Scouts Out! The Development of Reconnaissance Units in Modern Armies

by John J. McGrath

Book cover for Scouts Out! The Development of Reconnaissance Units in Modern Armies

Reconnaissance and counterreconnaissance are battlefield missions as old as military history itself and missions for which many armies have created specialized units to perform. In most cases, these units were trained, equipped, and used differently from the majority of an army’s fighting units. Horse cavalry performed these missions for centuries, for it had speed and mobility far in excess of main battle units. Once the horse was replaced by mechanization, however, the mobility advantage once enjoyed by the horse cavalry disappeared. Since the early 20th century, the search for the proper mix of equipment, the proper organization, and the proper employment of reconnaissance units has bedeviled armies around the world. This survey uses a diverse variety of historical cases to illustrate the enduring issues that surround the equipping, organizing, and employment of reconnaissance units. This special study examines the development, role, and employment of units in modern armies designed specifically to perform reconnaissance and security (counterreconnaissance) missions. The analysis discerns common threads from the past. Conclusions are drawn from historical trends that may apply to future force development planning and unit operational employment. In the past, dedicated reconnaissance units were unique in their organization and capabilities due to the presence of the horse. This provided cavalry with a marked mobility differential over infantry and artillery. In the mechanized age, this monopoly on mobility vanished. Nonreconnaissance mechanized and motorized forces were equipped with similar weapons and vehicles. Reconnaissance units then became distinctive primarily by their organizational structure and specialized mission rather than by their equipment. This conceptual transformation has created a great dichotomy for modern reconnaissance forces. Should such forces be light or heavy? A lighter force might be able to conduct reconnaissance operations, at least theoretically, in a more nimble fashion, while a heavier force could defend itself when conducting reconnaissance and security operations. An additional consideration is the question as to what organizational level should dedicated reconnaissance forces be provided and used. This work examines these two major threads from a historical perspective since World War I.

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