About armoured reconnaissance and cavalry

Post-WW2 armies had much less divisions than we were used to in both World Wars, but the world didn't shrink geographically.

This would create very unstable, fluid situations in conventional land warfare. Conventional land war would in many scenarios look a lot like the exploitation phases of mobile warfare in WW2. It's quite impossible (and not intended) to build promising defensive lines nowadays (with few exceptions). The battles would look similar to those episodes of historic land battles that happened after the dissolution of defensive lines or after the capture of fortresses.
The similarities would have their limits, but the low personnel density, high technical mobility of modern land war made the lessons from the past about mobile warfare especially interesting to me.

I began looking more closely into armoured reconnaissance ops of WW2 last year and got a satisfactory picture of this in the meantime. The German armoured reconnaissance history was most easily accessible because it saw much more action than British and American armoured reconnaissance.

The Spähaufklärung (small scouting teams; 2-3 armoured reconnaissance vehicles) has been very important and it was especially effective in France due to specific operational conditions and the road infrastructure. Spähaufklärung is - despite the modern electronic means of reconnaissance - still important in the German army (Heer).

This probing, looking and reporting wasn't the whole business, though. Armoured reconnaissance on the Eastern Front was much more, and it was very interesting.
The operation of a Panzeraufklärungs-Bataillon (armoured reconnaissance battalion) in the offence (as part of an armoured division that's always supposed to attack, march or rest) on the Eastern Front often had distinct phases with a significant share of combat.

Phase 0:
The battalion waits in the division's marshalling area, ready to exploit a breakthrough. The battalion receives and distributes existing intelligence about the enemy and area (aerial photography, prisoner interrogation reports, agent reports, maps).

Phase 1:The battalion receives its orders and its CO orders few Panzerspähtrupps (2 or 3 light AFV with long-range radio) forward.

Phase 2:Additional Panzerspähtrupps are being sent towards the reconnaissance Schwerpunkt to increase the scouting density.
The combat troops (early on often a motorcycle infantry battalion assigned to support the reconnaissance battalion) move behind the Panzerspähtrupps towards the reconnaissance Schwerpunkt.
Some Panzerspähtrupps are being recalled and possibly sent forward towards the Schwerpunkt as well.

Phase 3:
Panzeraufklärungs-Kompanien (armoured reconnaissance companies) advance and fight to ensure the reconnaissance success and to overwhelm enemy forces when they're not ready to fight to prevent the establishment of effective defences.

The enemy finally establishes new effective defensive positions.

The Panzerspähtrupps are being recalled and assembled for further action.

The Kampfgruppen(combined arms combat teams) of the armoured division are advancing into marshalling areas in front of the enemy defensive positions.

Phase 4:
The armoured division breaks through the enemy's hasty defence positions and advances.
The armoured reconnaissance battalion is usually kept out of this fight and ready to begin anew (Phase 4 = Phase 0).

The interesting thing about this is the combat element; the armoured reconnaissance battalion exploited its agility (short column), speed (motorised) and off-road capability (half-tracks) to meet the enemy when and where he wasn't combat ready. Hours and even minutes were often tactically decisive in that war. A battalion that sabotaged the establishment of a defensive line before the main force arrived was obviously invaluable.

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Let's look at quotes from FM 17-95 "Cavalry Operations" (U.S.Army, late 1996):

The fundamental purpose of cavalry is to perform reconnaissance and to provide security in close operations. In doing so, cavalry facilitates the corps or division commander’s ability to maneuver divisions, brigades, and battalions and to concentrate superior combat power and apply it against the enemy at the decisive time and point. Cavalry clarifies, in part, the fog of battle.

Cavalry is, by its role, an economy of force. The flexible capabilities of cavalry allow the commander to conserve the combat power of divisions or brigades for engagement where he desires. The combat power of cavalry units, in particular, makes them ideal for offensive and defensive missions as an economy of force.

The ACR performs a variety of offensive operations in support of the
corps scheme of maneuver. The primary missions of the regiment are reconnaissance and
security operations. During these missions, especially offensive cover, the regiment
may perform movement to contact and hasty attacks to destroy enemy reconnaissance, security, and main body forces.

There's much to criticise in that FM, but it has interesting aspects.
The 1990's ACR was a force meant as a kind of advance guard, rear guard or off-Schwerpunkt force for its corps. It did clearly lay out armoured reconnaissance forces (with helicopters) that were distinct from the main battle forces and capable of independent combat operations.

