Manned, Armoured, Reconnaissance: Why and How?

Jim Storr

Manned, Armoured, Reconnaissance: Why and How?
To cite this article: Storr, Jim., “Manned, Armoured, Reconnaissance: Why and How?”, Military Operations, Volume 2, Issue No. 2, Spring 2014, pages 17-19.

Image courtesy of ISAF Headquarters Public Affairs Office from Kabul, Afghanistan

The British Army will soon receive a new reconnaissance vehicle, the FRES Scout Variant. It will weigh about 30-35 tonnes and have a gun that can penetrate about 140mm of RHA. It will have a top speed of about 70km/h. In 1942 the German Army received a new medium tank, the Panther. As first designed, it weighed about 32 tonnes and its gun could penetrate 138mm of RHA. Perhaps unsurprisingly it was soon up-armoured and, as a result, its top speed was only about 44km/h. Is the British Army actually about to receive a new reconnaissance vehicle, or a new medium tank? (As an aside, we can’t envisage FRES Scout being up-armoured, can we?)

For decades the British Royal Armoured Corps’ doctrine was that its reconnaissance forces should not fight for information. So why has it now procured a massively powerful fighting platform? Is FRES Scout a camel (a racehorse designed by a committee), or the result of huge confusion as to how armoured reconnaissance should operate? The purpose of this article is to explore that wider question. To do so, it will examine the history of reconnaissance and make some conceptual observations.

First, though, we shall dismiss one particular crass objection. Land forces need ground reconnaissance. Airborne sensors either won’t survive; or can be spoofed; or can’t interpret the situation on the ground as a man on the spot can; or can’t interact with the scenario as a ground platform can; or some combination of those issues. So, very simply, there is a case for manned ground reconnaissance. It needs to be mechanized for mobility and it needs to be armoured to survive; although how much armour is an important question.


Armoured reconnaissance evolved from horsed cavalry. Cavalry, however, had two overlapping functions: reconnaissance and fighting. That overlap remains a source of gross confusion to this day. The British Army’s experience in the South African War (1899-1902) is illustrative. Although it could (and on occasion did) subsequently charge, it acknowledged that attacks with drawn swords were probably a thing of the past[i]. British cavalry doctrine concentrated on three missions: ‘strategical’ reconnaissance (such as ‘where is the German Army?); tactical reconnaissance (where is the enemy immediately to our front, flanks and (occasionally) rear?) and countering enemy reconnaissance. In 1914 it proved itself to be quite good at all three; particularly the first (in conjunction with the Royal Flying Corps (RFC)) and the last (it effectively forced several divisions of German cavalry to lose the whole of the British Expeditionary Force as it retreated from Mons). However, unreinforced, British cavalry had little, if any, role in defeating enemy probing attacks by advanced main-force elements. Infantry detachments reinforced with artillery and machineguns were used for that.

German experience in the First World War was broadly similar. After the War the German Army analysed its lessons thoroughly and critically. The way it handled its reconnaissance in the Second World War is highly instructive. That is considered below.

It can be argued that the US Army’s cavalry had a longer and stronger tradition of fighting from the late 19th Century. It rarely involved charging with drawn swords, but acted as a manoeuvre arm with considerable operational mobility in the Indian Wars on the Great Plains.

The Second World War
  • Although German armoured reconnaissance units changed and developed through the Second World War, they displayed several consistent features. Each divisional reconnaissance battalion typically contained:
  • One, and only one, armoured reconnaissance company; equipped either with long-range, eight-wheeled armoured cars or with light tanks.
  • One platoon of ‘domestic’ reconnaissance, to provide information for the reconnaissance battalion commander.
  • One or two companies of dismounted scouts, trained to fight as infantry and equipped with very small half-tracked APCs; and
  • A support company, typically with a mortar platoon, a pioneer (sapper) platoon and an antitank platoon.

The core of the battalion was dismounted scouts in very small APCs. Some battalions replaced one of the companies with what was effectively a surveillance company, which was equipped with specialist observation post vehicles escorted by armoured cars. Critically, very few vehicles were equipped with anything heavier than a 20mm cannon. The Germans produced a 50mm version of their 8-wheeled armoured car, but didn’t like it and only ever built 100. Their Panzer II light tanks were modified almost beyond recognition, but never had more than a 20mm cannon. They had a few heavy armoured cars with 75mm antitank guns, and a few half-tracks with 75mm infantry guns: typically no more than six per battalion. The Wehrmacht did not fight for information in any recognisable way.

