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Historical Overview of Aerial Reconnaissance, Surveillance and Target Acquisition

About 500 B.C. the great Chinese military thinker, Sun Tzu, wrote a treatise on war in which he said:

“If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear a hundred battles. If you know yourself and not the enemy, for every victory you will suffer a defeat. If you know neither yourself nor the enemy, you are a fool and will meet defeat in every battle.”

Polybtus the Greek had a similar idea when he wrote that a good general “must apply himself to learn the inclinations and character of his opponents. As weapons became more mobile and Lethal, and the battlet’ield more chameleon-like and fluid, the more vital it became to have timely, accurate information about the enemy. It should come as no surprise that, the great military commanders have been those who realized the more they knew about their opponents the greater the prospect cf engaging him at the precise moment and place to ensure his Jest r’wct ion.

Reconnaissance came to be an important ingredient for success on the battlefield, but it was not the 19th century that reconnaissance went beyond what a man could see from the next hill. Until that time, horse mounted cavalry was the primary means of acquiring information. The cavalrv went on forays behind the enemy lines to collect information, then speed it to the commander. Consider Lee at Gettysburg anxiously awaiting the arrival of Stewart – who was late. In many respects this remains a viable means of acquiring information, though the horse has been replaced by an armored fighting vehicle. By the late 18th century, pioneer balloon makers were busy demonstrating a new era was about to burst upon the battlefield and forever change warfare and how reconnaissance is done.

Flying has always had its skeptics and detractors, but we can easily imagine a primitive person sitting idly in the cave brainstorming the idea of flying like the birds. In fact,the less adventurous and imaginative of those among us remained skeptical and unimpressed until the aviation age had all but settled upon them.

Benjamin Franklin was not among this group. The great American inventor and statesman had the opportunity to witness the launch of a pilotless balloon in August, 1793, and as the “flying globe” disappeared into the low, rain filled clouds someone remarked to Franklin, “Interesting, but of what use is it ?” Still sharp of wit even in his later years, the aging spectacled gentleman said, “Of what use is a newborn baby ?” Seeing far beyond the 14-foot sphere he had seen that day, Franklin wrote to fellow scientists in Philadelphia, London and Vienna, stressing the military potential of such a device.

The balloon, even in its most primitive form, provided the means to “see over the next hill.” Franklin was not in error. Yet, in the 1790’s it was entirely premature to suggest that balloons might change forever the nature of warfare. One man came close, Guyton de Morveau, a distinguished French chemist, made a strong case for the use of captive balloons for military reconnaissance. His thoughts reached the French military and in April, 1794, Captain J. M. J. Coutelle was directed to conduct experiments with balloons near the town of Meudon. The results of the test must have been encouraging because the French promptly formed a Balloon Division and dispatched it to test the balloons in combat, as part of the Army of the Moselle. The balloons were used during the Battle of Fluers and surviving documents indicate the information signaled from the balloons to General Jourdan were a material factor in that far-reaching French victory.

Similar results were experienced in the Battle of Ourthe, near Leige. The success of these early attempts at aerial observation led to the French military’s decision to expand the Aerostiers and add a new cylindrical balloon to their inventory. But, interestingly, after this brief excursion to the forefront the Aerostiers fade into the background and survive until only about 1799. The fame of this group must rest in the fact that they were the first military unit to employ aerial observation in combat. This was the first step in what would be a dramatic and enduring change in military reconnaissance techniques. More developments would be required, but a change was now on the horizon.

Aerial Photography

In 1839, Niepce ‘ and Daguerre announced to the world their invention of the first practical means of photography.(4) In less than a year the first recorded suggestion of taking a photograph from the air appeared as a joke in the French lithograph caricature Daguerreotypomania. As has frequently been the case, the joke became reality. A French army Colonel, Aime Laussedat, suggested in 1845 that the use of aerial photographs might be very beneficial in map making. Laussedat was to write and experiment for pthe next 30 years, and introduced the graphical constructions necessary for photogrammetric compilation.(5) But the Daguerrotype required inordinately long exposure times rendering them less than practical for the air application. Realistic aerial photography had to wait for the invention of the “wet plate” process by Frederick Scott Archer in 1851.