The French did also appreciate the need for combat capability in armoured reconnaissance units; most of their post-WW2 reconnaissance AFVs had serious guns (76-105mm) with the more recent VBL being an exception (it's a kind of budget vehicle that also lacks powerful sensors).

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This combat element isn't organic to modern German armoured reconnaissance units (see HDv 241/100 "Das Panzeraufklärungsbataillon" and HDv 242/100 "Die Panzeraufklärungskompanie"). Today we've got increased visual and electronic observation capabilities instead. Aufklärung durch Kampf (here translated with Reconaissance in force, albeit both are not fully identical) is an exception ("Aufklärung durch Kampf ist eine Ausnahmesituation im Rahmen der Aufklärung.")
Combat units shall be attached under special circumstances for reconnaissance in force ("In besonderen Lagen kann dem Bataillon befohlen werden, durch Kampf aufzuklären. Dazu muss das Bataillon in jedem Fall mit kampfkräftigen Teilen verstärkt werden."). This is quite contrary to the manual's assertion that opportunities for reconnaissance in force are unpredictable and short-term in nature.

German doctrinal reconnaissance in force does not take into account that the reconnaisance battalion might encounter enemy forces that are not combat ready. This opportunity for success in combat in order to help the brigade/division/corps in its mission by interfering with enemy preparations is absent.
The German armoured reconnaissance battalion doesn't have an emphasis on helicopter operations as the U.S. cavalry has. Helicopter operations are army-level operations in the Heer (there's a German helicopter-mobile division remotely similar to the 101st).

The greatest deficit of current German armoured reconnaissance doctrine is probably the lack of a counter-reconnaissance mission (and therefore no necessary emphasis on counterreconnaissance). It's fine to see the enemy, but you also want him to be blind!

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The relative emptiness of the battlefield seems to demand a strong reconnaissance element in modern armies - this has probably been neglected way too much. We know about the enormous lethality of modern arms (although the lethality of new munitions was usually overestimated in peacetime). Most NATO ground forces are confident that they could defeat opposing forces - if the odds aren't strorngly in OPFOR's favour.

The sheer capability to defeat opponents in combat isn't much in doubt. The ability to control and dominate large areas without occupying too many combat troops with non-combat missions is in doubt, though.

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I am thinking about a new balance for ground forces; a triad of support, combat and scouting units.
The scouting units would flood the area like water (bypassing powerful enemy forces, but overwhelming weak/unprepared enemy forces by a temporary concentration of several units).

Heavy reconnaissance units wouldn't need to be entire battalions - they could be even more nimble combined arms companies (anti-tank firepower, anti-infantry firepower, infantry, heavy mounted mortar, air defence missiles, short-range UAV). Such independently moving companies would be extremely difficult to track, fix and destroy. The combat power of such scouting units would make them versatile and effective in many scenarios. I think of these as combat units for employment in low force density missions.

(Light reconnaissance units for more tank-unfriendly terrain could be based on area control platoons that employ Jagdkampf-like light infantry tactics in areas without emphasis on mobile warfare.)

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The modern trend looks different. Reconnaissance is becoming more and more a function of sensor employment. Such observation-centric reconnaissance companies and battalions often retain the ability to do Spähaufklärung, but their combat power is in some armies even too small for a counter-reconnaissance fight against improvised (armoured) reconnaissance troops.

New sensors are fine, but they cannot replace the proven combat functions of reconnaissance battalions. Sensors can detect an enemy who's not ready to fight, but sensors cannot defeat him. Long-range and aerial firepower has its limitations and won't replace surface action for decades to come.

The new German armoured reconnaissance (observation) vehicles (Fennek) are insufficiently armed to defeat even antique armoured reconnaissance vehicles (7.62mm machine gun or 40mm automatic grenade launcher).

The emphasis on technical means of terrain observation and the neglect of combat in reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance may be the result of more than six decades without relevant land warfare. There was very little combat experience in conventional land war that would be relevant for our (NATO defence) purposes.
The Indo-Pakistani Wars were probably the most relevant experiences; the terrain, force matchup and force density in Israel's wars were very unrepresentative for our needs.

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I would like to recommend some books for those who are interested in the employment of the German armoured reconnaissance units in WW2:

"Die deutschen Panzeraufklärer 1935-1945", Wolfgang Fleischer & Richard Eiermann, 2005
Short overview, not too technical, more tactical info than in hardware-centric books.

