Mailbag: What is the S2? An Explanation of Staff Functions and Community Security – Forward Observer Shop

Mailbag: What is the S2? An Explanation of Staff Functions and Community Security

This week’s reader mailbag question comes from Kevin H. He asks:

I know what the ACE is, but what exactly is the S2?

In a few posts now (here and here) I’ve covered what the Analysis & Control Element is and does. But I’ve also made brief reference to the S2, so here’s the answer.

The military is built on a system of staff functions. There’s a commander and his staff positions. In the Army, at the brigade level, for instance, exists S1 (Personnel/Finance), S2 (Intelligence/Security), S3 (Operations), S4 (Supply), and S6 (Signal/Communications). There are sometimes more staff functions depending on the unit or command, but these five are the most common across the boards. They’re also sometimes referred to as shops (the “2-shop”, for instance).

The Army is big on having lanes, as the quip “Stay in your lane” can attest. If you have a problem with pay, you go to to the S1 shop. If a piece of your gear breaks, you go see a supply clerk at S4. These roles are designated so that there are specific soldiers to address specific problems and keep the Army rolling along.

Now let’s take this one step further and apply this staff function to community security. I can tell you right off the bat that, for some of you, adopting this system is going to be necessary. If you have a large preparedness group or community security team and will come together in an emergency, then having “lanes” of responsibility is going to keep you efficient.

At a minimum, I recommend having an S2 (Intelligence officer) and S3 (Ops officer). You may want to find individuals in the community who have experience in intelligence or operations to fill these roles or advise on how best to fill these roles. The S2 is responsible for intelligence and security for the group (he or she should be reading this blog every day), and the S3 is going to be responsible for security operations for the group/community. Beyond that, you might be interested in having an S4 to handle supply and logistics, and you definitely want to have an S6 to handle radios and communications.

Let’s break this down and see how it works for community security. A tornado devastates your area, a hurricane floods your community, or maybe something worse happens. The S2 is responsible for his people monitoring the police scanner and social media, updating the situation maps, and trying to make sense of what’s going on in the community. Are there looters? Are there people who need to be rescued? Are there people who need medical attention? The sooner the S2 shop can answer these questions, the sooner that Operations can start planning a response. Before a rescue team heads out to help a stranded neighbor, S6 (Communications) needs to ensure that the team is able to communicate back and forth with the community security leader. And the S4, if available, needs to figure out what resources are available to facilitate transportation, what medical gear is available to treat injured neighbors, etc.

Without specific teammates owning the tasks and responsibilities of their specific lanes, you’re going to have an ineffective, jumbled up mess; or “soup sandwich” for you Army folks.

One last note on the ACE and the S2: traditionally, the ACE is a sub-element of the S2 shop. In other words, the ACE is its own unit attached to the S2 or G2 (Division) or C2 (Corps) echelon. For our purposes, we’ll probably refer to the S2 as the ACE Chief and the 2-shop as the ACE. There’s a good reason why, in Iraq or Afghanistan, the ACE and 2-shop are separate functions (because they have different roles and responsibilities). Chances are good that your mission won’t necessitate a functioning S2 shop and an ACE staff.

I hope that answers the question, and I certainly hope that this post gives you something to think about. Organization is important. And building an organization is a lot like putting a plane together — you don’t want to have to build your plane mid-flight. An altitude of 35,000 feet isn’t the greatest time to see if your plane can really fly. Best advice: build it now.

Always Out Front,

Samuel Culper


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Mike Shelby is a former military intelligence NCO and contract intelligence analyst. He spent three years in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now the intelligence and warfare researcher at Forward Observer.

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