An interesting post which I missed at the time and since I came back to check out Armored Brigade and saw the resurrection of this necrothread while surfing the matrix forums I thought that, given the effort put into your post it warranted a reply. My apologies for missing it at the time. I'll address your questions/comments/insights in order. If I miss one please do let me know and I'll return to address it as best I can.
Knowing where your enemy is, and perhaps more importantly, where they aren't is a massive force multiplier. Good recon doesn't just confine itself to the question of geographic location. It should also address the issue of technical-tactical capabilities ( this isn't a phrase much used anymore, it was really an idea Triandafilov, Tukhachevsky and Varfolomeev used to describe how the technical limitations of Soviet equipment at their time imposed certain tactical limitations on their theories ) of the enemy forces ( e.g. if they have x hours of warning we are coming and are based 100 miles from the front with vehicles which can road march at x miles per hour then, assuming, y minutes to get ready to roll how close to the front can they be by 0900, the time at which we estimate we will break through the FOB and unleash our Operational Manoeuvre Group? ). Once you've got the enemy's technical-tactical characteristics and their locations down then recon means looking at their morale and training ( e.g. during all of the training exercises in which officers from the Warsaw Pact were invited along you can bet they were looking to see what noise discipline was like at night, how well laagers were policed up to remove detritus afterward etc etc ). Lastly you need to do this at the operational and strategic levels also. In WW2 the Allies and Axis had officers whose jobs were to know everything about opposing commanders and to predict how those commanders would approach problems and solve them.
In any case the key point here is that recon isn't just about force size and geography. It is about force size, geography, what that force COULD do given the resources at its disposal, what that force EXPECTS/WANTS to do, how its military superiors view it and its expected role and capabilities and then how it is viewed at the political level. E.g. In 1945 German Panzer divisions had certain tactical-technical characteristics. These were informed by whether the troops were motivated to fight or surrender ( the east front vs west front issue ). These objective realities were then perceived by their military superiors through the prism of those superiors' experience and capabilities AND ideology ( greater adherence to nazi ideology led to greater self-delusion by their superiors at the operational and strategic levels ). THEN you got the frankly delusional views of what was and wasn't possible at the grand strategic level - which often bore no relation to what was possible at the technical-tactical level.
So, the technical-tactical level is all about what is objectively possible given the laws of physics. Once you go beyond that level you have the possibility for layers and layers of self-deception within enemy ranks.
So, the more you know about ALL of these levels ( technical-tactical, tactical doctrine, enemy soldier morale, enemy military expectations and beliefs, enemy political expectations and beliefs, enemy societal expectations and beliefs ) then the better the chance that you can craft a plan to defeat that enemy at the grand strategic level ( the only level which truly matters --- which is a point that most western doctrine misses ). Another key point is that any good marxist doctrinaire is going to point out that the tactical is subordinate to the operational, the operational to the strategic and the strategic to the grand strategic(political etc ) levels and so during their peacetime reconnaissance they will follow that prioritisation.
To put that in a 1980s context --- What does it matter how effective and non-deluded the Austrian army is if politically we can secure the southern flank of our invasion of West Germany and render the army irrelevant through political means?
In a modern context --- Duterte's idiocy and the lack of American economic and political support for more strategically cognisant elements in the Philippines ( relatively speaking ) is allowing China to make great strides in establishing the 9 Dash Line and create a de facto reality which will not be reversed when Duterte is gone. China has done a masterful job over the last few years in that area militarily and politically, aided by the lack of effective action on western nations' parts.
You seem to be talking about pre-hostilities and post-hostilities recon... You talk about aircraft flying over the border. I think that you have to take a broader view of what pre-hostilities recon is. The Olympics/World games/Regional Games are great opportunities for pre-hostility recon. They allow you to send GRU operatives over in the guise of athletes and support staff to gain familiarity with the cities in which they will operate. You can establish "friendship camps" during the games to promote "understanding between our nations" and use the staffing of those camps to slip in a lot of operatives who can make contact with people who attend and keep in contact with them afterward - that's a lot of social intel you can get for years afterwards. Sure that intel isn't going to tell you when a specific unit is getting its F35s but it is going to tell you a lot about social attitudes to leaders, policy etc - all useful intel, cheaply won. You have deep-cover operatives and, best of all, you have military agreements with the West for officers to go along on training exercises to "promote understanding". etc etc etc
So you have to look at it holistically... There's a lot more to intel gathering than sending military assets over borders openly. In peacetime all of the other options will be used. You've got to bear in mind that in Soviet and Chinese ideology all contacts between individuals of opposing nations are opportunities for intelligence-gathering, dissemination of maskirovka and recruitment.
The Chinese, for example, are renowned for gathering this low-level intelligence (often from non-military personnel) and using it to build a picture of enemy capabilities and intentions. In this situation even the negative space uncovered ( e.g. those areas in which you can't find any intel ) tell you a lot.
