It does not take a particularly well-polished crystal ball to predict that the use of drones will increase in the near future. Not only will they increase in variety and capability but also in the range of their users. Mortar platoons that have their own drones are evolving into being both a fire support and reconnaissance asset. There are a number of squad and platoon level devices that can fly or roll ahead of a fire team to let them know what is around the next corner or behind the bushes. I expect that we will soon see SWAT and MOUT forces using small drones that can negotiate stairs and use fibre-optics to peek under doors or through keyholes. A particularly interesting development is drones that fly by gliding like birds, look like birds and can even seek thermals updrafts. Combined with solar power and a power reservoir for night operation such drones could remain airborne for days at a time and be very difficult to distinguish for actual birds.
It would be difficult for an enemy to take cover every time a bird appears in the sky. His main defence against such observation would have to be to remain under cover as much as practical. To locate such activity suggest another type of drone, perhaps something like a beetle that can fly to a location and sneak in by crawling. Attractive though this option is, it still has limitations. Our beetle drone could not open desk draws to rifle through papers, for example. There is another problem inherent to the use of drones. Most drones require some form of control signal since they are effectively remote controlled devices. Even if a drone has some degree of autonomy it will still need to transmit its observations back to base.
One area where even the most primitive of insurgents seems keen to spend money is for sophisticated air-defence weapons. They know that better equipped forces will try to use air-power against them. They also know that shooting down even one multi-million dollar warplane can be a considerable propaganda victory, especially if the pilot can be captured and displayed. I believe it will not be long before an equal emphasis is placed on Electronic Warfare (EW) systems that can disrupt the operations of both drones and manned aircraft. We have seen hints of this already with some nations fielding GPS-jamming systems for use against systems such as JDAM bombs. The USSR fielded a BTR-70 mounted system designed to prematurely detonate proximity fuzed artillery rounds. As far as I am aware EW systems do not need any special materials like explosives, just commercially available electronic components.
Even if the enemy does allow drone systems to function there is still a need for human ground reconnaissance and this is likely to remain true for many years to come. In my article, the “Screen and the Machine” I challenge just how effective patrolling in fast moving vehicles is. Competent enemies will hear a vehicle approaching at some distance and simply take cover until it has passed. The same challenge can be given to reconnaissance forces. How will you be able to observe an enemy if he can hear you coming? Reconnaissance is of course a very broad and varied category of military operations. Nearly as broad is the range of vehicles that have been offered as reconnaissance platforms. Manufactures would have us believe that any vehicle not a MBT or SPH has a reconnaissance role. They run the full range from motorbikes and jeeps to well-armoured tanks or assault guns. In the middle are an assortment of armoured scout cars and armoured cars. I have even seen reports of the M729 Combat Engineering Vehicle being used for reconnaissance by fire missions!
Reconnaissance has been flippantly described as “driving around until the enemy takes a shot at you”. Missions such as Reconnaissance-in-Force and Reconnaissance-by-Fire do need a force to have reasonable levels of protection and firepower. To further complicate this picture forces that are tasked with reconnaissance are often used for other roles such as screening, escorting, rapid reaction and fire support. On a non-linear battlefield there is often little point in reporting an enemy rather than engaging. By the time another unit can act on the information the enemy may have disappeared!
The Second World War was fertile test bed for the then relatively new concept of motorized and mechanized reconnaissance forces. In the early stages a variety of lightly armoured and unarmoured vehicles were used, selected for small size, speed, agility and ease of concealment. As the war progressed experience showed that reconnaissance elements might have to defend themselves, fight for information or be used for combat roles. Formations either converted to heavier vehicles or began to use a mix of light vehicles with more combat capable ones. Two formations are of particular interest. The first is the British Armoured Car Regiment (a battalion-sized formation). These regiments were in fact multipurpose light armour forces with reconnaissance being just one of their roles. Before the war such formations had been effectively used to “police the empire”. Post-war Armoured Car Regiments were to prove a useful asset in COIN and LIC operations. Many Armoured Car Regiments later converted to using light tanks of the CVRT family (Scorpion, Scimitar/Sabre) but retained their character as a multipurpose light mounted combat force. The other formation of note was the German Reconnaissance Battalion. As the war progressed this formation was modified until it evolved into a compact, capable combined arms formation. Its armoured cars would become supplemented by a company of half-track (Sd.Kfz 250/9) or fully tracked scout vehicles (Sd.Kfz 140/1 or Sd.Kfz 123 “Luchs”). The battalion also had at least one company of armoured infantry. Organic support included engineers, assault guns and mortars. The combat power of this formation could be used to create an opening in the enemy lines that the scout elements could penetrate through. It was also useful for rescuing a compromised scout element or for holding a discovered enemy long enough for line battalions to engage it. The Germans commonly made use of captured equipment. Captured armoured cars were very useful for scout platoons that had to operate behind enemy lines.
A feature common to most scout company TOEs was the inclusion of an element that could provide support fire for the scouts. In German formations this was a platoon of armoured cars or half-tracks mounting the 7.5cm L/24 gun. British Regiments used an armoured car variant mounting a 75-76mm gun. American battalions included 75mm M8 HMCs. This arrangement can be seen in many post-war formations. In FM 17-97 the M3 Bradley CFV is supported by the M1 MBT and the HMMWV scouts by a TOW-armed variant. The suitability of TOW as a suppressive fire and general fire support weapon is open to question.
