The Future of the British Army 06 – ISTAR and Formation Reconnaissance (01)


When it comes to reconnaissance there are many issues to look at, first, of course, is what does it mean, then, do we fight for information or do we sneak around looking for it, how is technology likely to impact the role, what about the secondary non-reconnaissance roles that we have traditionally used the existing equipment for and that is before we get into the inevitable cap badge struggles between the chaps with red trousers and nice blazers and those that like to make loud bangs.

Before we even get to the weapons-grade mother of all omnishambles that is FRES, there is much to consider. However, in looking at the general subject you cannot avoid FRES so I will weave it in as we go.

In Afghanistan, the Brigade Reconnaissance Force concept has seen a rapid evolution, integrating snipers, forward air controllers, the latest surveillance technology with lightweight vehicles and CVR(T) for example. This rapid evolution and experimentation is as we all know, nothing particularly new but the relative and changing emphasis of armour, infantry, engineers and artillery is interesting to note. The BRF initially gained traction within 16AAB and 3CDO and has since evolved to include a wide range of trades and larger size overall. In Afghanistan for example, it has a greater emphasis on interacting with the local civilian population and obtaining information from this source in addition to straightforward observation. Because of operating at some distance from existing units, they tend to need a bigger punch than other similarly sized units, hence greater numbers of forwarding air controllers or mortars and the like.

More information from the MoD here and here

The Brigade Reconnaissance Force as constituted in Afghanistan clearly has a different composition to that of the Formation Reconnaissance units used in the liberation of Kuwait but the underlying concept remains the same, as reflected in the core role of the cavalry, mounted or dismounted depending on terrain and objectives. Armoured units have always had a dismounted element but flexibility, it would seem, is the cornerstone of effective reconnaissance and we are as likely to see a cavalry trooper in the dismounted sniper role as we are seeing one driving a Scimitar.

No news there then.

So we should be wary of too closely associating the concept of reconnaissance to equipment, especially vehicles. A future BRF may be based around a core of a traditional Formation Reconnaissance squadron with attachments from pretty much everywhere else in the Army.

Almost infinitely variable the BRF will likely draw capabilities from all corners but this becomes a challenge when those corners are in reduced circumstances.

An ISTAR Corps

We are no stranger to creating ad hoc formations of multiple trades and even equipment that work fantastically on operations it just that when the Army gets home it reverts to its comfortable regimental and corps structures, often forgetting the hard-won lessons of others.

An operation comes around again and we often and expensively have to relearn exactly the same lessons learned at great cost before.

Would it be possible therefore to institutionalise this experience and create an ISTAR Corps or are the current ways of doing things good enough?

I tend to think instead of managing the problem we should be attacking the cause of our seeming lack of ‘corporate memory’ but for the sake of this post, I would like to explore the concept of a multi-disciplined ISTAR Corps.

This is also one of those ‘capability plus’ areas I would like to see overdeveloped, we already do it brilliantly well, let’s build on that to leverage our technology and skills advantages whilst reducing pressure on personnel numbers. Whether it is simply a permanent grouping of multiple cap badges or something completely new and independent i.e. a Corps, is I suppose less important than what it does, but we should never underestimate the power of the old boy network, regimental associations and plain old fashioned conservative inertia when looking at new ideas.

The new Corps would have the full range of capabilities and ability to operate across a range of terrain, fighting for information in an armoured thrust across open terrain to stealthy observation in urban terrain to working with local populations to provide enhanced intelligence for a coalition force.

This is a wide remit, difficult to create a coherent organisational structure that meets all requirements without having to resort to smash and grab from other units. For example, if an armoured formation needs to know which route is the optimal one for an objective it would be disastrous if that information came from a reconnaissance unit that had no appreciation of the requirements of a Challenger in terms of terrain. It might be a small detail but these things are important.

So this proposal is simply a set of loose ideas around structure, roles and equipment.

We would have to come up with a better name as well, let’s face the Royal Corps of ISTAR sounds cack!

Primary and Secondary Roles, Sneak Around or Fight It Out

A while ago I asked what did armoured reconnaissance actually mean and Sven ran a brilliant post in response, have a read here

Sven proposed categorising the tasks into three broad areas, traditional armoured reconnaissance, combat missions as light forces and other combat tasks by virtue of being in place.

With due acknowledgement to Sven I have reproduced them here;

Category I (The undisputed armoured reconnaissance core missions)

(a) Inform manoeuvre commanders about the situation out of the reconnaissance radius of his combat troops (& his own reconnaissance element). This is the biggest chunk and gets the most attention.

(b) Cooperate with air power and long-range artillery (detection, tracking, identification, target designation, battle damage assessment).

(c) Probing in order to detect gaps or weak spots.

