2009/02/07

Armoured reconnaissance

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First, I'd like to admit that I'm not really an expert on modern armoured reconnaissance . My expertise is rather on reconnaissance technology, theory and history.

A modern trend in the Bundeswehr (and in some other places) irritates me nevertheless; armoured reconnaissance seems to shift from versatile reconnaissance to observation.
We had some reconnaissance concepts in the past that looked quite a lot like advance guards (WW2 Wehrmacht armoured reconnaissance battalion, U.S. armoured cavalry regiment) - today, it seems to be less about fighting for information than ever before.

The own actions aren't the only ones that count. You need not only to establish a good reconnaissance on your own, but also to counteract the enemy's reconnaissance. This counter-reconnaissance requirement leads to combat-capable recon forces, most notably well-armed recon vehicles. You can't just observe enemy recon vehicles for a few seconds and delegate them to attack helicopters or other forces - you need to ambush them or hunt them down. Experiences from mock battles at the U.S. National Training Center emphasize the need for counter-reconnaissance very much.
You don't simply need reconnaissance information; you need better such info than the opposing force.

Technological trends might be the reasons; especially sensor technology advances and proliferation. Main battle tanks have thermal sights that turn them into good reconnaissance tools - and the fight for information is easily possible for armour.
Long-range aerial radars and other sensor range improvements entice force planners to emphasis observation more than ever before - rightly so.

Observation from a hideout promises also less casualties than daring armoured reconnaissance far ahead of combat units (and even recon battalions fighting small battles to get results).
On the other hand , we're expecting less force density in future conflicts than expected during the Cold War in the Central European area. The sensor capabilities of opposing forces have improved, but the opportunities for infiltration have improved even more due to the reduced force density. We face a greater need to not only observe gaps, but also to keep the gaps clean of enemy reconnaissance assets.

We might have swung the pendulum too much towards observation.

The German 'doctrine' for armoured reconnaissance units doesn't include the fight for information and the counter-reconnaissance fight as core responsibilities at all - such activities are only meant to be the job if reinforcements (like a tank platoon) are attached.
The radar reconnaissance is an important mission (2nd behind Spähaufklärung = recce with stealth emphasis) for such battalions and companies - apparently the single most relevant addition to armoured recon theory in Germany since the 50's.
The 'doctrine' for the armoured company advocates a quite defensive, careful style of short-range recce, without emphasis on the counter-reconnaissance fight.

40's and 50's armoured reconnaissance 'doctrine' was quite the same as today, just without radar sub-units and thermal sights, but with a greater intent and ability to fight for information, to act as a kind of advance guard at times. Weak opposition - like a reduced infantry company defending a valuable hilltop or traffic bottleneck - was to be defeated by concentration of combat power and the use of the armored reconnaissance battalion's own infantry.


Let's have a look at the new German armoured observation (not really scouting) vehicle, the Fennek - and its predecessor Luchs (still in service).
I criticized the weak armament of the Fennek - not satisfying for combat even against outdated reconnaissance AFVs - earlier.

The Fennek concept is optimal for
- hiding
- using the sensor mast while hidden
- using remote sensors (and mini drones) for the observation
- self-defence at close distance
and for scouting along roads it's equipped with a backward-driving camera to escape in dangerous situations.

The Luchs is optimal for
- scouting mostly along roads (and evade backwards at max speed with 2nd driver if in trouble)
- combat with a 20 mm autocannon that defeated all Warsaw Pact light AFV armor
and it offers a good visibility for its crew of four because it's quite high.

The Fennek could be turned into a vehicle that can take on enemy light AFVs at useful distances; that would require a new weapon like the 12.7mm machine gun of the Dutch version.

Modern IFVs are quite capable in the reconnaissance+combat role - the U.S.Army even uses a variant of its IFV for the job. The disadvantages are the treacherous traces and noises of the tracks, but that's a rather modest price for the benefits - less development costs, better equipment standardization and off-road agility.
Yet, to divert IFVs (and/or MBTs) to the recce role weakens the combat battalions - the IFV dismount strength of a modern armour division isn't good anyway, reductions like diversions of IFVs to reconnaissance would hurt the division's ability to take closed terrain very much.


I would propose three-piece ground reconnaissance
1) area and object observation; radar, ElInt (!) and camera surveillance with vehicles like Fennek, but with an armament that's better suited for self-defence against light AFVs (12.7-14.5mm minimum, 20-30mm optimum).
2) combat reconnaissance that inspect/take objects and engage enemy ground recce; on IFVs platoons or mixed MBT/APC platoons. This should not be improvised, but the main mission, with appropriate training and organization.
3) classic road (and limited off-road) reconnaissance along the lines of Luchs (a smaller vehicle, though) and Panhard EBR.

The omission of the reconnaissance fight looks like a capability gap to me. It should be an organic capability and a high priority in the armoured reconnaissance battalions. Neither drones nor new sensor technologies or attack helicopters have replaced the need for ground forces counter-reconnaissance.

S O

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