How A U.S. Spy Plane Works

A quick look into the world of aerial reconnaissance, and how the US Military accomplishes this mission.

The US Military has a long history of using the aircraft as a platform for reconnaissance, beginning with uses during the Civil War of hot air balloons for keeping track of the position and actions of the enemy during battles. Since that time the methods for both collecting and analyzing aerial reconnaissance have evolved to much more sophisticated techniques.

Today there are several ways of categorizing US aerial reconnaissance: tactical vs. strategic; manned vs. unmanned; dedicated reconnaissance assets vs. multipurpose platforms; photographic (or visual) vs. electronic surveillance. This list isn't exhaustive, but it does serve the purpose of showing some of the big differences between the various types of aerial surveillance. Each category here is not exclusive: For example, most all tactical reconnaissance data will be analyzed for strategic information. The differences are at a primary level, but they do tend to blur a bit.

Tactical vs. Strategic - this is best considered as the difference between how soon the persons gathering the information (Intel, to use the proper jargon.) plan to use it: tactical information or reconnaissance has the goal of being used immediately to affect an on-going situation - the classic example here would be where an F/A-18 spots a troop movement on the ground, and follows it up with a cluster bomb in the midst of the enemy troops; Strategic information, on the other hand, isn't intended to be used by the person or persons gathering the intel, rather it is intended to be analyzed after the mission for all the information about enemy intentions and capabilities that can be determined - the classic example here is the U-2 missions that found the presence of Soviet controlled missiles on Cuba during the 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Manned vs. unmanned - until recently the only unmanned reconnaissance platforms that the US operated were satellites. The concept of an unmanned reconnaissance platform is something that the US had often wanted, and there had been some experiments with the concept during the 60's and the Vietnam era, however, between the limits of the technologies available for command and control of the platforms, and the limits of the airframes most unmanned reconnaissance was felt to be too expensive to be worth the effort - why field a unit that needs more troops to operate to keep the recon platform operating, when it suffered significant losses because of poor control when a manned platform was almost as survivable, and didn't have the other problems? With the advent of more dependable, robust and capable microprocessors it has become possible to create and field unmanned reconnaissance aircraft. The most well-known is the Predator medium range reconnaissance/attack drone. This unmanned drone not only can real-time data via satellite communications links, but if a target of opportunity is found it can attack with onboard munitions. There are other unmanned reconnaissance platforms being used in the field, now, too ranging from the Global Hawk high altitude/long endurance surveillance plane to troop portable UAVs attached to ground troops in combat environments. Some of these are even based on model helicopters or airplanes available in radio-controlled hobby shops.

Dedicated reconnaissance vs. multipurpose platforms - as has been known since ancient times, the higher one's observation point, the more area that a given look out can cover, so any military aircraft has the potential to be used to gather some aerial reconnaissance. Many planes have been designed and built that are specifically tasked with gathering intelligence. The most famous is probably the SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance plane, with its distinctive shape and all black radar-absorbing tiles. The SR-71, and the plane it mostly replaced - the U-2, were photo-reconnaissance platforms, taking photographic surveillance of the territory they overflown. The U-2 is still being used in some areas today - not that long ago North Korea complained about U-2 flights through its airspace. Other reconnaissance platforms are more capable and flexible - the US Navy's EP-3 is an electronic surveillance platform, which gained notoriety in 2001 when one suffered a mid-air collision with a Chinese jet fighter. Of course they also have much larger crews. Comparing the AWACS or EP-3 with the SR-71 and U-2, one of the bigger differences is that the latter planes are designed to go into hostile airspace, and evade detection or SAM threats by being too fast, or too high, while the AWACS and EP-3 are meant to be used outside the immediate combat theatre and monitor and control other units inside that area.

Photographic or visual reconnaissance vs. electronic reconnaissance - visual reconnaissance is what most people think of when they consider the term reconnaissance, going to see what is in a given area. And much information is available that way, not simply locations of troops, but new projects such as dams, power plants, or factories can be found that way - which will all affect the strategic picture of a nation or area. However, with the modern use of electronics for many roles electronic surveillance is often more informative - for less immediate risk. Not only will electronic surveillance allow monitoring of radio emissions, but often placement of SAM or other anti-aircraft facilities, or police centers can be found that way, too. Neither form of reconnaissance is perfect, of course - visual reconnaissance can be spoofed with camouflage or false images, like the inflatable tanks that Patton used to fool the German high command into thinking he was massing an army for the invasion of Calais in 1944; and if the target doesn't use their electronics, electronic surveillance isn't going to gather much information.

In short, the US military uses a wide range of platforms and kinds of reconnaissance to perform its missions on a tactical and strategic level. This article is only a bare bones introduction to the topic of military aerial reconnaissance.

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