Wavell Room
Image default
Concepts and DoctrineLong Read

Preserving Formation Reconnaissance

When warfighting, formation level ground mounted crewed reconnaissance (GMCR) has never been more important. This has been clearly indicated by the successful development of the Divisional Reconnaissance Battle Group (DRBG) since 2017 reinforced by The Royal Lancers’ experiences on recent major exercises such as Ex CERBERUS 20 and WARFIGHTER (WFX) 21.4. However, with the launch of the Integrated Operating Concept (IOpC), and the complementary Defence Command Paper, warfighting utility alone will no longer be enough to preserve units on the order of battle. The GMCR community must now its prove utility for operating in an era of constant competition. There is a danger for combat units that are not the Force Generation (FGen) commodity of choice: an infantry battalion. 

“Reconnaissance and security operations are essential to effective execution of unified land operations”

The structural changes as a result of the Integrated Review, and the reduction in the size of Royal Armoured Corps (RAC) and Infantry units that are at the core of Future Soldier, will soon begin. For Formation Reconnaissance (Fmn Recce) to survive the next review it needs to act quickly to adopt an approach of platform agnostic recce excellence. This essay identifies, and advocates for, a platform agnostic approach to Fmn Recce and greater unity across the reconnaissance regiments of the RAC. It will also identify areas of investment for achievement of recce excellence.


While over time the character of conflict has changed, the utility of reconnaissance has remained consistent: “develop a situation, identifying and confirming enemy groupings for cross-cueing to strike; enabling [the division’s] freedom of manoeuvre through confirmation of routes/terrain and providing a human sensor to collect/influence.”

A lot of people do reconnaissance: from civil engineers on construction sites to infantry close recce platoons. The tasks and information sort are different, the principles are roughly the same. Here lies the danger. Fmn Recce is a specialist capability that not everyone can do; it requires well trained, resilient soldiers who are comfortable operating to an intent at reach from commanders. In the absence of coherent doctrine or operational focus, demonstrating agility has become the focus of individual regiments vying to survive and led them down doctrinally divergent paths – divided we are easily conquered. The danger has already been demonstrated by the Royal Artillery’s takeover of nearly all things Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and commentators like RUSI’s Jack Watling advocating for technical ISR over GMCR.

A name is a critical component of one’s identity. The same is true for military units; we rally around our Regimental names and the history that comes with them. Army 2020 created two new names from what had been Fmn Recce and then Brigade Reconnaissance to Light Cavalry (Lt Cav) and Armoured Cavalry (Armd Cav). We have since expended time and effort, to no real avail, to create separate concepts of employment for what remains essentially Fmn Recce. While the micro tactical details of operating on CVR(T)/AJAX and Jackal are of course different, at a macro level nothing is divergent: both Armd Cav and Lt Cav provide reconnaissance to enhance higher commanders’ decision making and enhance freedom of manoeuvre. It is time to be rid of this unnecessary divergence and, agnostic of the platform one operates, unite under the Fmn Recce name.

Operate – far more than just a *insert vehicle name here* Regiment

As IOpC has made clear, we must have a force capable of both operating and warfighting. For the Fmn Recce community to thrive in this model then we must now break the link between platforms and the utility of Fmn Recce units.

Throughout Ops TELIC and HERRICK RAC units became experts in operating a range of crew-based platforms to deliver effects. CVR(T), Warthog, Warrior and Jackal are just a few examples. In the post-HERRICK era, we seem to now fixate on the link between platform and capability. A prime example is the Long-Range Reconnaissance Group (LRRG) on Op NEWCOMBE – currently structured as a mixed battlegroup of primarily Lt Cav on Jackal and Light Mechanised (Lt Mech) infantry on Foxhound. Applying the experience of HERRICK/TELIC, it is difficult to understand why, on a reconnaissance operation, Fmn Recce units could not provide all the combat elements of the battlegroup. The strength of the Fmn Recce community is platform agnostic recce excellence – simply reconnaissance experts regardless of the platform being operated.

