Aerial reconnaissance is reconnaissance for a military or strategic purpose that is conducted using reconnaissance aircraft. This role can fulfil a variety of requirements, including the collection of imagery intelligence, observation of enemy maneuvers and artillery spotting.
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 the balloon L'Entreprenant, the first military reconnaissance aircraft. The balloon found its first use in the 1794 conflict with Austria, where in the Battle of Fleurus they gathered information. Moreover, the presence of the balloon had a demoralizing effect on the Austrian troops which improved the likelihood of victory for the French troops.
After the invention of photography, primitive aerial photographs were made of the ground from manned and unmanned balloons, starting in the 1860s, and from tethered kites from the 1880s onwards. An example was Arthur Batut's kite-borne camera photographs of Labruguière starting from 1889.
Ludwig Rahrmann in 1891 patented a means of attaching a camera to a large calibre artillery projectile or rocket, and this inspired Alfred Maul to develop his Maul Camera Rockets starting in 1903. Alfred Nobel in 1896 had already built the first rocket carrying a camera, which took photographs of the Swedish landscape during its flights. Maul improved his camera rockets and the Austrian Army even tested them in the Turkish-Bulgarian War in 1912 and 1913, but by then and from that time on camera-carrying aircraft were found to be superior.
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, Capt. Carlo Piazza, 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.
The first reconnaissance flight in Europe took place in Greece, over Thessaly, on October the 5th over the Ottoman army.This was the first day of the Balkan wars, and during the same day a similar mission was flown by German mercenaries in Ottoman service in the Thrace front against the Bulgarians.The Greek and the Ottoman mission flown during the same day are the first military aviation combat missions in a conventional war.A few days later, on 16 October 1912 a Bulgarian Albatros aircraft was used to perform one of Europe's first reconnaissance flight in combat conditions, against the Turkish lines on the Balkan peninsula, during the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913.
The use of aerial photography rapidly matured during the First World War, as aircraft used for reconnaissance purposes were outfitted with cameras to record enemy movements and defences. At the start of the conflict, the usefulness of aerial photography was not fully appreciated, with reconnaissance being accomplished with map sketching from the air.
Frederick Charles Victor Laws started experiments in aerial photography in 1912 with No. 1 Squadron RAF using the British dirigible Beta. He discovered that vertical photos taken with 60% overlap could be used to create a stereoscopic effect when viewed in a stereoscope, thus creating a perception of depth that could aid in cartography and in intelligence derived from aerial images. The dirigibles were eventually allocated to the Royal Navy, so Laws formed the first aerial reconnaissance unit of fixed-wing aircraft; this became No. 3 Squadron RAF.
Germany was one of the first countries to adopt the use of a camera for aerial reconnaissance, opting for a Görz, in 1913. French Military Aviation began the war with several squadrons of Bleriot observation planes, equipped with cameras for reconnaissance. The French Army developed procedures for getting prints into the hands of field commanders in record time.
The Royal Flying Corps recon pilots began to use cameras for recording their observations in 1914 and by the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in 1915 the entire system of German trenches was being photographed. The first purpose-built and practical aerial camera was invented by Captain John Moore-Brabazon in 1915 with the help of the Thornton-Pickard company, greatly enhancing the efficiency of aerial photography. The camera was inserted into the floor of the aircraft and could be triggered by the pilot at intervals.
Moore-Brabazon also pioneered the incorporation of stereoscopic techniques into aerial photography, allowing the height of objects on the landscape to be discerned by comparing photographs taken at different angles. In 1916, the Austro-Hungarian Empire made vertical camera axis aerial photos above Italy for map-making.
By the end of the war, aerial cameras had dramatically increased in size and focal power and were used increasingly frequently as they proved their pivotal military worth; by 1918 both sides were photographing the entire front twice a day and had taken over half a million photos since the beginning of the conflict.
In January 1918, General Allenby used five Australian pilots from No. 1 Squadron AFC to photograph a 624 square miles (1,620 km2) area in Palestine as an aid to correcting and improving maps of the Turkish front. This was a pioneering use of aerial photography as an aid for cartography. Lieutenants Leonard Taplin, Allan Runciman Brown, H. L. Fraser, Edward Patrick Kenny, and L. W. Rogers photographed a block of land stretching from the Turkish front lines 32 miles (51 km) deep into their rear areas. Beginning 5 January, they flew with a fighter escort to ward off enemy fighters. Using Royal Aircraft Factory BE.12 and Martinsyde airplanes, they not only overcame enemy air attacks, but also bucked 65 mile per hour winds, antiaircraft fire, and malfunctioning equipment to complete their task circa 19 January 1918.
In 1928, the RAF developed an electric heating system for the aerial camera. This allowed reconnaissance aircraft to take pictures from very high altitudes without the camera parts freezing. In 1939 Sidney Cotton and Flying Officer Maurice Longbottom of the RAF suggested 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.
They 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. These planes had a maximum speed of 396 mph at 30,000 feet with their armaments removed, and were used for photo-reconnaissance missions. The aircraft were fitted with five cameras which were heated to ensure good results (while the cockpit was not). Spitfires proved to be extremely successful in their reconnaissance role and there were many variants built specifically for that purpose. They served initially with what later became No. 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU).
Other fighters were also adapted for photo-reconnaissance, including the British Mosquito and the American P-38 Lightning and P-51 Mustang. Such craft were stripped of weaponry, painted in PRU Blue or Pink camouflage colours to make them difficult to spot in the air, and often had engines modified for higher performance at very high altitudes (well over 40,000 feet).
