Swift | Silent | Deadly

Recce Patrolling Part VII: Patrol Base Ops

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At some point your recce patrol will have to halt for an extended period of time. This is when you will establish a patrol base. Understanding patrol base ops is critical for a recce team.  This may differ quite a bit from how patrol base operations are conducted by larger infantry units due to the peculiar nature of recce patrols.

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The Patrol Base

The patrol base (PB) is established for the purpose of halting the team for a period of up to 24 hours. Most commonly for a recce patrol this is because the team is in the designated recce area. The PB is established and from it the actual reconnaissance may be launched. The team may also use a patrol base to rest and refit prior to arrival in the objective area.

Patrol base ops for recce teams often differ than for regular infantry units. This is because of the very small size of recce elements versus a rifle squad (or platoon). A recce patrol usually consists of 4-6 men and relies more on stealth than fighting power. While a larger infantry element can send out LP/OPs (listening posts/observation posts) and security patrols from the patrol base, this isn’t really feasible for a 4- to 6-man recce element.

Patrol Base Site Selection

There are some pretty important site selection criteria when establishing a patrol base.  Its general location an be planned via map study prior to mission launch. This is a really good idea; the team should know roughly where they are going when they step off. Realities on the ground will almost always change the exact location of the PB. Below are the things to look for in a good patrol base.

Proximity to Objective

The patrol base has to be within a reasonable proximity to the objective. If the mission is a static surveillance of an enemy target, an observation post (OP) will be established. Some members of the team must move back and forth between the OP and the PB several times. These movements are to switch out guys “on the glass,” to return camera memory cards back to the patrol base, etc. Your patrol base has to be close enough to the objective to support this without having guys in transit all day and night.

There is a balance, however. The PB should be hidden from the objective, visually and audibly. Generally this means that the PB and objective should be separated by a terrain feature (a mountain, finger, etc.). This isn’t always possible, but should always be employed when possible. Patrol bases are usually established at night, and things look different in daylight. You don’t want to set into a PB only to discover that it is visible from the target area when the sun comes up.

You also want to ensure that your patrol base location has little tactical value to the enemy. It would suck to set up, then have an enemy platoon move right on top of you to occupy a hilltop or setup an ambush. The terrain should have as little tactical value as possible.

Concealment and Defensibility

Beyond proximity, the patrol base should offer camouflage and be defensible. The team is vulnerable in the PB. This is where they work, maintain weapons, eat, and sleep. The patrol base should be as safe and secure as a spot in the woods possibly can be.

Camouflage plays a much bigger role for a recce team than, say, an infantry platoon. Remaining undetected is the recce team’s top priority. The team doesn’t bring much firepower to the battlefield, and compromise equals mission failure. A recce team is also much smaller, making concealment a much more realistic possibility.

Patrol bases should be in the densest possible vegetation. The nastiest briar patches and rhododendron thickets make good patrol bases. This makes moving around inside the PB difficult, but it has an undeniable advantage. No one is likely to stumble through this terrain. So does other undesirable terrain, like swampland. People will simply be less likely to move through bad terrain.

When possible the patrol base should be defensible, as well. This can mean a lot of different things, but ideally it should offer some cover from enemy fire. This is easier said than done, but should be sought were possible.


During the planning phase of the operation the team leader should establish an idea of where the patrol base will be located. This will be based off maps and imagery. As mentioned earlier, the exact location will usually change because conditions on the ground are rarely as good as they look from a map. Because of this the TL should choose both primary and alternate patrol base locations.

Establishing the Patrol Base

Once the team is ready to move into the patrol base several things will happen. The team is patrolling along. The Point Man and Team Leader are navigating well so they know then the team has arrived IVO (in vicinity of) the patrol base. They will begin looking for suitable locations. Once one has been established the PT and TL will conduct a leader’s recon.

Leader’s Recon

The leader’s recon is simply to check the viability of the spot before moving the whole team in. The team will circle up in a concealed location for a long security halt. The TL will give the ATL a 5-Point Contingency Plan (see below). The TL and the PT will then reconnoiter the potential patrol base location.

They are looking for the factors listed above – concealment, defensibility, visibility from the objective, etc. The TL and PT are looking for signs of enemy activity in the area, and making sure that no natural lines of drift (game trails, etc) run to closely through the area. They are also checking logistics factors, i.e. is large enough to hold the whole team?

At the conclusion of the leader’s recon the return and link up with the rest of the team. The team will be briefed on the plan. The team leader will also establish an alternate rendezvous point (usually the last rally point) in case the team gets hit while occupying the patrol base. Now the team will be brought in and the patrol base will be established.