AE doesn't allow such detailed and long-term pre-hostility tracking but, as a matter of course, I always read ALL forum posts of anyone I agreed to play. At times I agreed to play someone who had 2,000+ posts. I then sat down and read EVERY SINGLE post. I would google them to see if they posted elsewhere and then I'd read those posts there also, EVERY SINGLE ONE. I could easily spend 2 days reading forum posts after agreeing to a game before I'd even consider my opening moves. And you'd better believe those opening moves would be influenced by my assessment of the individual. Once I'd finished my reading then the serious discussions about gameplay etc would begin. I've always been open that emails during the game are, in my opinion, part of the psychological element of the game. If someone wants them not to be then I'll abide by that also but my preference is to play people who understand that the matchup is more than just about the moves made within the computer game. Anyone who plays chess at a high level ( or go or any other similar game ) will tell you the same thing. In any case during those game discussions before the first move was made the psychological manipulation would begin. Nothing too direct, just a slow bending this way and that. Obviously you also have to do some things they see just so they can feel that they're seeing your attempted manipulations and relax. The human capacity for self-delusion is immense and it would surprise you how seldom individuals who saw one thrust would keep their guard up looking for further thrusts. Instead they would congratulate themselves on how they spotted the thrust, how you aren't all you were cracked up to be etc etc. Some of them even made the cardinal sin of highlighting that they'd spotted the thrust - basically telling me the level of insight with which they operated --- all before the game even began ;-).
Then they'd be surprised that a situation would unfold in keeping with their precepts and beliefs with a slight maskirovka aimed to be uncovered by the level of insight they had previously advertised to me that they had while a deeper, larger operation unfolded at a level they had previously informed me they didn't operate at. Obviously I'm not saying this always worked but it worked well enough.
So, even within AE I think you can work the same concepts because in war or in computer games people are people.
Once things turn hot you've got to remember that in Soviet doctrine at least 1/3rd of all assets allocated to a given plan are dedicated to the deception phase of the plan. That deception phase of the plan can involve pinning attacks, probes and even all-out assaults with high casualty levels as well as recon, counter-recon and deception.
In AE I remember prepping an invasion of the Marianas Islands as the Allies in early 1942. I viewed the continued fighting in Java and extremely aggressive fighting in the Aleutians as maskirovka operations in support of this invasion. I forget the details but I do remember that the fighting in Java involved losses of hundreds of airplanes on both sides every month and the fighting in the Aleutians involved major fleet engagements, battleship engagements, the commitment of carriers and the loss of hundreds of planes on both sides. I also committed multiple divisions, launched counter-invasions and deployed dozens of submarines.
While I certainly tried to win those campaigns they were part of the maskirovka for the Marianas attack since those two campaigns were about blunting the Japanese advance but were not, in the short-term, going to rob Japan of its strategic initiative. Taking the Marianas, on the other hand, did, in my opinion, rob Japan of the strategic initiative and ended Japanese expansion in that game. A western strategic view could result in fighting in the same areas but it would perceive those fights differently. Maskirovka for the Soviets ( and to a great extent the Chinese ) is more all-encompassing than we are used to considering in the West and it involves the commitment of far more assets with, potentially, greater loss than we are used to. Entire campaigns with 100,000 or 200,000 men committed and with tens of thousands of deaths can be part of a greater maskirovka and never intended to be decisive actions.
People always point to the Soviets are Chinese sending 1,000 troops in a suicidal frontal attack on a village in the 40s or 50s and how this was wasteful. To Western eyes it surely is. To a Soviet or Chinese commander those 1,000 troops kept an enemy Battalion engaged allowing the other 2,000 troops to focus their strength on a company ( which now couldn't be reinforced by the enemy because they were busy massacring 1,000 men ) and achieve a breakthrough allowing the division's exploitation regiment to break through and begin rollup the flanks of the enemy line on either side thus allowing the Corps' tank division to break into the enemy division's tactical depth, creating the possibility of the Front breaking its Shock Army into the enemy's Operational Depth in pursuit of the stratgic objective of moving the entire front to the next strategic defensive point ( the Rhine, Seoul etc ). So to the Soviet or Chinese commander that 1,000 men death toll was an absolute bargain and a necessary price. Anyone who didn't immediately see that and recognise its necessity would not, in Soviet eyes, be fit for anything higher than regimental command.
Recon prior to hostilities:
A. You speak of tactical, operational and strategic recon. I think you are right that there are going to be fewer recon planes flying over Munich in peacetime than once the firing has started. However that doesn't mean that you aren't conducting tactical recon. Athletes, goodwill tours, officer swaps to promote understanding, observers at wargames, the tank olympics etc are all excellent ways to get tactical info. Add in the various operatives you've got abroad whom you can task with befriending servicemen and women and you've got a lot of opportunities for gaining tactical intel. Sure it is a slow process but you have time.
B. The soviets were always concerned about Maskirovka. If you look at how the Soviets said they'd fight WW3 ( Rifle Armies with 3 Motor Rifle Divisions and 1 Tank Division), OMGs with multiple Tank Divisions etc vs how they were organised in peacetime you'd realise that the way they were organised in peacetime was NOT how they would be organised in wartime. E.g. The East German and Polish armies weren't going to fight as they were organised in peacetime. Many of their divisions were going to be parcelled out to be components of Soviet-majority Armies/Fronts etc.