The Wehrmacht almost never used corps or army-level reconnaissance, but their doctrine required divisional reconnaissance to give their commander six hours’ planning time to commit the main body. With a division advancing at ten or fifteen km/h, the reconnaissance battalion might operate 60-90 km in front of the main body. German reconnaissance units were not normally tasked with guard force missions. Doctrine called for a quarter to a third of the force to be used as outposts, to protect and conceal the location of the main body. That typically translated as two or three infantry battalions per division. Reconnaissance battalions did sometimes fight in defence, but typically in a sector of the main position.

Western armies had a less well-developed reconnaissance doctrine and, arguably, were generally less successful. In the Western Desert, British ‘Honey’ light tanks, procured from the US, were used as light armour and were repeatedly mauled. In North-West Europe there were several instances of reconnaissance units finding enemy gaps and weak spots, only for the main body to fail to exploit the opportunity. US units were probably better handled in the advance, but success was often created by nothing more than well-handled scouts in jeeps.

Critically, both the US and British Armies developed heavy armoured cars (and light tanks) armoured with anything up to 76mm guns. They were used to fight; and often to fight German reconnaissance units which were equipped with nothing more than 20mm cannon. Something was wrong. To be fair, US Cavalry Groups (brigade-sized units) spent a lot of their time not scouting, but fighting. That was largely due to the way they were employed at corps level.

Later Developments

Tellingly, the first post-war German (Bundeswehr) armoured reconnaissance units looked like replicas of their wartime Wehrmacht predecessors. The first truly indigenous Bundeswehr reconnaissance vehicle was an 8-wheeled armoured car with a 20mm cannon! As the Cold War progressed, divisional armoured reconnaissance units took on more and more of a guard force role along the Inner German Border. MBTs were introduced, and the proportion of armoured cars shrank. After the end of the Cold War the Bundeswehr procured what is, essentially, a highly sophisticated armoured jeep.

In the US Army, corps-level Cavalry Regiments gave up their light tanks for M48, M60 and finally M1 MBTs. M114 scout vehicles were replaced by M113 APCs and then M3 scout versions of the Bradley IFV. In other words, corps and divisional armoured cavalry forces got heavier to reflect their fighting role.

Britain initially adopted a mixture of very light scout vehicles and heavy armoured cars, and then the CVR(T) ‘Scimitar’ series of tracked armoured reconnaissance vehicles. Although incredibly small and very fast, they were generally heavily armed: with high-velocity Rarden cannon; with 76mm guns; or heavy ATGWs. Although the British Army professed to not fight for information, its reconnaissance units were equipped to fight, and largely given a guard force role on the Inner German Border. Its doctrine was confused.

At the same time the French Army developed a series of light and medium armoured vehicles which were, and still are, ideally suited to low-intensity operations operating over great distances; for example, in sub-Saharan Africa. It was a French armoured car company which overran Timbuktu airport in Mali in January 2013.

Conceptual Aspects

The British FRES Scout will apparently be able to handle terabytes of information, but tactical information is of itself valueless. It only has any value if it allows the possessor to do something.

Operational research demonstrates very clearly that the most effective thing a commander can do on the modern battlefield is to create and exploit surprise. Once that simple fact is recognised much of the logic of reconnaissance drops into place. For example, if you fight for information, you may well gain information; but you have automatically lost the ability to create surprise. If, however, you reconnoitre by stealth the enemy does not know what you know. He may well not know where you are, let alone your intentions. Reconnoitring by stealth supports the creation and exploitation of surprise, and tends to preserve the reconnaissance force. Conversely, fighting for information risks attrition to the reconnaissance force and, by definition, destroys any opportunity to create surprise.

Land forces need to protect against surprise, and against the other effects of enemy reconnaissance. That creates a need for guard forces, and they will need to fight: against either the enemy’s reconnaissance forces, or advanced main-force detachments. Main force detachments will probably include MBTs. Pitting light and medium AFVs against MBTs forming part of all-arms detachments is not a good idea.

Conversely, however, it may be necessary to penetrate enemy guard forces in order to gain information. This role is difficult. The Wehrmacht identified it before the Second World War. It is not fighting for information. It is doing just enough fighting to allow information to be gained by stealth. Wehrmacht doctrine explicitly advocated using tanks with reconnaissance forces (they already contained infantry and some support weapons) for that purpose.

There will be occasions when highly mobile forces can be used for coup de main operations. The Wehrmacht’s experience was that they were extremely rare. Their existing armoured reconnaissance battalions, augmented by tanks if necessary, could generally fit the bill.