Pro-Tip: The 5-Point Contingency Plan

The 5-Point Contingency Plan is a plan worked out between element leaders any time the patrol splits. This little report ensures that everyone knows what to do if something goes wrong while the team is separated. The five points of the plan have the acronym GOTWA. Let’s go through it line-by-line.

  • G – where I’m Going. Where the element intends to go
  • O – Others I’m taking with me. Who else is in the departing element, in this case the TL and PT.
  • T – Time of my return, or what time you should expect me/us back.
  • W – What to do if I don’t return. Wait longer? Return to the last rally point? Come look for me?
  • A – Actions to take if I’m attacked or you’re attacked. Though no plan survives contact, this ensures that each element has an idea what the other will do if something catastrophic happens.

Moving In

At this point the team is ready to move into its new home for the next 24 hours. The Point Man and TL will lead the patrol into the patrol base location. In wooded terrain the team will move in a “dog-leg.” That is, they will walk past the intended patrol base location, then make a sharp, 135-degree turn back into it. In open terrain where this would do no good it can just be skipped.

The purpose for this security. Later, should the enemy be tracking you, they will (hopefully) walk past your position before realizing your trail doubles back. This gives you ample opportunity to see them and either break contact or prepare to defend the patrol base.

The patrol needs to form up into as close to a circle as possible and being holding security. In smaller teams security may be a triangle rather than a circle. The circle should be large enough for at least two people in the middle. The RTO will have to get comm and the TL will have to confer with various members of the team. This is best done in the middle of the circle with the rest of the team holding security.


Security is the most critical and universal tasks of patrol base ops. It is constant, it is never a finished job, and it is 360. The team will spend more time holding security than doing any other single task. The number of team members holding security at a given time is variable depending on a number of factors.

When the team first occupies the patrol base, though, security will be 100%. Every member of the team will fall into his position and hold security for at least 15 minutes (or more, at the TL’s discretion). The TL will move the “most casualty-producing” weapon to the most likely avenue of approach – the direction the team just came from. All team members will be alert, in the prone, with gear on and ready to fight.

At this point security may be modified slightly. The Team Leader may rearrange personnel slightly to have certain weapons pointed in certain directions. He may also have someone set out Claymore mines or other security measures. We’ll talk about the tasks that get accomplished in the patrol base, and re-address ongoing security. Bottom line, though: if you don’t have a task assigned to you, you’re holding security until it’s time to rest, but more on that later.

Conducting Patrol Base Ops

Once the patrol base has been occupied it’s not time to rest, it’s time to get to work.  This is where recce patrolling become tedious: it seems like there is always something to do.

Principle: Don’t Have a Yard Sale

This is another one that should be familiar to military guys: don’t have a yard sale or don’t make a gypsy camp. Both of these phrases mean the same thing: don’t pull all your stuff out of your pack. You take out only what you are using at the time. For instance, you pull out your food and eat, then pull out your sleeping bag and sleep. You don’t roll out your sleeping bag, then pull out the stove and pots and pans for dinner – if you have to leave you won’t have time to pack all that back up.

This also means keeping things snapped, zipped, and otherwise sealed up. When you take something out of your ruck, the ruck needs to be closed back up. If you have to stand up and move out, you don’t want to be dropping important stuff for the next two hundred yards. I think I’ve mentioned this in a previous post, but it also means keeping your fighting load on your body at all times. When the time comes to fight, it’s time to fight, not look for your gear, put it on, snap all the straps, etc. Your fighting load stays on your body.

Principle: Priorities of Work

The phrase “priorities of work” is familiar to any military guy. It means nothing more than the order in which things happen. There is a simple, universal order to help you decide your priorities of work: Team Gear, Personal Gear, Body. Your first priority is to maintain team equipment. Examples include radios, machine guns, etc. At this point you may also redistribute water, ammo, food, batteries, or whatever else, as needed. Your next priority is personal equipment, usually maintaining your rifle and intrateam radio. Finally, when all that is done you can maintain your body by reapplying camouflage, eating, and resting.

Principle: One Person Eats (or Cleans or Whatever) at a Time

This is one of those things that is practical for larger patrols like infantry squads or platoons. With a four- to six-man recce element this is how it has to be, though: one person at a time performs tasks that take him off security or out of the fight. Obviously these tasks will follow the Priorities of Work, with everyone cleaning weapons, maintaining radios, building antennas, etc., as needed, but only on person doing so at a time. Also of note on weapons cleaning: generally weapons should not be disassembled at night, except under extenuating circumstances.

