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Mixed reconnaissance patrol of the Polish Home Army and the Soviet Red Army during Operation Tempest, 1944
Mixed reconnaissance patrol of the Polish Home Army and the Soviet Red Army during Operation Tempest, 1944

Reconnaissance is the military term for the active gathering of information about an enemy, or other conditions, by physical observation. It is part of combat intelligence. Compare to counterintelligence. Compare also to surveillance, which is passive gathering of information.

In geology, the term refers to an "examination or survey of the general geological characteristics of a region".

Often referred to as recce (British & Commonwealth, pronunciation /ˈrɛ.ki/ in IPA, sounds like WRECK-ee) or recon (USA), the associated verb is reconnoitre in British English or reconnoiter in American English.

Examples of reconnaissance include patrolling by troops, ships, submarines, or aircraft, or by setting up covert observation posts. Reconnaissance may also be carried out by satellites or unmanned aircraft. Espionage is not normally considered to be covered by the term reconnaissance, as reconnaissance involves uniformed military forces operating ahead of the main force, as opposed to non-combatant individuals behind the enemy lines.

Reconnaissance seeks to collect information about an enemy. This includes types of enemy units, locations, numbers, and intentions or activity. A number of acronyms exist for the information to be gathered – mainly coined by the US – including salt (size, activity, location, and time), salute (size, activity, location, unit, time, and equipment), sam & doc (strength, armament, movement, deployment, organization, and communications). Thus reconnaissance is a fundamental tactic which helps to build an intelligence picture.


[edit] Airborne reconnaissance

Reconnaissance photographs, such as this one of Soviet missile installations, played a key role in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
Reconnaissance photographs, such as this one of Soviet missile installations, played a key role in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
camera bay of a reconnaissance Mirage III R
camera bay of a reconnaissance Mirage III R
Main article: Surveillance aircraft

Airborne reconnaissance goes back to the early era of ballooning. After the French Revolution, the new rulers became interested in using the balloon to observe enemy manoeuvres and appointed scientist Charles Coutelle to conduct studies using L'Entrepremant, the first reconnaissance aircraft. The balloon found its first use in the 1794 conflict with Austria, where in the Battle of Fleurus the gathered information and the demoralizing effect on the Austrain troops ensured victory for the French troops.

The first use of airplanes in combat missions was by the Italian Air Force during the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-1912. On 23 October 1911, an Italian pilot flew over the Turkish lines in Libya to conduct history's first aerial reconnaissance mission, and on 1 November 1911, the first ever aerial bomb was dropped on the Turkish troops in Libya.

On 16 October 1912 a Bulgarian Albatros aircraft was used to perform Europe's first reconnaissance flight in combat conditions, against the Turkish lines on the Balkan peninsula, during the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913.

During the First World War, photo reconnaissance was one of the early uses of the aeroplane. Aviators such as Fred Zinn evolved an entire range of new flying and photography techniques to use the new technology in the equally new environment of trench warfare.

Before the Second World War the conventional wisdom was to use converted bomber types for airborne photo reconnaissance. These bombers retained their defensive armament, which was vital since they were unable to avoid interception.

In 1939 Flying Officer Maurice Longbottom of the RAF was among the first to suggest that airborne reconnaissance may be a task better suited to fast, small aircraft which would use their speed and high service ceiling to avoid detection and interception. Although this seems obvious now, with modern reconnaissance tasks performed by fast, high flying aircraft, at the time it was radical thinking. He proposed the use of Spitfires with their armament and radios removed and replaced with extra fuel and cameras. This led to the development of the Spitfire PR variants. Spitfires proved to be extremely successful in their reconnaissance role and there were many variants built specifically for that purpose.

Immediately after World War II, long range aerial reconnaissance was taken up by adapted jet bombers – such as the English Electric Canberra, and its American development, the Martin B-57 – capable of flying higher or faster than the enemy. After the Korean War, RB-47 aircraft were used. These were at first converted B-47 jet bombers, but later these were purposely built RB-47 reconnaissance planes. They did not carry any bombs. They had large cameras mounted in the belly of the plane, and with a truncated bomb bay used for carrying flash bombs.

The onset of the Cold War led the development of highly specialized and secretive strategic reconnaissance aircraft, or spy planes, such as the Lockheed U-2 and its successor, the SR-71 Blackbird (both from the United States). Flying these aircraft became an exceptionally demanding task, as much because of the aircraft's extreme speed and altitude as it was because of the risk of being captured as spies. As a result, the crews of these aircraft were invariably specially selected and trained.

Although much of this type of intelligence can now be gathered by satellite photography and unmanned aerial vehicles, manned reconnaisance aircraft still play a vital role on the modern battlefield.

[edit] Reconnaissance in force

Some military elements tasked with reconnaissance are armed only for self-defence, and rely on stealth to gather information. Others are well-enough armed to also deny information to the enemy by destroying their reconnaissance elements.

Reconnaissance in force (RIF) is a type of military operation used specifically to probe an enemy's disposition. By mounting an offensive with considerable (but not decisive) force, the commander hopes to elicit a strong reaction by the enemy that reveals its own strength, deployment, and other tactical data. In modern warfare, key weapon systems such as surface-to-air missile batteries, radar sites, artillery, and so forth can give their location away to everyone for miles around when actively fighting. The RIF commander retains the option to fall back with the data or expand the conflict into a full engagement.

Reconnaissance by fire (or speculative fire, 'spec fire') is a tactic which applies a similar principle. When not trying to be stealthy, reconnaissance units may fire on likely enemy positions to provoke a reaction. In the Iraq war, insurgents and terrorists use a similar tactic, in which they brandish weapons or purposely draw suspicion, in order to learn about the rules of engagement of Western forces.

Long-range reconnaissance is defined as recon in small groups behind the enemy lines, tens or hundreds of kilometers into hostile territory. This has much overlap with guerrilla warfare. While almost every frontline military unit is sometimes assigned to do limited patrolling or surveillance of one kind or another, this kind of stealthy scouting far from friendly bases is a particularly dangerous mission. Light cavalry often served this purpose in the past, and modern militaries keep specialized infantry units ready for similar roles, often verging on special forces. When the recon team is unfamiliar with the terrain, recruitment of local guides can be very desirable for these kind of missions.

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