Role: Reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft play intelligence-gathering roles in military enterprises. Types of intelligence collected include imagery intelligence (IMINT) and signals intelligence (SIGINT) – such as communications intelligence (COMINT) and electronic intelligence (ELINT). Reconnaissance aircraft typically analyze a static image for information whereas surveillance aircraft observe a situation playing out over time. Although these descriptive terms are most commonly applied to spying or espionage on an opponent, the military’s reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft have a variety of applications. In battlefield applications, reconnaissance aircraft collect data concerning enemy movements and disposition, artillery placements, and other relevant information. Other uses include: weather reconnaissance, area clearance, nuclear radiation monitoring, and other matters which are not necessarily conflict-related.
Early reconnaissance missions during the Second World War is characterized by photographic image analysis taken by cameras mounted on aircraft, a method which continued into the Cold War. A well-known incident occurring in 1960 involved the spy plane U-2 Dragon Lady. The U-2 was shot down in Soviet airspace and photos of Russian military installations were found in the aircraft.
Technological advances expanded the scope of intelligence to be collected into signals such as radar, radio, and other electronically-based communications. The information gleaned from reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft plays an essential role in determining an opponent’s electronic order of battle (EOB) – such as the origin’s geographic location, type of signal, or organizational role of the transmitters. For example, analysis of collected information may reveal that a set of radar signals came from a cache of missiles geo-located to a specific area.
Models in Service:
United States Air Force (USAF), United States Army (USA)
|NAME||BRANCH||VARIANTS||QUANTITY||MANUFACTURER||NOTES/CAPABILITIES IN BRIEF|
|E-9A Widget||USAF||E-9A||2||Bom-bardier Aerospace||Equipped with AN/APS-143(V)-1 radar (operating out of Tyndall Air Force base in Florida) which can detect a person in a life raft up to 25 miles away, the Widget’s role is to clear overwater military ranges in the Gulf of Mexico of civilian boats and aircraft to make way for training missions of the 82d Aerial Targets Squadron. The Widget is also fitted with telemetric instruments for relaying and recording data on objects beyond visual range.|
|OC-135 Open Skies||USAF||OC-135B||3||Boeing||A modified C-135 Stratolifter, the Open Skies aircraft is an unarmed observation aircraft designed to support the 1992 Treaty on Open Skies – a treaty allowing open and transparent aerial reconnaissance among its member states, which currently numbers 34, to promote international cooperation. Equipped with four rear-mounted cameras and a data annotation and recording system (DARMS) which notes the coordinates, time, altitude, and other information on each image. The four cameras include a vertical KS-87E, two oblique KS-87Es, and a KA-91C panoramic for high altitudes.|
|RC-12 Huron||USA||RC-12D||12||Beechcraft||An airborne signals intelligence (SIGINT) system designed for the Army’s Guardrail/Common Sensor program, the RC-12 intercepts, identifies, and sources hostile communications from the air and relays them via satellite to grounded integrated processing facilities (IPFs) who analyze the data and transmit directives for battle command centers.|
|RC-135||USAF||RC-135S||3||Boeing||A strategic spyplane based on the large C-135 transport airframe, the RC-135 is capable of transmission and relay of almost real-time data collection. The aircraft has produced a number of variants with different modifications including: measurement and signature intelligence (MASINT) for ballistic missile detection and treaty compliance reconnaissance, for collecting information on enemy radar systems for technical enhancements, signals intelligence (SIGINT) across the electromagnetic spectrum, and many other functions.|
|U-2 Dragon Lady||USAF||U-2S||26||Lockheed Martin||An ultra-high altitude reconnaissance aircraft, the Dragon Lady is capable of flying at approximately 70,000 feet (so high that pilots require a pressurized space suit). One of the most difficult aircraft to pilot, the U-2 has a light airframe weight and has only a 10 knot window between its upper limit maximum speed and minimum speed required to prevent stalling. This aircraft can be equipped with a 5000 pound payload of cameras (senior year electro-optical reconnaissance system – SYERS-2), sensors (advanced synthetic aperture radar system – ASARS-2), and a SIGINT suite known as Senior Glass with data uplink and other communications and electronics systems. The Dragon Lady is typically painted matte black (to absorb radar).|
|WC-130 Hercules||USAF||WC-130J||10||Lockheed Martin||Used for weather reconnaissance, the 130J is configured with palletized weather instrumentation and the GPS Dropsonde Windfinding System – an instrument dropped into a hurricanes and used to measure surface pressure, temperature, humidity, and other variables.|
|WC-135 Constant Phoenix||USAF||WC-135||2||Boeing||Called the “Sniffer”, the Constant Phoenix is deployed to detect the presence of nuclear radiation in the atmosphere resulting from detonation in support of the 1963 Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The WC-135 collects atmospheric samples on filter paper using external flow-through devices and stores them in pressurized spheres.|
|EO-5 Crazy Hawk||USA||EO-5C||5||De Havilland||Based on the Canadian manufacturer De Havilland’s Dash-7, the EO-5 serves as an airborne reconnaissance low (ARL) plane for surveillance operations close to the ground.|
The USAF is planning on retiring its entire fleet of U-2s in favor of the RQ-4 Global Hawk, an unmanned aerial vehicle. Tentatively phasing U-2s out after 2016, these drones are favored for reconnaissance and surveillance due to their extremely long loiter time and for preventing pilot loss.