"Taktik im Russlandfeldzug", Eike Middeldorf et al, 1956
Lessons learned and suggestions for the Heer in the 50's; comprehensive and competent.
"Handbuch der Taktik", Eike Middeldorf et al, 1957
It's redundant to the '56 book in regard to armoured reconnaissance.

English readers could be interested in
This has at least some info on organization and employment.



  1. Interesting post, as always. I'm curious about a few things, though. You say that the Fennek's armament is too light, since Aufklärung durch Kampf should be a major component in armoured recon. So what would be appropriate for a vehicle this small and a crew of only three? You could add another gun, maybe a .50 caliber machine gun in addition to the 40mm grenade launcher, but who would control it? Either the commander (and operator of the surveillance equipment if I'm not mistaken?) would have to switch to assistant gunner in case of fighting or the gunner would control both weapon systems (which sounds rather insane to me). In both cases the crew would have to handle more than is feasible. Another possibility might be a .50 cal and some kind of ATGM system, where in a Zug of (if I remember correctly) four vehicles one or two could switch from MG to ATGM if the situation calls for it. Still, it seems like overkill to me. What's the hypothetical opponent you want to pitch it against? Because as you say, Aufklärung durch Kampf relies on the enemy being outgunned and unprepared anyway, and anything more than unarmoured or very lightly armoured opponent would be a job for heavier vehicles.

    I also would have liked to read some more about recon in low intensity environments like Afghanistan. For instance, off the top of my head, I can't recall seeing a Fennek platoon operate independently ... it's always just one vehicle attached to the regular patrol of Fuchs and Dingo vehicles, and the same goes for the QRF ... that seems quite far from the original intention of armoured recon, but then again, I'm not the expert. Why don't they organise Fennek-only patrols? Is it simply an issue of lack of resources or do they perform a specific function within the current patrols that other vehicles can't accomplish? Do they fill the void the missing UAVs created? It's no wonder we can't organise a significant amount of presence within the population when every patrol needs to have one fennek and one medic vehicle.

    P.S. This presentation by David Kilcullen might also interest you. I just mention it because I saw it today. The point about the British experience in Iraq caught my attention, because Kilcullen says the British used a peace-keeping approach to counter-insurgency in the sense that keeping things quiet was the only real goal, and that therefore militants were able to undermine the stability quietly and without getting bothered... sounds like our (former?) approach to Afghanistan if you ask me.

  2. The Fennek was designed as a stealthy and mobile observation post. It cannot become a powerful vehicle, but it should be able to defeat other recce AFVs for counter-reconnaissance.
    So far that's not really feasible with the vehicle weapons (the 40mm has a limited anti-vehicle capability with 40mm HEDP, but that's inferior even to a simple large calibre machinegun in that role).
    The Dutch chose a .50BMG weapon - a better choice for that vehicle.

    I'm not much interested in "low intensity" conflict because it's simply not associated with our defence. I don't buy into the defence of Germany at the Hindukusch fantasy.

    Yet, scout units would be more aligned with very low force density missions and have a better mindset for it than normal combat troops. That wouldn't be a disadvantage even in Afghanistan.

  3. The biggest problem I see with lightly armed reconnaissance forces is that while they are not suppose to fight they might not have a choice.

    Since they are on the fringes of the battlefield they will be the units most likely to be surprised themselves and get into a situation where at the very least they have to fight their way out of a situation

    Also since once again they are on the fringe of the battlefield they might be the only units available for the battlefield commander to put in between the enemy and a important objective. Its all very well to say that stopping the enemy is the job for the armored battalion but if that battalion is on the other side of the battlefield and only the reconnaissance battalion is between the enemy and your supply dump or major town or major river crossing then that reconnaissance unit is going to be the one to stop them

    The whole reason reconnaissance exists is because there are unknowns and a specialized unit which looks but does not fight can get into all sorts of situations where fighting is very necessary and no amount of planning and commanding can avoid that especially when you are deliberate putting the unit into a area where reconnaissance is necessary because it is full of unknowns.


  4. Reconnaisance units haven often been mis-used as combat troops (even in defensive positions as part of a line) - just like engineers and all kinds of rear support troops have been pressed into comvbat troops roles in moments of crisis.

    Reconnaissance units are on the other hand masters in breaking contact. Many wheeled reconnaissance AFVs even have a second driver and a full set of rearward gears for a super-quick retreat (and smoke, of course).