Surveillance aircraft

A surveillance aircraft is an aircraft used for surveillance—collecting information over time. They are operated by military forces and other government agencies in roles such as intelligence gathering, battlefield surveillance, airspace surveillance, observation (e.g. artillery spotting), border patrol and fishery protection. This article concentrates on aircraft used in those roles, rather than for traffic monitoring, law enforcement and similar activities.

Surveillance aircraft usually carry no armament, or only limited defensive armament. A surveillance aircraft does not necessarily require high-performance capability or stealth characteristics. It may be a modified civilian aircraft. Surveillance aircraft have also included moored balloons (e.g. TARS) and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Reconnaissance aircraft are a type of surveillance aircraft.

A Raytheon Sentinel of the RAF showing its radar pod


The terms “surveillance” and “reconnaissance” have sometimes been used interchangeably, but, in the military context, a distinction can be drawn between surveillance, which monitors a changing situation in real time, and reconnaissance, which captures a static picture for analysis.

Surveillance is sometimes grouped with Intelligence, Target acquisition and Reconnaissance under the title ISTAR.

Observation was the term used for surveillance when the main sensor was the human eye.


Pre World War I

Early flight 02562u (9)
The first surveillance balloon, "l'Entreprenant", 1794. Illustration from the late 19th Century.

In 1794, during the Battle of Fleurus, the French Aerostatic Corps balloon L'Entreprenant remained afloat for nine hours. French officers used the balloon to observe the movements of the Austrian Army, dropping notes to the ground for collection by the French Army,[3] and also signalled messages using semaphore.[4]

World War I

One of the first aircraft used for surveillance was the Rumpler Taube during World War I, when aviators like Fred Zinn evolved entirely new methods of reconnaissance and photography. The translucent wings of the plane made it very difficult for ground-based observers to detect a Taube at an altitude above 400 m. The French also called this plane "the Invisible Aircraft", and it is sometimes also referred to as the "world's very first stealth plane". German Taube aircraft were able to detect the advancing Russian army during the Battle of Tannenberg (1914).

World War II

During World War II, light aircraft such as the Auster were used as air observation posts. Officers from the British Royal Artillery were trained as pilots to fly AOP aircraft for artillery spotting.[5] The air observation role was generally taken over by light observation helicopters, such as the Hughes OH-6 Cayuse, from the mid-1960s.

Pre war, the British identified a need for an aircraft that could follow and observe the enemy fleet at a distance. To this end the slow-flying Airspeed Fleet Shadower and General Aircraft Fleet Shadower designs were built and flown in 1940 but they were made obsolete by the introduction of airborne radar.

Cold War

Spy flights were a source of major contention between the US and Soviet Union during most of the 1960s.[6]


Maritime patrol

P-3B DN-SC-82-02246.JPEG
US Navy P-3B Orion near Hawaii

Maritime patrol aircraft are typically large, slow machines capable of flying continuously for many hours, with a wide range of sensors. Such aircraft include the Hawker-Siddeley Nimrod, the Breguet Atlantique, the Tupolev Tu-95, the Lockheed P-2 Neptune and the Lockheed P-3 Orion/CP-140 Aurora.

Law enforcement

Predator UAVs have been used by the US for border patrol.[7]

Battlefield and airspace surveillance

Current use

DeltaQuad VTOL surveillance UAV
A DeltaQuad VTOL fixed wing surveillance UAV [8]

Unmanned (UAV) surveillance aircraft have been "deployed or are under development in many countries, including Israel, the UK, the United States, Canada, China, India, South Africa and Pakistan." [9]Drones are increasingly used in conservation work to complete tasks such as mapping forest cover, tracking wildlife, and enforcing environmental laws by catching illegal loggers or poachers.[10]

Unmanned surveillance UAVs include both airships—such as Sky Sentinel[11] and HiSentinel 80[12]—and airplanes.

Most air forces around the world lack dedicated surveillance planes.

Several countries adapt aircraft for electronic intelligence (ELINT) gathering. The Beech RC-12 Super King Air and Boeing RC-135 Rivet Joint are examples of this activity.