The Fmn Recce community also needs greater involvement in the reconnaissance element of Land ISR in support of constant competition activity. The ISR Task Unit element of Op ELGIN in Kosovo is a prime example. UK troops, currently a Fmn Recce sub-unit, provide Human Terrain Reconnaissance – overt reconnaissance patrolling collecting through human interaction across the political, military, economic, social, information and infrastructure spectrum – to support identification of threats to a safe and secure environment on behalf of the NATO HQ. Human Terrain Reconnaissance is a skill set as applicable in operating as it is in warfighting and should be a routine Fmn Recce task. 

“the armed forces must retain their warfighting excellence as the foundation for credibility and utility. But must also be better able to contribute… through actions short OF war”

Operational deployments are important. They improve retention and enhance the development of soldiers and leaders. I will concede that a GMCR focussed operation is difficult outside of warfighting but Armd Cav have been awkwardly absent from even Op CABRIT rotations. While no one will complain about the short term training team opportunities presented to Armd Cav sub-units, these do not present the comprehensive and formative experiences of unit operational deployments on Ops NEWCOMBE, TORAL, CABRIT or TOSCA. The net result being underdeveloped soldiers with a lack of purpose.

The Fmn Recce community (in particular Armd Cav), supported by key stakeholders such as HQ RAC and the 1st Deep Recce Strike Brigade Combat Team, must demonstrate agility and utility for Operate tasks. The Land Operations Command and Fmn HQs must consider the wider utility of Fmn Recce when force generating for tasks. Crucially Armd Cav Regts need opportunities for operational deployment at unit level.

Warfight – Death or [simulated] Glory

The lack of operational deployments has been compounded by a steady decline in the quantity and quality of Armd Cav training events. Regiments have been forced to conduct cheaper activity masqueraded as ‘mastering the basics’, usually only focussed at the sub-unit level. This sits in juxtaposition to the investment in the Infantry or Armour with Battlegroups at readiness receiving comprehensive live and dry training packages. Critically this training is supported and assessed within an environment where challenges are presented from crew to Battlegroup HQ level. Armd Cav Regts have had limited access to this level of physical training since 2015. Despite our collective acknowledgement of the importance of the deep battle, fighting the close continues to receive the most significant investment. When the most dangerous course of action occurs and we find ourselves warfighting against a peer adversary, the deep battle will be the difference between success and failure. We must pivot the focus of our physical training from the close battle to the deep.

Constructive simulation enables larger organisations to be trained in a more resource effective manner. This has enabled the DRBG to be a consistent and critical element of 3rd (UK) Division’s (3 (UK) Div) order of battle throughout multiple divisional and Corps exercises since 2017. It has been at the centre of 3 (UK) Div’s success – for example, during WFX 21.4 the Deep Reconnaissance Battlegroup’s provision of targeting for attack aviation repelled an armoured counter-attack before it reached the divisional close battlespace. It is a catalyst for divisional manoeuvre; providing time and space for combat brigades while threatening the enemy’s key vulnerabilities – a utility singled out for praise by the UK senior mentor on WFX 21.4. The shortcomings of a training system reliant on simulation are for discussion in other articles but even with this caveat it must be acknowledged that Fmn Recce is a critical component of our warfighting capability. The US also recognises the importance of GMCR elements enabling formation multi-domain manoeuvre:

“The US Army should learn from its successes in 1991 [Op DESERT STORM] and prioritize the fielding of reconnaissance and security forces with cross-domain capabilities… Such missions are too difficult to be considered tasks that any unit can perform well with a little practice; rather, they require dedicated formations with unique skills and capabilities.” 

The Deep Recce Strike Brigade Combat Team is about to become a key stakeholder for Fmn Recce; a responsibility it will have to balance with ownership of our warfighting fires capability. Its HQ structure and mindset must reflect this – the status quo of either an Armoured Infantry or Artillery Brigade will not suffice. It will be an important advocate for innovative and challenging physical training events which develop platform agnostic recce excellence.

Excellence by function

Our adversaries continue to develop long-range weapon systems capable of striking our critical assets with greater accuracy – never more than now has the utility of low signature, dispersed recce forces operating within the enemy’s rear been more pertinent. Conceptually Fmn Recce is ready for this; physically it is a different story.

