The historical problem of carrier-borne reconnaissance

I do occasionally write about ground reconnaissance such as armoured recce, for it's close to my pet interest.

Here's a naval analogy which is quite interesting: 

Carrier air wings of the Second World War had rarely any dedicated reconnaissance aircraft. The Japanese had an extraordinary one late in the war when Japanese carriers weren't really important any more, the C6N Saiun. They also had a handful D4Y Suisei reconnaissance aircraft earlier; dive bombers not yet fully developed for diving and thus used for recce / naval search. They simply used the float planes of carriers and cruisers for naval search most of the time, though.

C6N Saiun

The British spent some thought prior to WW2 on developing a dedicated carrier aircraft for shadowing once-detected hostile fleets throughout the night*, so the carrier group would be in position for attack and could possibly even strike at dawn. The outcome were overly specialised, ugly aircraft.

General Aircraft G.A.L. Shadower
The Americans had no use for such a concept, for the radar-less experiments of the 30's had led them to believe that a carrier group once found will be attacked and defeated by the first attack (this is apparently part of the reason why their carriers were not united in one task force at Midway). They focused on being the first to strike instead.

Dedicated reconnaissance aircraft were a rare sight in practice, though.


Well, let's assume there's a task force with a single carrier carrying about 50-90 aircraft. It would take almost two dozen of them to maintain a 360° search in a fine radius. To dedicate such a large share of aircraft to reconnaissance only would have reduced the air combat and strike capability a lot.

This becomes utterly unacceptable once you look at a task force involving multiple carriers, say three. 3x 24 dedicated reconnaissance aircraft means 48 too many in this scenario - an utter waste of hangar capacity.
Eight each isn't better, though: Imagine the task force splits again; there would suddenly not enough planes for naval search.

The combined search and strike aircraft was thus inevitable. Those slow and sea state-dependent float planes were no adequate answer, after all.

Carrier fleet leaders of WW2 understood that the need for naval search was exogenous, independent of the quantity of carriers they have at hand. They could vary this need by varying their ambition (such as no search in unlikely directions, or search only out to a more moderate radius) or by using more efficient search aircraft (using active and/or passive radars), but the quantity of carriers did not influence it (unless there's none at all).

Likewise, I hypothesise that ground forces have a demand for reconnaissance which depends on ambition and efficiency, but hardly on the quantity of army formations (divisions, brigades, battle groups) involved.

It's thus one of my positions that dedicated reconnaissance forces should not be organic to manoeuvre forces, but to the theatre or corps command.
The carrier fleet's approach of using strike forces for reconnaissance is mildly convincing in the ground war context; it's the second-best backup approach which all ground forces should be capable of. Dedicated recce has big-enough advantages in efficiency, to speak within the analogy.

An unusually blunt way of reinforcing the point of this text: "The demand for area reconnaissance is exogenous and independent of the strength and quantity of manoeuvre combat formations in the area." Think about this, for its consequences are huge!


*: You know you have spent too much time reading about military aviation if you know this aircraft.

1 comment:

  1. The situation changes, the better scouts are able to direct strikes on target. These aircraft carriers had their strike package on the aircrafts. If the strike package is on the ship and the aircrafts direct it, the situation changes. Then surveillance is the ability to create opportunities for strike. Increasing surveillance results in an increased elimination of observeable hostiles. The differences between the flying strike pack and the observing swarm is concentration versus dispersion. Concentraion pays off against hard and big targets such as aircraft carriers and their escorts. Dispersal is better suited to taking out submarines or mines, but dispersal of observation does not exclude concentration of firepower, capable of striking similar to concentrations of strike aircrafts.