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.
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.
The Organization and Planning of Patrols
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.
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.
Combat Air Patrol
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
Tech 49 Jack Harper from Oblivion
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 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.
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...