Historians generally agree that the credit for the first aerial photogrpah belongs to an innovative young Frenchman by the name of Felix Gaspard Tournachon, who was better known in the more fashionable circles of Paris asNadar. He was apparently inclined to do things on a grand scale and, having decided to experiment with balloons, proposed in 1858 to perform an aerial photographic survey of France. With today’s systems that is relatively easily accomplished, but not so for Nadar and the photographic processes and aerial platforms available at the time. He nevertheless did take out patents for a new “system” of photography that would provide a “bird’s eye view” of the Earth’s surface.

Although the American Civil War is not generally considered fertile ground for revisiting decisive intelligence operations, aerial observation and reconnaissance did play a role on both sides. Soon after the struggle began Thaddeus S.C. Lowe impressed President Lincoln with the potential of the balloon by sending him a telegram from his perch 500 feet above Washington.(6) Lowe was subsequently hired by the Union Army and, in August, 1861, adjusted artillery fire using electric messages sent from an aerial observation platform. This was the first electrical message sent from an aerial C platform.

There is continuing debate about the use of aerial photography during this war. Lowe experimented using a camera, but it seems that this was the true extent of the effort at this point. The vast majority of intelligence acquired by the balloonists in this conflict were derived from visual observation.(7) Taken as a whole, the contributions of the balloonists were to set a pattern for the future, but while the European nations added balloon corps to their military the Americans allowed theirs to revert to its pre-war status, a spectacle for county fairs and the circus.

Between the American Civil War and the late-l9th Century, the balloon underwent a variety of changes. About 1897, two Germans, von Sigsfeld and von Parseval, developed the Drachen a kite balloon, which was to be used by both sides down the length of the Western Front in France in World War I.(8)

The Airplane

Even with advances in the balloon, optics, mechanics of the camera, and a multitude of other related scientific areas, the advent of aerial reconnaissance ultimately depended on the invention of a navigable platform —- the airplane. Some men were impatient and sought an alternative. Some of the ideas were extraordinarily imaginative, such as that proposed by Julius Neubronner. His idea was based on a 2.5 ounce camera and the known flight patterns of carrier ---pidgeons. This idea has become almost infamous as the “pidgeon camera system.” But while Neubronner was trying to develop his ideas a new era began over the sand dunes of Kill Devil Hills, near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. On December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers made their first powered, sustained and controlled flight, pointing the way for aerial reconnaissance that could seek the enemy in his own territory and see his every move. The Wrights never had any illusions about their “flyer,” and wrote the U.S. War Department in 1907 that they “believed the principle use for the ‘flyer’ at present is for military purposes.” In 1909, during a flying demonstration near Le Mans, France, L.P. Bonvillian, a Pathe cameraman, macfe the first photographic exposure from a heavier—than— air craft.

The U.S. military was slow to respond to the new machine, but the military organizations in Europe wasted no time. The first recorded use of an’. airplane in a combat environment took place on October 23d, 1911, when Italian Captain Carlo Piazza took off to reconnoitre Turkish gun emplacements. Significantly, Captain Piazza had difficulty recording all that he could see and fly the airplane too, so on November 11th he forwarded a request for a camera to mount on his airplane. When he later received the camera he mounted it on the belly of his Bleriot aircraft with the lens looking downward, toward the ground.(9) The Italian-Turkish War was perhaps a limited beginning, but it gave witness, to those willing to look, that aerial photography had tremendous potential. Technical developments lagged, particularly in cameras and photographic processing, leaving the work to the eyes of the pilot observer. This pathetic course would change overnight with the hostilities beginning in 1914.

World War I

Almost immediately after the onset of WWI, aerial reconnaissance and the airplane gained recognition. It is important to footnote here that aerial combat was first introduced as a means of preventing enemy aerial reconnaissance activities. As early as 1915 the Germans began mounting forward firing machine guns on Fokker monoplanes. The main targets of these aircraft were the British B.E.2c reconnaissance aircraft. Aerial photographic intelligence and reconnaissance operations were influencing the course of the war, and became a critical function.