Once team and personal gear are taken care of, body can be taken care of. This means that one person at a time changes, socks, heats water, eats chow, etc. It’s up to you if you want to let one dude do all of his stuff before the next guy. Personally, I say give everyone a time – 10 or 15 minutes – to do what they need to do, then go around the circle. That is the individual’s time to take care of what is most important to him be it eating, changing socks, putting on snivel gear, etc. If you still have stuff you need to do you’ll have to wait until it gets back around to you. But there’s other shit that needs to be done, too…

Security and the Rest Plan

Finally we get to what everyone on the patrol has been waiting for: sleep. Sometimes a modified patrol base called a harbor site is established just for the purpose the rest if the team is on a multi-day movement to the objective. While everyone in the patrol wants to rest at this point it is important to maintain security. The TL will decide the percentage of the patrol that remains on security while everyone else sleeps.

Generally for a recce patrol it will be one person on security while everyone else rests. It will look something like this. Once priorities of work are finished the patrol will start bedding down. Generally this will be under a simple ranger roll (a poncho and poncho liner) wherever they already happen to be. Heads and weapons will be pointed outboard, packs will be packed, fighting load will still be on, and weapons will be within easy reach. One person will be assigned to stay up and hold security first.

Depending on how many hours are left before daylight the shifts might be thirty minutes to an hour to allow everyone max sleep without overtaxing one dude. The team leader should, ideally, make security shifts work with the available time so no one has to be up more than an hour at a time, and everyone gets an equal amount of sleep. And that includes the Team Leader – he holds a security shift, too.

Holding Security

Depending on the particulars of the site the one dude on security might just sit up from where he is sleeping and hold security. Or he might get up and move to the machine gun if it is covering down on a particularly likely avenue of approach. Depending on the communication situation the man on security may also be handed the radio handset. If the team only has one set of night vision it should be passed around to the guy holding security. When I was around this guy was almost always handed “clackers” for the Claymore mines, as well.

Regardless of exactly how it looks, the guy on security needs to be awake and looking around. If he had NODs he should put them on. If not he should have really well-adjusted night vision at this point. Generally he will be sitting up, weapon in hand, ready to fire or wake the rest of the patrol as need by.

Once the first man’s shift is over he will pass security on to the next guy. He’ll wake him up and inform him that it’s time to hold security. Once he’s awake he will be given a quick brief. The radio, Claymore clackers, weapon(s), and whatever else will be passed off. At this point the first guy can finally go to sleep. Being first sucks because once the patrol stops moving you will get tired very fast. It’s also good, because now you get to sleep the rest of the night.

Stand To

Regardless of how late the team got to bed it will “stand to” before dawn. This means all hands will be awake, alert, and ready to fight before the sun comes up. The world comes alive at dawn. If the patrol base was occupied during darkness the world around it may look very different in daylight. Every member of the patrol needs to be up and ready to fight when the sun comes up. This means awake, alert, on weapons, and with all sleeping gear packed up and ready to move.

Withdrawal from the Patrol Base

A patrol base is never occupied for more than 24 hours except in cases of emergency. Often they are occupied for much shorter periods of time, like just overnight, or just during the day if mission dictates movement at night. When the team is ready to roll out the TL and ATL will ensure the team is ready. They will account for all serialized and mission-essential gear. The TL and Point Man will already have established a direction of travel so the team knows where it’s going when it leaves.

When the team is ready to start moving the ATL will count every member of the patrol out of the patrol base. Once everyone is out the ATL will sweep the area. He will ensure nothing has been left behind, including target indicators like trash. He will also do what he can to obscure signs of the patrol’s presence in the area, though it will be impossible to fully conceal.

Closing Thoughts

This seems like a fairly simple process. As I wrote this I realized there’s nothing fancy in here, no high-speed, “advanced” techniques, just some slight modifications on basic infantry tactics. Establishing and operating a patrol base takes a lot of work. Doing it really well takes an awful lot of practice. It also takes a metric shitload of discipline to walk all day under a rucksack, flop down exhausted and covered in sweat, then wait on four other dudes to eat before you can eat. It takes even more discipline to wake up in the middle of the night to hold security, and to actually stay awake.

If you’re planning to be some sort of recce element, I strongly recommend getting out and working on this invaluable skill. Practice it until you no longer need to talk about the discrete steps. Practice it until every member of the team knows what he is doing without having to be told. Then practice it some more.

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