Category II (Combat missions as auxiliary combat troops or at low force density)

(a) Defeat hostile reconnaissance elements when encountered (possibly hunt them down)

(b) Coups de main against establishing defensive positions, airfields, bridges, depots, combat (service) support troops, headquarters, SAM sites and radars

(c) Flank security

(d) Advance guard / vanguard

(e) Deception (attacks) – this is especially an option if armoured reconnaissance vehicles look similar to the combat troops’ vehicles

(f) Rearguard action

(g) Convoy escort

(h) (Last-ditch) reserve in crisis (in a defensive battle) together with engineers

(i) Assault gun-like support of otherwise imbalanced (combined arms minus armour) efforts

(j) Skirmishing combat force for fighting in & control of terrain in low force density

(k) Engage (with surprise effect) not battle-ready hostile combat troops

Category III (“As you’re already there…”)

(a) Report air situation far forward (passive ground/air sensors)

(b) Pick up aircrews who crashed or ejected

(c) Infiltrate/exfiltrate special forces and agents

(d) Radio relay function

(e) Capture OPFOR equipment for technical analysis (especially rear unit’s equipment)

(f) Disable infrastructure (rail lines, landlines, dams, civilian radio towers, bridges, tunnels, power lines, fuel stations)

(g) Emplace/retrieve unattended sensors

(h) Destruction of crashed or emergency-landed aircraft (especially helicopters)

(i) Ambush hostile (hopefully unsuspecting) helicopters

(j) Intercept hostile supply convoys

Into this list you might include the roles currently being carried out by the BRF in Afghanistan, liaising with the local population, sniping and others.

Beyond the traditional role of reconnaissance, the units in possession of CVR(T) have been used for a wide variety of secondary roles (category II in Sven’s list) in all manner of operations, so much so, that one might be forgiven for thinking that the secondary roles are in fact the primary ones.

So the two key questions are

Do we fight for information or rely on stealth and technology?

What is the mix between the primary and the secondary?

Two very large questions that have taxed many people with an infinitely better grasp than me, but still worth looking at

Fight or Sneak

To start this section I think it is worth looking at the experience of others.

In this day and age, long distance reconnaissance must be organized to fight in execution of its mission, to fight for time to send information in, and to fight for time for the main body to properly utilize the information sent in. . . . Reconnaissance capable of only observation is not worth the road space it takes

US Major General Charles Scott, 1942

In the aftermath of WWII, several studies came to the conclusion that effective reconnaissance always required fighting for except in the rare situations where a stealthy infiltration was an option.

Yet despite this, British forces in North Africa proved the concepts of long-range lightly armed reconnaissance, the Long Range Desert Group and the emergence of the SAS for example.

UK experience in the Gulf also confirmed the viability of lightly armed and stealthy surveillance as a means of obtaining information.

In the early nineties the ‘return to stealth’ became the accepted wisdom as the promise of technology was swallowed wholesale by all modern armies.

In common with their approach to learning lessons from combat, US forces conducted an extensive study of Operation Iraqi Freedom, including an in-depth look at reconnaissance.

It reported on 6 themes, again worth repeating.

Theme 1 – Tempo Drives Reconnaissance, speed of operations demand that reconnaissance keep up both in physical and information terms

Theme 2 – Movement to contact is the most common type of offence, uncertainty required that detailed reconnaissance was carried out but because of Theme 1, this was more often than not impossible.

Theme 3 – Adaptive enemies often do not fit doctrinal templates, this is going to be especially relevant when fighting diffuse enemies that do not always have neatly delineated units that occupy defined boundaries. Size and equipment of opposing do not always relate to difficulty to overcome or combat effectiveness.

Theme 4 – Commanders require human intelligence more than imagery, the amount of UAV, satellite or aircraft derived imagery was often overwhelming but of dubious value. Information collected from individuals was often of much higher value.

Theme 5 – Most useful intelligence is bottom-up, the report found that the most useful information came from within units rather than delivered from higher formations. Many interviewees were particularly scathing of JSTARS and satellite feeds were created as many false alarms as useful information. This was compounded by bandwidth restrictions.

Theme 6 – Lightly armoured scouts cannot high tempo operations, this was a particularly interesting find because it was in direct contradiction of the technology-led conclusions of the early nineties. Lightly armed and armoured vehicles were simply outclassed, leading to their withdrawal and in many cases, M1 tanks were used, even in preference to the M3 Bradleys, let alone Humvees.

Whilst this study has relevance to fast-paced advances some of the themes are less relevant to other kinds of operation. Afghanistan for example is not a fast-paced advance to an objective and so we have to look at things with different eyes.

Some are just as relevant though.

The study linked above concluded that when building a reconnaissance model the two main variables are operational tempo and battlefield density. Combat is always needed to obtain useful information unless time was available for passive observation and the general transformative impact of modern surveillance technology was often overstated.

Which is a roundabout way of saying the lessons of pretty much every recent conflict were reaffirmed!

The report has this to say, a key paragraph below

Lightly armored scouts survive on the battlefield by trading armor for stealth. Stealth requires time—one luxury tactical commanders can expect to do without in the future. Future conflicts will almost certainly occur above the threshold that allows for stealthy reconnaissance. Additionally, the evolving nature of the threat will make that passive reconnaissance less and less useful. If the enemy looks just like the population he is hiding among, then observing him from a distance reveals little information of use to a maneuver commander.