While aerial photography was not a new idea it was during this violent period that the aerial camera came of age, along with the airplane. Oblique and vertical cameras were used by both sides, despite the fact that automatic sequencing cameras would not be available for a number of years, meaning that a two—man, team operation was essential.

Just to provide some idea of the emphasis placed on aerial photography during this period, it is worth mentioning that the Germans had 2000 mapping cameras and 100 automatic film cameras in service in 1918, and were collecting and processing some 4000 photos per day. They actually mapped the entire Western Front every two weeks using aerial photography. No small feat given the technology of the day.(10) By 1918, what had begun so inauspiciously had become vital. Countless sorties were flown on every day weather permitted. The true magnitude of the effort is demonstrated by the fact that more than 10,000 photos were taken by the Germans during the single week before the March Somme Offensive.

Between The Wars

With the end of the war the U.S. Military was quickly reduced, including the embryonic Air Service. Strange at it may seem, most people even at that time had never seen an airplane, muchless photographs taken from one. It is no surprise then that few people understood that the security of nations could now well depend on aerial reconnaissance. George W. Goddard, then a Second Lieutenant, appreciated the importance of continued development of aerial reconnaissance and, more than any other man, molded U.S. aerial reconnaissance programs from 1920 to 1950. With his assignment to MoCook Field, Dayton, Ohio, he became responsible for Aerial Photographic Research, and during this early period began forming the nucleus of the Wright Avionics Laboratory. He sponsored research in infrared and long focal length camera systems that, in World War II, proved extremely vital to the allied campaigns. It should also be noted that aircraft designs designated Project A,B,C, and D were started as aircraft for long range aerial reconnaissance, and althought the designs went through a multitude of changes, these projects became the B-17, B-24, B-19, and B-29, most of which gained fame in the war as bombers. Had these planes not been on the drawing boards early, they would not have been ready for WWII.

In December, 1937, a formal ceremony was held to name Lowry Field, Colorado, in honor of the first Coloradian Aerial Observer killed in WWI, and in February, 1938, the first classes in aerial reconnaissance were begun in a heatless attic of building 252. By this time there were ominous signs. The Army began to take action to train more personnel in photographic interpretation and American military people in contact with the British learned first hand just how vital aerial reconnaissance would be in any future war. They were astounded at the amount of information being derived from the photographs by train interpretation personnel. Although long range reconnaissance aircraft had been dispatched to the the Pacific, they would not arrive in time to alter the course of events, and the attack on Pearl Harbor.

World War II

The era of the non-pilot aerial observer had come to an end by the onset of this war. Advances in camera systems and techniques had all but eliminated the necessity for this distinct position. vital. Countless sorties were flown on every day weather permitted. The true magnitude of the effort is demonstrated by the fact that more than 10,000 photos were taken by the Germans during the single week before the March Somme Offensive.

During the early days of U.S. involvement in the war a modified B-24 called the F-7 was used for photographic reconnaissance collection, and camera-equipped B-17’s, called the F-9, performed similar tasks. These aircraft were obviously no match for the fast, maneuverable Me-109 and FW-190. Faster fighter aircraft were equipped with advanced camera systems. Modified P-38 “Lightning’ were soon matched with a camera suite and proved more adequate for the job. To provide some insight to the extent of development of camera systems, this aircraft’s cameras included two vertically oriented cameras, each with a 24-inch focal length.

There are a multitude of stories that came out of this war, but perhaps none more significant to aerial reconnaissance than the discoveries concerning Hitler’s Vergeltungswaffen, or vengeance weapons. The Allies began watching some rather strange activity at a little installation on the Baltic Coast, near the town of Peenemunde, during the summer of 1942. Continued photo collection of the facility was ordered. By July, 1943, there had been a substantial increase in air defenses for the facility and a sophisticated decoy system created. The decoy system did the exact opposite of what was intended. Iit convinced the Allies that this was an important facility and on August 17, 1943, the Allies dropped 1800 tons of bombs on the site. While this was not the end of the “V” weapon problem, it was the start of a process to eliminate this threat and may have well been instrumental in changing the course of the war.