Command. To truly enable Fmn Recce to operate dispersed and in depth it requires a credible Beyond Line of Sight capability. This is not limited to warfighting – working Beyond Line of Sight has already assisted UK forces on current operations below the threshold of armed conflict. Use of Spectre Slingshot on current operations (such as NEWCOMBE in Mali) has significantly enhanced both voice and data communications range. Feasibly a Fmn Recce battlegroup could have sub-units on the continent and UK commanded and controlled at reach from a UK based HQ. We must physically train and test this level of dispersion rather than relying on simulation.

Manoeuvre. The ubiquity of Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems (RPAS) on battlefields in Ukraine and Nagorno-Karabakh has provided ample evidence  on their utility. Investment in medium capabilities such as PUMA are important, but these are restricted in quantity and thus inevitably task organised to Battlegroups. Instead we must move to a model where every crew has persistent access. Multiple commercial solutions are available – the AtlasPRO / NEST is just one credible option. Individual vehicle level RPAS has the capability to dramatically enhance coverage without notable signature change thus enabling greater dispersion and survivability.

Intelligence. The human element of Fmn Recce is a notable advantage over technical ISR. A well-trained FR soldier is a valuable source of human intelligence; able not only to collect but also influence. Currently FR units do not routinely train for this task. The pre-deployment training model for Op ELGIN would provide a solid framework that must be incorporated into the Battlecraft Syllabus. 

Protection. Much has been written on the impact of Armenian RPAS and loitering munitions on Azerbaijani armour in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. Countering the threat presented by fires cross-cued from military and commercial RPAS must be at the centre of the Army’s air defence development. Operating in deep battlespace, the threat is particularly pertinent for Fmn Recce who are unlikely to enjoy the protection of formation level AD systems. A vehicle/crew level solution to counter the threat of RPAS is sorely required.

Sustainment. Sustaining Fmn Recce operating dispersed beyond the Coordinated Fire Line is a perennial problem. Despite this being widely acknowledged, development of solutions has been slow. Part of this could be linked to a focus on winning WARFIGHTER rather than succeeding in a real life scenario. Simulation can create an environment which prejudices manoeuvre due to inability to accurately represent other tactical functions. We must adjust the way we train to drive reality into our sustainment chains – in war it will be gaps in this plan, not manoeuvre, which will cause mission failure. This can be reinforced by equipment and training to reduce reliance on the sustainment chain. Low cost water sterilisation kits and foraging/animal preparation training can be utilised to extend a unit’s time between resupplies; advanced medical training (beyond Team Medic) for all crews and holding blood forward would benefit medical timelines; and enhanced platform repair training (enabled not hindered by policy) would reduce reliance yet further. 

Fires. Fmn Recce operating in the deep battle space are critical in the identifying and cross-cuing targets on the Effects Guidance Matrix for strike. Never is Fmn Recce more important than when weather and electronic effects deny the use of technical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (the impact of which is easy to ignore through simulation). Given the importance of this link, it is concerning how little physical tactical training is conducted between Fmn Recce and aviation or fires to increase the speed and accuracy of this sensor to shooter link. While simulated training events provide opportunities for command posts to develop and integrate, this needs to be extended to crew level. Red forces recognition syllabuses need to be enhanced and aggressively trained into our crews – the quality of recognition is critical in supporting decision making.


For many of our people the realisation of the full extent of the IR’s structural changes will be a shock. There should rightfully be concern about where this will lead in the future. Focus must now switch to confirming Fmn Recce’s utility for both warfighting and operating, and thus protect the capability in future defence reviews. By adopting a platform agnostic approach under a sensible unified name and continuously working towards achieving recce excellence through operational deployments, training and introduction of new capabilities, this can be achieved.

Alex Humphreys

Major Alex Humphreys is a formation reconnaissance officer serving with The Royal Lancers. Since commissioning in 2013 he has served principally within the 3rd Division with experience on operations and multiple major exercises globally; including sub-unit command of an Armd Cav Squadron on UK operations and at readiness. He currently serves as a planner at HQ Field Army. All opinions expressed within his writing are his own and do not represent those of the MOD.

Related posts

UN Intelligence in the Balkans

Steve Maguire


Toby Fenton

The Defence Approach to Diversity

Andrew Fox

Leave a Comment