Effective reconnaissance in the future will almost certainly require fighting. Ultimately, someone must go forward into the unknown and make contact with the enemy. If that element possesses the combat power to survive that contact and the flexibility to react, tactical commanders can sustain the tempo advantage, understand the enemy based on his actions and react faster than the threat. This will be the key to victory on the future battlefield. To engage in combat beyond the supporting range of friendly forces, reconnaissance forces must have access to the full suite of combined arms critical to tactical success.

Apart from the shocking spelling of armour and manoeuvre, I think that is a pretty good summary!

The answer to the fight or sneak question is closely tied to equipment evolution.

The British Army has in recent times chosen to take the stealth route when seeking information, hence the small, highly mobile but lightly armed and armoured CVR(T) series and collection of open-top soft skin vehicles, culminating in Jackal.

We also tend to look at the problem through a CVR(T) shaped prism.

The change in emphasis to a more combative approach to carrying out the formation reconnaissance role is reflected in FRES Scout, replacing a 10-tonne vehicle with a 30-tonne vehicle. Protection and firepower have assumed a greater emphasis than tactical and strategic mobility. CVR(T) could be delivered by air, carried on the back of more or less any truck, self deploy on the road, easily carried in an ISO container, able to traverse very poor ground, use austere roads and bridges and go places that are simply off-limits to any vehicle weighing in excess of 30 tonnes but it has survivability issues where its diminutive size weighs heavily against it.

Other nations are wrestling with similar problems and with the introduction of the Fennek, the German Army would seem to be going down the stealth route although Sven will be able to provide more details.

We should also look at the use of the CVR(T) Striker, equipped with Swingfire long-range anti-tank weapons. It was not, as many think, an offensive anti-tank weapon but was designed to provide overwatch for Scimitar and Scorpion operating beyond the cover of the Chieftain and Challenger main battle tanks. So whilst Scimitars might have been sneaking around they certainly had a big brother watching out for them. In complex terrain, with increasing urbanisation, arguably the most likely we will encounter, we can no longer rely on this concept.

All that said, one cannot deny the success of the British model using CVR(T), a lighter vehicle and stealthy observation.

This brings us on to the second question, the effect of primary and secondary roles on subsequent structures and equipment.

I am now retired from the Army and embarking on my second career, but I spent most of my 22 years serving in CVR(T) and most of what has been written here has been discussed by the men that did crew them and still do!

It is a fantastic piece of equipment, years ahead of its time when designed and that very fact that there is literally nothing that can do what it does, on the market today, marks it as still being a unique and valued capability, that as was written in the article, we loose at our peril.

In the Falklands, it was 10 years old, relegated to secondary roles for fear it would not be able to traverse the terrain, well it did and in the post op reports, they wanted a Sqn, if not a Regt down there.

In Granby it was written off again because “it wouldn’t keep up” with Challenger/Warrior. Well not only did it, but it was proved that both in the Close and Formation Recce role, the need for the manned platform to FIND the enemy, FIX him and if it went pear shaped could stand up for itself till the big boys arrived, was as valuable as ever and the platform of choice?

In the Balkans, during the winter of ’93-’94, the only vehicle that could move over roads with inches of black ice, offer protection against IDF and traverse the steep, snowy terrain to get the job done was CVR(T).

During Telic 1 it was engaging and holding its own in fights with T55 while it’s human crew made the decisions to use Arty, Air or other ground units to out manoeuvre the enemy.

On Herrick with Mine blast Protection, ballistic protection and bar armour, not only does it mean the crew walk away from mine strikes and RPG strikes, I’ve seen it first hand, but in some cases the vehicle not only survives, but continues to fight! (But the extra protection does push it to 11 tonnes!)

Why is CVR(T) so good at what it does?

It has the perfect balance of Armour/Protection/Firepower but it is its size and weight that means it can go anywhere and do anything.

I for one, along with many other will shed a tear when it finally backs into the hanger for the last time.

Dean, a Think Defence commenter

An illuminating quote from someone with a lot of practical experience but what is interesting is that many of the operations mentioned were not traditional reconnaissance, in Sven’s terminology, Category II roles.

As I mentioned above, these seem to be just as prevalent as the traditional reconnaissance roles. For these some of the assumptions change, strategic and tactical mobility become of greater importance than combat strength.

This leads me to the conclusion that the UK must retain the ability to carry out both, stealthy observation and combative acquisition of information.

A different set of compromises for a different set of requirements

A second conclusion is that those secondary roles are every bit as important and whilst we might sometimes use the same equipment we should avoid being straight-jacketed into assuming that one size fits all because it doesn’t.

The next post will look at structures and tools.

The Future of the British Army Series…

The Future of the British Army 01 – Scene Setting

The Future of the British Army 02 – Tasks and Capabilities

The Future of the British Army 03 – Rank and Size

The Future of the British Army 04 – Structures

The Future of the British Army 05 – Heavy Metal

The Future of the British Army 06 – ISTAR and Formation Reconnaissance (01)

The Future of the British Army 07 – ISTAR and Formation Reconnaissance (02) A Sensible Future

Supporting Articles

The Need to Rethink FRES

A Brief History of FRES

Medium Armour – what is it, and what does it mean for the post 2020 force structure?

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