Business aircraft

With smaller equipment, long-range business aircraft can be modified in surveillance aircraft to perform specialized missions cost-effectively, from ground surveillance to maritime patrol:[13]

See also


  1. ^ Next generation of Global Hawks ready to roll, Flight International, August 16, 2010
  2. ^ The Rise of Surveillance, Lt Col James O. Norman, USAF (page 18)
  3. ^ F. Stansbury Haydon, Military Ballooning During the Early Civil War, pp. 5–15.
  4. ^ Charles Coulston Gillispie, Science and Polity in France: The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Years, pp. 372–373.
  5. ^ Canadian Warplane Heritage: Auster Beagle AOP
  6. ^ "Reds, U.S. Face Hot Plane Debate at U.N.". The Paris News. Paris, Texas (US). Associated Press. May 23, 1960. p. 1.
  7. ^ "LA Now – Southern California, December 7, 2009,". December 7, 2009. Retrieved May 20, 2010.
  8. ^ "DeltaQuad Pro #VIEW VTOL Fixed wing surveillance UAV". Vertical Technologies.
  9. ^ Rogers, Simon (2012-08-03). "Drones by country: who has all the UAVs?". the Guardian. Retrieved 2019-03-19.
  10. ^ Koh, Lian Pin and Serge A. Wich. 2012. “Dawn of Drone Ecology: Low-Cost Autonomous Aerial Vehicles for Conservation.” Tropical Conservation Science 5(2):121–32. Retrieved March 4, 2019 (
  11. ^ Govers, Francis X., III (2013-06-11). "Nevada company launches silent Sky Sentinel UAV airship". Retrieved 2014-08-16.
  12. ^ Perry, William D. (Fall–Winter 2010). "Sentinel in the Sky" (PDF). Technology Today. Retrieved 2014-08-16.
  13. ^ Graham Warwick (Jan 10, 2018). "Spotlight on Bizjet-based Special Mission Aircraft". Aviation Week & Space Technology.

External links

Airborne ground surveillance

Airborne ground surveillance (AGS) refers to a class of military airborne radar system (Surveillance aircraft) used for detecting and tracking ground targets, such as vehicles and slow moving helicopters, as opposed to Airborne early warning and control, whose primary role is detecting and tracking aircraft in flight. Antenna beam width should be very small to enhance resolution. This antenna size limitation demands high frequency (GHz range) of operation, to be operated in this mode. AGS radar is typically a medium or low power radar. It includes both maritime and land surveillance. Today, UAVs perform this operation, which often uses optical aids for surveillance.

The earliest Airborne ground surveillance system was the H2S (radar).

Bombardier Challenger 600 series

The Bombardier Challenger 600 series is a family of business jets. It was first produced by Canadair (as an independent company), and then produced from 1986 by Canadair as a division of Bombardier Aerospace. As of December 2017, close to 1,100 Challenger 600 Series have been delivered. Including the Challenger 300 and Challenger 850, the 1,600 Bombardier Challengers in-service had logged 7.3 million hours and over 4.3 million flights by early 2017.

CFB Comox

Canadian Forces Base Comox (IATA: YQQ, ICAO: CYQQ), commonly referred to as CFB Comox or 19 Wing is a Canadian Forces Base located 2.5 nautical miles (4.6 km; 2.9 mi) north northeast of Comox, British Columbia. It is primarily operated as an air force base by the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and is one of two bases in the country using the CP-140 Aurora anti-submarine/maritime patrol and surveillance aircraft. Its primary RCAF lodger unit is 19 Wing, commonly referred to as 19 Wing Comox.

CFB Comox's airfield is also used by civilian aircraft. The civilian passenger terminal building operations are called the Comox Valley Airport and are operated by the Comox Valley Airport Commission.

The airport is classified as an airport of entry by Nav Canada and is staffed by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

CFB Greenwood

Canadian Forces Base Greenwood (IATA: YZX, ICAO: CYZX), or CFB Greenwood, is a Canadian Forces Base located 1.5 nautical miles (2.8 km; 1.7 mi) east of Greenwood, Nova Scotia. It is primarily operated as an air force base by the Royal Canadian Air Force and is one of two bases in the country using the CP-140 Aurora and CP-140A Arcturus anti-submarine/maritime patrol and surveillance aircraft. Its primary RCAF lodger unit is 14 Wing, commonly referred to as 14 Wing Greenwood.

EADS HC-144 Ocean Sentry

The EADS HC-144 Ocean Sentry is a medium-range, twin-engined turboprop aircraft used by the United States Coast Guard in the search-and-rescue and maritime patrol missions. Based on the Airbus Military CN-235 it was procured as a "Medium Range Surveillance Aircraft." The HC-144 is supplied by Airbus Group, Inc formerly EADS North America and is built in Spain by Airbus Military.