The American F-4, a factory modification of the P-38 Lightning, replaced the four guns and cannon with four high-quality K-17 cameras. Some 120 F-4 and F-4As were hurriedly made available by March 1942, reaching the 8th Photographic Squadron in Australia by April (the first P-38s to see action). The F-4 had an early advantage of long range and high speed combined with the ability to fly at high altitude; a potent combination for reconnaissance. In the last half of 1942, Lockheed would produce 96 F-5As, based on the P-38G. The Lightning in its reconnaissance role was so well liked by military strategists that hundreds of gun-equipped P-38s were field modified into camera-toting F-5 variants. Later in the war, the Mustang F-6 arrived, eventually becoming the dominant reconnaissance model flown by the US in Europe. US photo-reconnaissance operations in Europe were based at RAF Mount Farm, with the resulting photographs being transferred to Medmenham for interpretation.
However it was the RAF's Mosquito that excelled in the photo-reconnaissance role, the converted bomber being given three cameras installed in what had been the bomb bay. It had a cruising speed of 255 mph, maximum of 362 mph and a maximum altitude of 35,000 ft. The first converted PRU (Photo-Reconnaissance Unit) Mosquito was delivered to RAF Benson in July 1941 by Geoffrey de Havilland himself. Thereafter, the Mosquito was faster than most fighters above 40,000 ft, and could roam almost anywhere. Colonel Roy M. Stanley II, USAF (RET) wrote; "I consider the Mosquito the best photo reconnaissance aircraft of the war". The US designation for the photo-reconnaissance Mosquito was F-8. Approximately 15,000 Fairchild K-20 aerial cameras were manufactured between 1941 and 1945.
The Japanese Mitsubishi Ki-46, a purpose-built twin-engined reconnaissance aircraft armed with only one light gun, entered service in 1941.
The collection and interpretation of aerial reconnaissance intelligence became a considerable enterprise during the war. Beginning in 1941, RAF Medmenham was the main interpretation centre for photographic reconnaissance operations in the European and Mediterranean theatres. The Central Interpretation Unit (CIU) was later amalgamated with the Bomber Command Damage Assessment Section and the Night Photographic Interpretation Section of No 3 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit, RAF Oakington, in 1942.
During 1942 and 1943, the CIU gradually expanded and was involved in the planning stages of practically every operation of the war, and in every aspect of intelligence. In 1945, daily intake of material averaged 25,000 negatives and 60,000 prints. Thirty-six million prints were made during the war. By VE-day, the print library, which documented and stored worldwide cover, held 5,000,000 prints from which 40,000 reports had been produced.
American personnel had for some time formed an increasing part of the CIU and on 1 May 1944 this was finally recognised by changing the title of the unit to the Allied Central Interpretation Unit (ACIU). There were then over 1,700 personnel on the unit's strength. A large number of photographic interpreters were recruited from the Hollywood Film Studios including Xavier Atencio. Two renowned archaeologists also worked there as interpreters: Dorothy Garrod, the first woman to hold an Oxbridge Chair, and Glyn Daniel, who went on to gain popular acclaim as the host of the television game show Animal, Vegetable or Mineral?.
Sidney Cotton's aerial photographs were far ahead of their time. Together with other members of his reconnaissance squadron, he pioneered the technique of high-altitude, high-speed photography that was instrumental in revealing the locations of many crucial military and intelligence targets. Cotton also worked on ideas such as a prototype specialist reconnaissance aircraft and further refinements of photographic equipment. At its peak, British reconnaissance flights yielded 50,000 images per day to interpret.
Of particular significance in the success of the work of Medmenham was the use of stereoscopic images, using a between plate overlap of exactly 60%. Despite initial scepticism about the possibility of German rocket development, stereoscopic analysis proved its existence and major operations, including the 1943 offensives against the V-2 rocket development plant at Peenemünde, where made possible by work carried out at Medmenham. Later offensives were also made against potential launch sites at Wizernes and 96 other launch sites in northern France.
Particularly important sites were measured, from the images, using Swiss stereoautograph machines made by Wild (Heerbrugg) and physical models made to facilitate understanding of what was there or what it was for.
It is claimed that Medmanham's greatest operational success was "Operation Crossbow" which, from 23 December 1943, destroyed the V-1 infrastructure in northern France. According to R.V. Jones, photographs were used to establish the size and the characteristic launching mechanisms for both the V-1 flying bomb and the V-2 rocket.
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 photoflash 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.
Beginning in the early 1980s, the US Navy began outfitting and deploying three F-14A Tomcat aircraft in one squadron aboard a carrier with photo reconnaissance capabilities called "TARPS" which would take naval recon into the 1990s and beyond.
Since the early 1960s, in the United States aerial and satellite reconnaissance has been coordinated by the National Reconnaissance Office.
Due to the low cost of miniature UAVs, this technology brings aerial reconnaissance into the hands of soldiers on the ground. The soldier on the ground can both control the UAV and see its output, yielding great benefit over a disconnected approach. With small systems being man packable, operators are now able to deploy air assets quickly and directly. The low cost and ease of operation of these miniature UAVs has enabled forces such as the Libyan Rebels to use miniature UAVs.
Low cost miniature UAVs demand increasingly miniature imaging payloads. Developments in miniature electronics have fueled the development of increasingly capable surveillance payloads, allowing miniature UAVs to provide high levels of capability in never before seen packages.
Reconnaissance pods can be carried by fighter-bomber aircraft. Examples include the British DJRP; Chinese KZ900; UK RAPTOR; and the US Navy's F-14 Tomcat TARPS. Some aircraft made for non-military applications also have reconnaissance pods, i.e. the Qinetiq Mercator