian airforce personnel, and even in a non-hostile, non-combat situation there is far more to it than anyone would ever realise. One thing you didn't mention however is the different formations a section may use in the field according to terrain and/or tactical situation.
    Your comment about the role of a navigator, so true! I speak from experience; when the compass gets broken, and you have to go by topography alone in a place you have never seen before, with night coming on...


  2. Sick post. Sucks that most Sci FI arts or arts in general don't include the standard patrols. Especially in videogames (what I'm doing) would bring in a lot of very good potential gameplay. Also after the ship of the line. Can u do a post on PMCs/mercenaries. Trying to use them in my game but want more better info. Thought u can better than I.

  3. Tech-Com stands for Technical or Technological Commandos units. As they don't represent overall resistance they are the "specialists" in fighting endos. But there is lack of continuity in that, some works description Tech-Com as name for all resistance cells, other describe them only as ELINT/SIGINT specialists or even an sappers. They rather presents themselves as well... elite. Trained and lead by Connor himself.

  4. The utility/scout craft used in the 2003 version of BSG were called Raptors, not Rapiers.

  5. I was with a communications unit in the US Army during my time in Iraq we did several "patrols" which basically broke down to just "showing" ourselves to the locals. We would pass out candy and soccer balls to kids, eat with local chiefs and just try to be as friendly as possible. I did about 7 patrols if you include 2 night missions, and the only time it got "scary" was when we where being hounded by a pack of wild dogs. Of course I imagine my experiance is not typical, nor is it like anything the Infantry dealt with.


  6. In response to Eric’s post, from research I have done, I believe that the vast number of military patrols are boring.

    An instructor for a leadership course I was taking told a story about an experience he had in Vietnam. It was during the monsoon season, and his unit was tasked with patrolling an area. The squad he was leading flat out told him that they were not going. It was wet, it was cold, and they saw no point to it. Therefore the squad spent the night kicking back in a tent on base. They used a map to keep track of their progress, and made radio calls as required. He then went on to explain to us all the things that could have gone wrong with this action.
    Most stories don’t use the “Boring” patrols. Patrols that make contact with the enemy do better in progressing the story. The only time that a writer would use the boring patrol is to show a problem with the operation taking place, or the military itself, but there is another way to look at it.
    A couple of weeks ago, I was watching The Pritzker Military Museum & Library program on PBS. The episode had Brig. Gen. William Mullen and Daniel Green, who had written a book called “Fallujah Redux,” Gen. Mullen had recently visited Fallujah. While there, he asked one marine how things were. “Boring,” the marine responded, “That must mean we’re winning.”

  7. Another Sci-Fi example is Stargate. Generally, whenever the SG-Team goes through the gate, they are reconing/patrolling the area around the gate, and trying to avoid contact with enemy forces. Of course, with SG-1, that is almost impossible, and we wouldn't have a show otherwise.

  8. Interesting post! I had not thought much about patrols before, even though they are clearly one of the most common types of missions undertaken by military personnel. I found your description of the different kinds of patrols (S&D, contact, security, reconnaissance, etc.) especially interesting. Patrols will obviously remain relevant for any military force even far into the future, so this info is pretty useful for SF.

    You use a lot of military acronyms in this and other posts that you are clearly familiar with. However, some of us are not as well read in army terminology. Since FWS is designed primarily to help people craft mil-SF (or just SF that happens to have armies in it), do you think that you could explain or at least provide the full term the acronym is shorthand for when you use like AO and QRF? Yes, I'm one of those people who is not as familiar with those terms... ;-)

    Also, knowing the meaning of modern military mil-speak will help a SF creator come up with convincing mil-speak for a culture that does not speak English or share cultural roots with Earth's armies- or has just been out there so long that new words have come into use and old ones been dropped.

    I would also point out that "combat air patrols" by space fighters should be "combat space patrols" instead!! Whether it makes sense to fly one person fighter pods around with the purpose of "patrolling" the vacuum (looking for stray mesons or specks of dust, perhaps?) when space is such a sensor-friendly environment is a separate question. Large space warships might go on extended "patrols" of the solar system to be near trouble spots, but that's really not much like a patrol by space fighters.

  9. I want to thank everyone for the great comments to the Patrolling blogpost! These are really rounding out the information presented here. I was nervous about posting this one...since the only patrolling I've done is at the mall for women and good deals.
    I honest thought about including the SG teams in Stargate for the Patrolling examples...but I did not.
    I think I will put up an Military lingo blogpost in the near future! Thanks for the idea!
    PMCs/Mercenaries is now on the schedule, and will be up in the next few months.

  10. Thanks you!!! Finaly I found my game, game by my childhood. Battle Engine!!! I've just play demo, now I can play full game like my dream :)

  11. I guess I was in middle school when you were in high school. X-Wing was some good fun.

  12. I apologize for the necro-post. Another patrol is the airborne reconnaissance and security patrol. Basically, an aircraft (rotary-wing in this case,) flies through an area and provides on call fire support and reconnaissance of the area. In Afghanistan unless we had a direct action mission this is what we did. We flew 6 hours a day, every day for a year over the Kandahar province. In that time you come to know the area, what is normal, what is odd and can provide intelligence to action targets, secondly you are there to provide on call fire support for any friendly units that come under fire, thirdly we were showing the flag.

    And I agree X-Wing was incredible.