General Atomics

General Atomics is a Department of Energy and Department of Defense contractor headquartered in San Diego, California, specializing in research and technology development. This includes physics research in support of nuclear fission and nuclear fusion energy. The company also provides research and manufacturing services for remotely operated surveillance aircraft, including the Predator drones; airborne sensors; and advanced electric, electronic, wireless, and laser technologies.


The Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS (colloquially, Spy Balloon), is a tethered aerial detection system designed to track boats, ground vehicles, cruise missiles, manned and unmanned aircraft (airborne early warning and control), and other threats. The system has four primary components: two tethered aerostats which utilize a helium/air mix, armored mooring stations, sophisticated radars, and a processing station designed to communicate with anti-missile and other ground and airborne systems. Each system is referred to as an "orbit", and two orbits have been built. The Army-led joint program is designed to complement fixed-wing surveillance aircraft, saving money on crew, fuel, maintenance and other costs, and give military commanders advance warning to make decisions and provide notifications. The program was suspended in October 2015.

Letov Š-1

The Letov Š-1 was a Czechoslovak single-engined, two-seat biplane surveillance aircraft. It was the first military aircraft built in Czechoslovakia. It was designed by Alois Šmolík at Letov Kbely. The Š-1 first flew in 1920.

Lockheed EC-121 Warning Star

The Lockheed EC-121 Warning Star was an American Airborne early warning and control radar surveillance aircraft operational in the 1950s in both the United States Navy (USN) and United States Air Force (USAF).

The military version of the Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation was used to serve as an airborne early warning system to supplement the Distant Early Warning Line, using 2 large radomes (a vertical dome above and a horizontal one below the fuselage). Some EC-121s were also used for Signal Intelligence gathering (SIGINT). The EC-121 was introduced in 1954 and phased out in 1978, although a single specially modified EW aircraft remained in USN service until 1982.

The USN versions when initially procured were designated WV-1 (PO-1W), WV-2, and WV-3. The USAF Warning Stars served during the Vietnam War both as electronic sensor monitors and as a forerunner to the Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS. USAF aircrews adopted its civil nickname, "Connie" (diminutive of Constellation) as reference, USN aircrews used the nickname "Willie Victor".

Lockheed XV-4 Hummingbird

The Lockheed XV-4 Hummingbird (originally designated VZ-10) was a U.S. Army project to demonstrate the feasibility of using VTOL for a surveillance aircraft carrying target-acquisition and sensory equipment. It was designed and built by the Lockheed Corporation in the 1960s, one of many attempts to produce a V/STOL vertical take off/landing jet. Both prototype aircraft were destroyed in accidents.

Marine Scotland

Marine Scotland is a civil service directorate within the Scottish Government, responsible for leading the protection of Scotland’s coastal waters and seas, to both build sustainable economic growth from Scotland’s marine assets, and to safeguard its valuable marine ecosystems. Marine Scotland is responsible for the Marine (Scotland) Act and devolved areas such as fishing.

Northrop Grumman RQ-180

The Northrop Grumman RQ-180 is an American stealth unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) surveillance aircraft intended for contested airspace which has been described in several news articles and confirmed by the U.S. Air Force.

Northrop Tacit Blue

The Northrop Tacit Blue was a technology demonstrator aircraft created to demonstrate that a low-observable stealth surveillance aircraft with a low-probability-of-intercept radar (LPIR) and other sensors could operate close to the forward line of battle with a high degree of survivability.

Operation Sophia

Operation Sophia, formally European Union Naval Force Mediterranean (EU NAVFOR Med), is a military operation of the European Union that was established as a consequence of the April 2015 Libya migrant shipwrecks with the aim of neutralising established refugee smuggling routes in the Mediterranean. The operational headquarters is located in Rome.