The Third Dimension

Air (and space) craft can clearly play a part. They have done ever since the RFC found the German First Army in August 1914; if not before. Satellite reconnaissance is hugely important and increasingly timely. Unmanned air vehicles have played a huge role in recent conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan. However, up to now, their use has been uncontested. Western armed forces have become entirely unaccustomed to operating without control of the air. How easy it is to shoot down, or otherwise deny the use of, UAVS is currently a great and important unknown.

Nobody would deny that aerial reconnaissance, in several forms, does (and will continue to) play an important part in reconnaissance. It can gain information. But it cannot counter enemy reconnaissance directly. It has difficulty in fighting to allow information to be gained by stealth. Satellite transits have long been predictable, reducing their usefulness in gaining information (they can be spoofed, or avoided, to some extent.)

All this suggests that aerial reconnaissance is, should be, and probably will long remain an important part of the force mix. It may reduce the overall need for manned ground reconnaissance. But it would be a foolish army which abolishes manned ground reconnaissance entirely.

Summary and Conclusions

The broad purpose of this article is not to be rude about FRES Scout. It was to clarify thinking about manned ground reconnaissance, because much woolly thought seems to persist. A short article like this cannot ‘prove’ anything. It can, at best, give strong pointers as to where best practice lies. The main deductions are something like this:

a. There is, should be, and probably will be a good case for manned, armoured ground reconnaissance for the foreseeable future.

b. It is perfectly reasonable for so-called ‘armoured reconnaissance units’ to include elements which are equipped and trained to fight. But some elements should be trained and equipped to gain information by stealth: i.e., scouts. They will be different people, and the two roles should not be confused.

c. Do not fight for information. Gain information by stealth. The main reason for doing that is to create the conditions for surprise, and allow that to be exploited. It would be very hard to overemphasize the importance of that. Surprise is a battle, and sometimes a campaign, winner.

d. Gaining information by stealth also helps preserve scarce and valuable scouts.

e. If you give scout vehicles heavy weapons, they will be used.

f. There will be a need for guard forces; not least to prevent being surprised. But do not put light and medium AFVs in guard forces when MBTs are expected.

g. There is a place for light and medium armoured fighting vehicles, especially wheeled vehicles with very high operational mobility. They should keep well away from MBTs.

h. Tactical doctrine should be very clear about who should provide guard forces and advanced guards. They should generally be all-arms groupings drawn from the combat arms, or specially-designed armoured cavalry forces with integral infantry and armour. They should not be mis-employed scouts.

The best scouts are therefore either very small, stealthy AFVs; or infantry patrols, probably transported on very small APCs. The worst of all worlds are light or medium AFVs with heavy weapons. Whatever their tactical doctrine, those weapons will be used. There will then be little or no chance of creating surprise. Furthermore, those vehicles will lose out badly against MBTs or well-handled dismounted infantry. Scouts survive best by being stealthy and not taking chances.

FRES Scout? A very capable vehicle. But the worst of all worlds, reflecting entirely confused concepts and therefore a good way of getting brave and well-intentioned young men killed for little benefit.


PS. After having this article reviewed I came across the 1948 Royal Armoured Corps publication ‘Volume 1 – Tactics – Pamphlet no. 2 – The Armoured Car Regiment.’ This (1948) edition incorporated the hard-earned lessons of the Second World War. Under Section 7, ‘Reconnaissance’, is the following:

‘1. Object.-To be entirely successful, any reconnaissance must obtain the maximum amount of detailed information about the enemy without his knowledge, and then report this information accurately to higher formation with the minimum delay’.

(Stress in italics added). They knew. We have either forgotten, or think we know better.


[i] As an aside: in the 1900s cavalry could potentially charge at three things: infantry, artillery and cavalry. At Waterloo in 1815 the best cavalry in Europe had come unstuck charging infantry equipped only with muskets. As recently as 1898 the British 21st Lancers had come badly unstuck charging spear-wielding irregular native troops at Omdurman. By 1900, charging infantry equipped with repeating rifles, let alone machineguns, was likely to be a bad idea. At Balaklava in 1854 (‘the Charge of the Light Brigade’) the British cavalry was badly mauled charging artillery. In 1870 at Mars-la-Tour (‘von Bredow’s Death Ride’) Prussian cavalry showed that it could be done; but that was before the invention of breech-loading quick-firing artillery. Cavalry could still charge cavalry; as a quick way of discouraging enemy reconnaissance in numerous inevitably scrappy skirmishes, it had a place. However, as American armies had repeatedly shown during their Civil War, it was often just as easy to dismount and drive them off with small arms fire. By 1914 wise men saw that opportunities to charge would be very limited.