From "observation" to "tactical reconnaissance:" the development of American battlefield ISR in World War II.

Author:Rein, Chris


Despite being the first mission assigned to aviation assets in warfare, by the mid-1930s, the observation, or reconnaissance mission had fallen far behind the more glamorous fields of bombardment, pursuit and even attack in the U.S. Army Air Corps (soon to become the U.S. Army Air Forces). In his prescription for the composition of a modern Air Force, Brig. Gen. William "Billy" Mitchell advocated a mix of sixty percent pursuit, twenty percent bombardment and twenty percent attack, all supported by an auxiliary observation branch. (1) Despite Mitchell's laying out of a comprehensive plan for the employment of observation aviation in Our Air Force, including photo processing and artillery correction, the branch of aviation dedicated to providing battlefield reconnaissance languished near the bottom of the AAF's priority list. By 1940, most "observation" units, as they were then known, were flying the obsolescent O-47, primarily in National Guard squadrons geographically dispersed in areas where they could support the annual training exercises. Unsurprisingly, in their first test with the European axis, the observation branch was found wanting. By early 1943, Carl "Tooey" Spaatz, the senior American airman in the North African campaign wrote General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, the Army Air Forces commanding general, "It is now evident that observation groups, as we know them, will never serve a useful purpose when the enemy is equipped and operates as the German air and ground forces (have) in this theater." (2)

By late 1944, a remarkable renaissance had occurred in the observation branch. That autumn, no less than three full tactical reconnaissance groups were providing near-real time intelligence to both ground and tactical aviation units, greatly facilitating the Allied drive across France and into Germany. While the effort still suffered from glaring omissions, such as the development of a night-time reconnaissance capability and processing bottlenecks that continue to plague the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) community, tac recce, as it became known, had evolved into an effective and vital component of the ground-air team. The future USAF was so impressed that it retained specialized tac recce units throughout the Cold War, only dropping the adjective "tactical" after the long-overdue merging of the Tactical and Strategic Air Commands, which had each retained its own tactical and strategic reconnaissance assets and organizations. This remarkable recovery required the AAF leadership to first identify and acknowledge the problem, and then to devise and implement corrective measures, all under the pressures of wartime conditions. They were fortunate to have the active assistance of the successful RAF model, honed in the Western Desert, as good an argument as any for the continued importance and relevance of coalitions comprised of diverse service and national cultures in modern aerial warfare. Airmen achieved this construction of "tac recce," in the classrooms and on the training ranges of bases such as the AAF School of Applied Tactics (AAF-SAT) in Orlando, Florida, and the Reconnaissance schoolhouse at Key Field in Meridian, Mississippi. Their efforts have gone largely unexplored, but highlight a key development in the capability of modern ISR and provide a graphic example of the process of continual adaptation essential for success in air operations. They also emphasize the continuing relevance of proper training and correct organization in effective battlefield reconnaissance.

In 1956, Robert Futrell traced the collapse of the U.S. Army Air Force's "observation" aviation branch in the North African campaign and the subsequent policy decisions that led to its replacement with Tactical Reconnaissance Groups in Northwest Europe. (3) Futrell's work explained the bureaucratic process that led to this development in mid-1943, but did not describe the process by which these groups were formed, trained or employed. He noted that the direct assignment of a single observation squadron to each ground division commander, and an observation group to each Army Corps, with three of the squadrons assigned directly to the divisions leaving one for corps use, as the ground officers had desired, was an ineffective construct that was finally eliminated with the publication of FM 100-20 in the summer of 1943. That document directed the centralization of all air assets under the air commander, who would then work closely with the ground commander in allocating assets and assigning missions that were of the highest priority to the theater commander. In 2007, Doug Gordon carried the story forward with a description of the "tac recce" groups that served the USAF admirably through the end of the Cold War, but provided only a brief (one page) summary of WWII-era developments. (4) As a result, we are left with an incomplete history of the development of tac recce in the USAF during the mid- to latter stages of World War II.

In addition to monitoring the strength, disposition and progress of enemy (and eventually, friendly) forces, aircrews of the observation squadrons were also trained to adjust artillery fire, a role tactical reconnaissance aircraft continued to train in and excel at in the latter stages of the European war, despite the Army's development of indigenous "horsefly" very light liaison aircraft assigned directly to each artillery battalion, itself an experiment made successful only by the general air superiority the Allies had achieved over the front by the time they were employed. (5) But the key piece of technology turned out to be the airborne camera, with its ability to capture detail far in excess of even the trained observer's eye and to be more widely reproduced and disseminated than a verbal or written report. It also minimized the threat to observation aircraft and led to designs that incorporated light, fast types that could enter and exit the battle area quickly, rather than slower types of long endurance who could loiter in the battle area. The reliance on aerial photography led the AAF to eventually install cameras in the most modern fighter types by 1944-45. Indeed, the 363rd Tactical Reconnaissance Group, discussed later, had two squadrons of the photo variant of the P-51 (F-6) and one squadron with photo-equipped P-38s (F-4s and F-5s). Both aircraft were still the AAF's frontline fighters at the end of the war, emphasizing the importance the AF placed on the mission by equipping units with the latest types.


Within the AAF establishment, the pre-war observation units had to compete with what the AAF then called "reconnaissance," but which was actually what would become known as either "photographic" or "strategic reconnaissance." These were aircraft intended to conduct pre-strike weather missions and post-strike bomb damage assessment missions. Again, for deep reconnaissance, the mission required a fast, long-range aircraft able to ingress and egress the target area at high altitude with limited potential for being successfully intercepted. Lacking such an aircraft, the AAF initially assigned variants either of medium or heavy bombers to conduct these missions. When they proved unworkable, the service obtained British Mosquitos as an intermediate stopgap, until eventually settling on the F-4/5 and F-6s for this mission as well. These units became known Photographic Reconnaissance squadrons and groups but, as the requirements of both tactical and strategic reconnaissance began to merge, so too did the aircraft types and units assigned to conduct it.

In contrast to the later F-series of aircraft, the ungainly O-47 provided a three-person crew, with a pilot, visual observer and photographic observer. Windows below the extended cockpit permitted observation directly below the aircraft, but it was hardly survivable on a World War II battlefield as demonstrated by the plight of the TBD Devastator torpedo bombers, based on a similar three-person design, in the Battle of Midway. As the war began, most observation units were being reequipped with both A-20 Havocs (Bostons) and P-39 Airacobras, with most groups eventually operating two squadrons of each type of aircraft, but with some squadrons operating both types, as well as lighter liaison types, complicating logistics and repair requirements. (6) When the 68th Observation Group deployed to North Africa for Operation TORCH, its four squadrons contained P-39s and A-20s, neither of which could survive over the battlefield without an escort. As a result, most were reassigned to antisubmarine scouting missions (the same fate suffered by most O-47s still back in the states) until the first F-4s could reach the frontline units. Only one squadron of the 68th Group, the 154th Observation Squadron, originally of the Arkansas National Guard, ever saw combat employment in its intended role. Despite the best efforts of its pilots it was unable to overcome the primitive airfields and poor February weather of Tunisia's Western Dorsales and provided poor support during the Kasserine battles. (7)


The 154th offers a detailed case study in the failure of the pre-war observation model. Despite being mobilized for federal service in September 1940, more than a year before Pearl Harbor, the unit still entered combat woefully unprepared to offer even the most basic support to the ground forces in Tunisia. The problem was two-fold: first, the unit spent much of the pre-war time on either basic preparation, such as honing flying and navigating skills, or, after the opening of the war, in coastal defense and reconnaissance. Second, the time spent training with ground units, which included participation in...

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