Operation Unified Protector

Operation Unified Protector was a NATO operation in 2011 enforcing United Nations Security Council resolutions 1970 and 1973 concerning the Libyan Civil War and adopted on 26 February and 17 March 2011, respectively. These resolutions imposed sanctions on key members of the Gaddafi government and authorized NATO to implement an arms embargo, a no-fly zone and to use all means necessary, short of foreign occupation, to protect Libyan civilians and civilian populated areas.The operation started on 23 March 2011 and gradually expanded during the following weeks, by integrating more and more elements of the multinational military intervention, which had started on 19 March in response to the same UN resolutions. As of 31 March 2011 it encompassed all international operations in Libya. NATO support was vital to the rebel victory over the forces loyal to Gaddafi. The operation officially ended on 31 October 2011, after the rebel leaders, formalized in the National Transitional Council, had declared Libya liberated on 23 October.

The operation began with a naval arms embargo, while command of the no-fly zone and the air strikes against Libyan Armed Forces remained under command of the international coalition, led by France, the United Kingdom and the United States, due to lack of consensus between NATO members. On 24 March NATO decided to take control of the no-fly zone enforcement, by integrating the air assets of the international coalition under NATO command, although the command of air strikes on ground targets remained under national authority. A few days later, on 27 March NATO decided to implement all military aspects of the UN resolution and formal transfer of command occurred at 06:00 GMT on 31 March 2011, formally ending the national operations such as the U.S.-coordinated Operation Odyssey Dawn.The arms embargo was initially carried out using mainly ships from NATO's Standing Maritime Group 1 and Standing Mine Countermeasures Group 1 already patrolling the Mediterranean Sea at the time of the resolution, enforced with additional ships, submarines and maritime surveillance aircraft from NATO members. They were to "monitor, report and, if needed, interdict vessels suspected of carrying illegal arms or mercenaries". The no-fly zone was enforced by aircraft transferred to Unified Protector from the international coalition, with additional aircraft from NATO and other allied nations. The air strikes, although under central NATO command, were only conducted by aircraft of the nations agreeing to enforce this part of the UN resolution.

Photoflash bomb

A photoflash bomb, or flash bomb, is explosive ordnance dropped by aircraft, usually military surveillance aircraft, designed to detonate above ground to create an extremely bright flash of light. These bombs, which are capable of producing light at an intensity of up to hundreds of millions of candlepower, assist surveillance aircraft in taking nighttime aerial photos without the need to fly low to the ground which would make it vulnerable to possible enemy detection. Due to the advent of better nighttime optics, satellite imagery, and stealth aircraft, these bombs are no longer used by the military.

Raytheon Sentinel

The Raytheon Sentinel is an airborne battlefield and ground surveillance aircraft operated by the Royal Air Force. Based on the Bombardier Global Express ultra long range business jet, it was adapted by Raytheon to meet the RAF's requirements. Originally known as the ASTOR (Airborne STand-Off Radar) programme the aircraft is operated by a RAF squadron manned by both air force and army personnel. The Sentinel is interoperable with other allied systems such as JSTARS and the NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) system.

In 2010 the UK Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government's Strategic Defence and Security Review announced its intention to "withdraw the Sentinel airborne ground surveillance aircraft once it is no longer required to support operations in Afghanistan." Sentinel has supported the British Army in Afghanistan. One Sentinel aircraft was deployed to assist French forces in Mali on 25 January 2013. The 2010 decision was reversed in 2014 by Prime Minister David Cameron and in the 2015 SDSR, the British government announced that the type's retirement would be delayed and that it would remain in service "into the next decade".

Reconnaissance aircraft

A reconnaissance aircraft (colloquially, a spy plane) is a military surveillance aircraft designed or adapted to perform aerial reconnaissance with roles including collection of imagery intelligence (including using photography), signals intelligence, as well as measurement and signature intelligence. Modern technology has also enabled some aircraft and UAVs to carry out real-time surveillance in addition to general intelligence gathering.

In years prior to the development and common use of sophisticated electronic image recording devices and sensors such as radar, reconnaissance aircraft were also relied upon by military forces for distant visual observation and scouting of enemy movement. An example is the PBY Catalina maritime patrol flying boat used by the Allies in World War II: a flight of U.S. Navy Catalinas spotted part of the Japanese fleet approaching Midway Island, beginning the Battle of Midway.

Schweizer SGM 2-37

The Schweizer SGM 2–37 is a two-place, side-by-side, fixed gear, low wing motor glider.A total of twelve were produced between 1982 and 1988, including nine for the United States Air Force Academy, which designated it the TG-7A. The TG-7A was retired from USAFA service in April 2003.The basic airframe was later developed into the SA 2-37A and B covert surveillance aircraft.

Modern military aircraft types and roles


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