If a unit is expected to fight for information or is used in non-reconnaissance combat roles it needs adequate firepower and protection. If the intention is to provoke an enemy into prematurely showing their hand a case can be made for the reconnaissance elements vehicles not appearing too distinctive from those of the main force. There is obviously an attraction in letting a light reconnaissance element pass by to attack the possibly more vulnerable main body. Roles such as Reconnaissance-in-Force and Reconnaissance-by-Fire suggest that a well-rounded combined arms force is the best choice for an armoured reconnaissance formation. Reconnaissance forces are an obvious choice for hunting guerillas. Such a force might have an armoured scout platoon, tank platoon, one or two platoons of armoured infantry, an engineer section and mortar section. The scout platoon would include several six-man dismount teams, giving it a secondary infantry role. Ideally many of these units would be organic to the formation to create a cohesive and versatile combat and reconnaissance task force. John J. McGrath notes in his book “Scouts Out!”:
“In all recent US Army conventional operations, the most common type of action was movement to contact, a type of operation in which the lead unit, whether cavalry or not, was effectively the reconnaissance element. Similarly in nonconventional operations such as counterinsurgency, where there are no actual front lines, all combat (and even most combat support and some combat service support units) units become de facto reconnaissance units by the nature of the conflict...Instead of being a function of specialized troops, perhaps reconnaissance is one of many functions of manoeuvre units similar to attack, defend, or move. Commanders cannot misuse units if they are organized and equipped to perform a variety of functions, of which reconnaissance is but one.”
Not all of the lessons learnt in World War Two were retained. In the early years of the war light cars such as jeeps and kübelwagens were used for reconnaissance. Scout cars such as the Commonwealth Dingo, Humber and Morris were effectively jeep-sized vehicles with light armour. Being of small size and less than five feet high such vehicles were well suited to stealthy reconnaissance operations. Experience was to demonstrate that if these vehicles were engaged by the enemy their life expectancy was often very short. The solution was to support such vehicles with better armed and armoured vehicles such as armoured cars and light tanks. Such support vehicles could buy the light cars sufficient time to escape.
Several decades after the war the US Army created reconnaissance forces using just HMMWVs. While often described as the modern day equivalent of a jeep the HMMWV is a considerably larger vehicle, occupying a ground footprint effectively the same as a M113 (7ft x 15ft compared to 8.8ft x 16ft). The shortcomings of the HMMWV-based reconnaissance formation are described in detail in this article. The HMMWVs theoretical advantage of speed is neutralized by its extreme vulnerability. The fastest route is not always the safest!
For a reconnaissance vehicle survival is a balance between protection and stealth. If your vehicle is noisy and has no protection your life expectancy will be low.
Many other reconnaissance missions are better performed with stealth. Stealthy, dismounted patrolling and stationary observation are two of the most important strategies for gaining information by ground reconnaissance. Recognition of this fact does not seem particularly evident in some reconnaissance force structures or proposals for future scout vehicles. The best choice for stealthy ground reconnaissance is a small party of well-trained dismounted troops. This does, however, pose the question as to how a force of foot scouts reaches the area of interest? There is little point in sending a stealthy force when the considerable bulk of a nine foot high and twenty-three feet long Stryker vehicle that transported them is nearby! The use of small vehicles such as jeeps has already been mentioned, as have some of their shortcomings. If a transport vehicle for foot scouts is obliged to move across country and between cover to avoid contact with the enemy this suggests a tracked vehicle may effectively be swifter than a wheeled one. In another article I suggest a compact tracked reconnaissance and surveillance vehicle I call the Terrier. The Millenibren may be another possibility. An updated version of the M113 ACAV is another good option for moving a scout team across country, being more capable than a HMMWV off-road, better protected and amphibious. The M113 hull is only six feet tall, the same as a HMMWV, making the vehicle much easier to conceal than an M1127 Stryker.
If creating an undated M113-based armoured scout transport the Italian VCC-1 Camillino IAFV would be a good starting model:
One option that has been used by some military forces is to use nondescript vehicles such as Toyota pickups to move scouts. Their cross country and road performance is similar to vehicles like the HMMWV but without the high price tag. Effectively using a Toyota is a sort of mimesis camouflage, since such vehicles are also common in civilian or enemy hands. The enemy may hear the vehicle coming and may hide from it but it will not obviously be a military or enemy vehicle. In this particular context the vehicle is being used as a transport to move the reconnaissance element and their equipment and not as a reconnaissance system itself. How effective this strategy is will depend on a number of factors. In some warzones any vehicle that is not positively identified as friendly may be fired upon. An unarmoured Toyota cannot take much damage. Covert armouring and hidden weapon mounts is a possible option but this is still not really a vehicle for sustained combat. It may be that a Toyota mounted unit will need to be supported by a nearby heavier detachment, as was done for jeeps and scout cars in the Second World War. The German Reconnaissance Battalions that were equipped with scout halftracks (Sd.Kfz 250/9) retained a company of 8-wheel armoured cars, no doubt for missions they were more suited for. In much the same vein it is suggested that a modern combined arms armoured reconnaissance battalion include a company of Toyotas or Toyota-like vehicles. A small number of Toyotas would doubtless prove useful to any battalion as liaison and runabout vehicles.
One form of reconnaissance vehicle I have not yet mentioned is the motorbike. Motorbikes are better at moving through certain types of terrain than many other types of vehicle. On the other hand, bikes lack the protection of both armour and stealth. The US military is currently investigating quieter electric motorbikes such as the “Stealth Hawk”. While this is an interesting development I do not believe it is the best solution for transporting stealth reconnaissance teams.
I believe the best current option for transporting foot scouts is the mountain e-bike.
By the Author of the Scrapboard :
Attack, Avoid, Survive: Essential Principles of Self Defence
Available in Handy A5 and US Trade Formats.