Digester’s note: This article, which is a prize essay, is amplified with historical examples of the World War and of other wars. While all the conclusions of the author might not be accepted “in toto,” it is a valuable study.

(Originally published in Military Review October-December 1922)

The Probable Influence of Air Reconnaissance on Strategy and Tactics

By Flight Lieutenant C. J. Mackay Journal of the Royal United Service Institution November 1922, p. 622 (20 pages)

Prior to the advent of the airplane, information about the enemy was obtained by some of the following means:

a. Cavalry.

b. Operations in force.

c. Espionage.

d. Prisoners and cross-examination of local inhabitants.

e. Enemy press and captured papers.

The advent of the airplane has developed another medium of reconnaissance, It is possible to see what is on the other side of the hill.

Lack of information produced two great surprises on the Western Front in 1914 namely:

a. The strength of the German flank attack delivered through Belgium.

b. The appearance of the Army of Paris (6th Army) on Moltke’s right flank before the Marne.

In defining the different types of aerial reconnaissance, it is difficult to denote the dividing line between the strategical and the tactical.

Just as ground reconnaissance has been classified as protective, contact, and independent; so too air reconnaissance may be classified as contact, protective, and independent; with two subsidiary forms: counter battery and survey.

The advantages of air reconnaissance are: Large radius of activity, and rapidity in delivering information secured to the commander. However, air reconnaissance is liable to interruption owing to adverse weather conditions; but even then, such conditions are not likely to last sufficiently long to allow an enemy opportunity for surprise. A commander must discriminate between the positive and negative air report. Negative reports must be treated with reserve.

The immediate influence of air reconnaissance on the conduct of war may be summarized as follows:

a. It reduces the inherent unreadiness of modern armies. A modern army corps occupies a road space of thirty-five miles*, and takes thirteen hours to deploy-no small measure of unreadiness. The early information, however, which the airplane is capable of supplying, allows ample time for this deployment.

b. It compels night movement of troops. “Night marches,” said Blucher, “are more to be dreaded than the enemy.” But now night marches are less to be dreaded than discovery. On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that aerial night reconnaissance is in its infancy. In future wars, night reconnaissance with the aid of powerful flares will reveal almost as much as by day, with the additional advantage that observation can be carried out from a low altitude.

c. It precludes the wide turning movement. Had aircraft then been so developed as they are now, and their application as fully understood, von Kluck’s turning movement through Belgium would have been doomed at its inception. In the face of airplane observation, the turning movement will in future be one of the most difficult operations of war.

d. It precludes the possibility of losing touch with an opponent. It is true that, in 1917, under cover of mists of the Somme, the V Army lost touch with the retreating Germans for a few days, but only tactically, on a limited front.

e. It supplies the commander with the only means of following, and thus controlling, the tactical development of the modern battle.

f. It introduces the necessity for deception (or camouflage) many miles behind the battle front in areas hitherto considered immune from enemy observation .

g. It facilitates the use of long range artillery, which, with the aid or air observation, can harass enemy back areas with accuracy.

h. It renders the surprise factor more difficult to achieve. The value of air reconnaissance is not confined to land operations. Successful naval battles of the future will be based on the adoption of methods of air reconnaissance and observation of fire brought about by the airplane.

While the airplane has developed a superior method of acquiring information about the enemy, and in many cases the only method, it cannot be said that aerial reconnaissance will revolutionize warfare. The principles of war have not been modified. Aircraft, like any other innovation of war, has an influence in the application of principles of war to the methods of warfare.


*This refers to an European army corps.