World War II established aerial photographic reconnaissance as a vital weapon in the arsenal for the modern battlefield and set the course for the peacetime applications that now play a vital role in the national security of many nations. From balloons with makeshift darkrooms built into the baskets, to Mach 3 plus reconnaissance aircraft and space based collection systems for earth resources observation, the varied potential of this technology continues to emerge.

Korea & the Cold War

This war saw the onset of the jet age, with the first “dog fight” between jet aircraft and the first Jet Aces. Aerial reconnaissance and photo interpretation played an important role throughout the war, and saw the first use of jets – the F-80, F-84, and F-86 – equipped with photo reconnaissance systems. The missions were extremely hazardous, more so than normal, because the armament was usually replaced by the camera as had been the practice during most of WWII.

Korea to Vietnam

In the decade between Korea and large scale U.S. involvement in Viet Nam there were a host of developments and new technologies that acted in one way or another to significantly change aerial reconnaissance and photo interpretation. The U-2 was developed and placed in operation as a reconnaissance platform, along with sophisticated, high-resolution camera systems and film emulsions. The work of the now famous Lockheed “Skunk Works” was revealed to the world in this period when the Soviet Union shot down a U-2 flown by Francis Gary Powers.

Chronic problems with image motion and image quality were the focus of intense development efforts, as was the need to be able to image at night and in adverse weather conditions. The Cuban Missile Crisis brought direct attention to the importance of aerial reconnaissance and photo interpretation, leading to Presidential recognition of the National Photo Interpretation Center as a highly valued resource in the U.S. Intelligence Community.

Along with developments in traditional camera systems, there was a huge technical effort to exploit the capabilities of radar and thermal infrared. Developments in radar were based on the need for a near all-weather imaging capability, and went from brute-force systems, some with moving target indicator, to the more sophisticated and higher resolution synthetic aperture radars. The latter offer an effective resolution of at least one foot. Infrared imaging technology was primarily in scanner-type systems although there were some ventures into the more television-like technologies ultimately leading to forward-looking infrared systems appearing in the latter days of our involvement in Viet Nam (see article about Y0-3A for example).

This period also witnessed the emergence of the Blackbird (SR-71) as a primary strategic reconnaissance platform. See articles under aircraft and on Theis aircraft was not as famous for its sensor suite as for its unparalleled performance.

Viet Nam

The Viet Nam War was an entirely unique experience in warfare for the U.S. The enemy elusive, determined, and inclined to attacks at night and in smaller numbers than previous adversaries. Counterinsurgency, counter-guerilla, pacification, and a variety of other new terms came to the fore as America tried to find a strategy to effectively deal with this new kind of foe.

Aerial reconnaissance operations were performed by a variety of platforms, including the RF-101, RF-4C (see article under Aircraft), RB-66 (SIGINT/ELINT), RA-5C Vigilante, OV-1 Mohawk, and SR-71. Advances in the world of imaging sensors began to find operational use in the conflict. AC-130 Specter gunships were equipped with specialized low-light TV and, eventually, FLIR, as were experimental platforms such as the Y0-3A. The enemy fought and moved at night, demanding sensors capable of acquiring imagery at night and under marginal weather conditions. The need for real time exploitation of the acquired information was never actually met. The majority of sensor recorded via a film media so that by the time the aircraft returned to base and the film was processed the information was dated; too often the enemy was long gone by the time any interpretation and reports were sent.

The Viet Cong and NVA operated extensively at night, but they were also extremely good at camouflage and concealment. Photo interpreters had to constantly be attentive to these kinds of deceptive measures when exploiting traditional imagery.

The experience in Viet Nam was instrumental in increasing the emphasis on development of near real time and real time sensors that would allow immediate exploitation of target information, the kinds of sensors we now see in use on UAVs/UCAVs.

One other point and a lesson learned after Viet Nam, perhaps emphasized in Desert Storm, is that systems dedicated to strategic requirements and under national control do not necessarily have the responsiveness needed by the battle commanders. This is the primary basis for re-activation of three SR-71s and the on-going development of UAVs and UCAVs in various categories.