The Allies, on the other hand, were largely organised as they intended to fight during wartime. How ridiculous is giving that free intel to your enemy? Even where there were some variances there were often public documents explaining how they'd be re-arranged during wartime. Very little strategic ambiguity was created about this issue by the West.
Bottom line though the Soviets spent decades plotting firestrikes (TRPs etc to Westerners) on all of the likely defensive points along the routes they were planning to advance. If the West didn't defend the first set of hills or the second but the third then, no matter, the Soviet plan allotted more than enough ammunition to plaster all three sets of hills.
C. What you are talking about is what the Soviets called Extraordinary Forces. They love special forces with novel technical-tactical characteristics. They always have and they still do. People always paint the Soviets as this mass of cannon-fodder whereas in reality whenever possible they went for a high-low mix of forces with a mass of low quality forces with a leavening of high quality, often "extraordinary forces" ( using the Soviet meaning of the term). From my reading of such warplans that have leaked it is clear that the Soviets intended to bolster their initial invasion with many special operations aimed at NATO communications sites, depots and nuclear-capable units. These would have been primarily carried about by GRU Spetsnaz ( as opposed to the more umbrella usage nowadays ) with non-GRU spetsnaz going for more political targets - again though that would have been targeted. There is, after all, no point killing the Turkish or Austrian PM if you think you've neutralised Turkey and Austria politically. The West follows the same pattern historically, assassinating enemy leaders who they view as extreme and preserving those who are moderate in the hopes of those moderates moving up the chain of command and then following a negotiated path to peace - e.g. Gerry Adams in Northern Ireland, Iraq, various less successful attempts with the Taliban, Haqqanis etc.
D. Drones etc are a major shift in recon ability. With that said what a modern offensive looks like has also shifted. In 1941 Japan used aircraft carriers, airplanes, battleships, submarines and millions of troops in an effort to achieve economic security and prosperity ( yes there were other drivers, racism etc but let's just keep things simple for now ).
In 2000 to 2018 China used dredges, propaganda, political naivete, construction crews and concrete to move towards the implementation of the 9 Dash Line. This is an effort to secure strategically and economically vital territory in perpetuity.
Also the Chinese Belt and Road initiative (BRI) has secured the port of Hambanthota in Sri Lanka through political and economic means. They gave Sri Lanka loan terms to build an amazing port promising all sorts of benefits with propaganda and, doubtless, bribes privately. Their terms were such that default was almost inevitable and now they've taken the port on a 99 year lease. The BRI is also melding Myanmar, Pakistan and many other countries China's way, including, crucially for America countries in Africa. It would be a foolish mistake to view the BRI as not having a military component.
Then look at Crimea where Russia carried out an extremely effective military operation and took control of the entire peninsula with almost no bloodshed. Look at how much it cost the Germans in WW2 to take the same ground? Times have changed and while tactical, operational and strategic reconnaissance are still crucially important I think that the idea of operational manoeuvre groups springing forth into the operational depth of enemy forces in order to cause strategic withdrawals of 100 to 200km along the whole front are not how wars will be fought in the next 2 to 3 decades. Certainly I don't think it is how wars will be fought against near-peer adversaries.
With that said I would draw distinctions between having the capability to see a thing, having the understanding to know what it means and having the political and societal will to do something about it. What I mean by this is that drones might see a formation advancing but with good maskirovka and many other operations being conducted simultaneously the true target of that formation can still remain difficult to ascertain until it is too late to shift forces to block it. Also even if its target is ascertained the new mode of war is about attacking the societal and political will to do anything about it. The US military will, I believe, increasingly find itself in a situation in which it knows what is about to happen, where and whom it will happen to but is denied permission to do anything meaningful about it. Without the last step the first two just turn the US military into a modern-day Pandora.
I'll give two examples:
1. Crimea: Everyone knew that those balaclaved, camoed guys in uniform who had spontaneously decided to arrive in Crimea to protect the tartars were spetsnaz etc. We even all knew what their goal was. No-one, however, did anything effective to stop them. End result, Crimea is no longer part of the Ukraine.
2. Khashoggi: He was tortured ( fingers cut off and then dismembered - when the dismembering began he appears to have still been alive ) and killed in the Saudi embassy. The turks have this on audio, the Saudis have it on audio and video. It is abundantly clear that this was pre-meditated ( you don't bring a bone saw in to a friendly question and answer session ) yet it appears Trump is satisfied it was a fistfight which got out of hand. Now, obviously, it is in the Turks interest for their own strategic reasons to make this as embarrassing as possible for the Saudis and so I expect the audio tapes to be released for everyone to listen to on youtube etc. But it does highlight, again, that knowing what happened and doing anything about it are two very different things.
E. I have difficulty understanding how you could use the location of a factory or city as maskirovka in any meaningful way which wouldn't hurt you more than it hurt the enemy. It is, after all, objectively a very important thing. Could you explain what you mean more so I can understand your point?
Well, that's enough for now I'm sure.
John Dillworth: "I had GreyJoy check my spelling and he said it was fine."
Well, that's that settled then.