Tactical Reconnaissance Redux? The Requirement for Airborne Tactical Reconnaissance in #HighIntensityWar

Tactical Reconnaissance Redux? The Requirement for Airborne Tactical Reconnaissance in #HighIntensityWar

By Squadron Leader Rodney Barton

Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Squadron Leader Rodney Barton examines and discusses the importance of tactical level reconnaissance in support of operations in a contested environment. In examining the importance of such a capability, Barton makes a case for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) to reacquire the ability to undertake such missions.

The Australian Defence Force (ADF) has not maintained an airborne tactical reconnaissance capability since the retirement of the reconnaissance variant of the F-111 in 2010. Instead, the ADF has shifted focus to ‘traditional’ intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms such as the P-8 Poseidon and G550 Gulfstream aircraft, with unmanned ISR capabilities soon to follow. These platforms are not designed to operate in a contested environment; a degree of air superiority is required to ensure optimised collection. The ADF has been comfortably reliant on satellites to penetrate denied areas that require imagery collection, but the emergence of counter-space capabilities now puts this access at risk. This article will discuss the role of airborne tactical reconnaissance, why it still exists, why the ADF needs a tactical reconnaissance capability and the innovative methods of applying tactical reconnaissance in small air forces like the RAAF.

For as long as airframes have existed – the airborne reconnaissance role has existed. From the very first balloons in the nineteenth century through to the modern age, aircraft have flown in the vicinity of the adversary to understand their posture and intentions. Tactical reconnaissance aircraft have developed gradually with speed and altitude to penetrate defended airspace and gain access to sensitive areas. These aircraft were typically unarmed to maximise their operating speed, height, range and most importantly, survivability. At times during the Second World War, a lack of dedicated tactical reconnaissance assets necessitated modifications to existing fighter aircraft to meet the collection requirement. This specific mission was known as ‘dicing’ – short for ‘dicing with death’ – due to the risk the aircraft faced while conducting the mission, particularly the post-strike bomb assessment. During the Cold War, the tactical reconnaissance mission took on a strategic reconnaissance focus epitomised in the US by the U-2 Dragonlady and SR-71 Blackbird respectively. The advent of a satellite imagery capability led to less reliance on these platforms for strategic collection – although the U-2 remains in service and high demand, albeit in permissive airspace.

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A vertical serial reconnaissance photograph, taken from 24,000 feet, showing the St Jean district of Caen, France. This area was destroyed by two heavy raids on the city by aircraft of No. 5 Group, RAF Bomber Command, on the nights of 6/7 and 12/13 June 1944. The Bassin Saint-Pierre is at bottom left and the River Orne flows from upper right to middle left. The church of St Jean, damaged but still standing, is visible towards the middle of the lower-right quarter of the photograph. Another badly damaged area can be seen across the river in the Vaucelles district, to the right of the main railway station (top left). (Source: © IWM (HU 92977))

Despite the developments of space-based imagery and high-altitude collection platforms, the requirement for tactical reconnaissance in the US remained evident during the Vietnam War and the First Gulf War. The US Air Force (USAF) operated several modified fighter aircraft (RF-101 Voodoo and RF-4C Phantom) and aircraft-launched drones during the Vietnam War, particularly for the collection of target intelligence and post-strike assessment. RF-4C Phantom aircraft continued to serve through the First Gulf War providing vital intelligence on Republican Guard movements and Iraqi Air Force disposition. They were also misused to a certain degree, in the bid to find and fix Iraqi mobile missile launchers. The inability to view or disseminate the imagery real-time from the venerable Phantoms no doubt compounded this issue. The USAF retired the RF-4C in 1995 and has not sought a replacement since – most likely due to the emergence of unmanned ISR platforms and reliance on space-based assets.

Advances and growth in satellite imagery collection, along with the increasing sophistication of ground-based air defences, have challenged the utility of tactical reconnaissance. Not only do imagery satellites collect more persistently against denied areas, but they are not subject to air defence systems which increasingly have greater reach and lethality. The shoot-down of a Turkish RF-4E in Syrian airspace in 2012 highlights the threat that air defence systems pose. Despite these factors, countries with small air forces still invest and implement airborne tactical reconnaissance capabilities. Why? The simple answer is cost, access and availability. Not every country has access to satellite imagery. Even when they do, the imagery may not be available when it is required due to weather, communications, or other priorities. Given satellite’s strategic nature and scarcity, a local commander’s tactical requirements may be lost amongst national strategic priorities. Tactical reconnaissance missions can be employed locally and responsively to support immediate requirements.

Local control and accessibility are two key reasons why the US Navy (USN) still operates a tactical reconnaissance capability through the Shared Reconnaissance Pod (SHARP) carried on the F/A-18F Super Hornet aircraft. For a deployed carrier battle group operating in a potentially contested environment, satellite imagery will not be on tap for perusal. Many European and Middle-Eastern nations have also invested in tactical reconnaissance capabilities due to their low cost and accessibility of the imagery collected. Podded electro-optical/infra-red sensors such as the DB-110 (a tactical derivative of the U-2 sensor) have proven popular in these countries due to their platform agnostic versatility with carriage options on the F-16 Fighting Falcon, GR-4 Tornado, or F-15 Eagle. The DB-110 can collect almost 26,000 square kilometres of imagery per hour from a stand-off range of 150 kilometres. Low cost, seamless pod integration onto fighter platforms and flexibility of use provide significant benefits to small air forces that cannot afford to invest heavily in ISR space or air-breathing assets.

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A Shared Reconnaissance Pod (SHARP), installed on the bottom of an F/A-18F Super Hornet assigned VFA-41, is positioned on the USS Nimitz’s flight deck waiting to be launched during the next cycle of flight operations, c. 2003. SHARP is a multi-functioned reconnaissance pod, adaptable to several airborne platforms for tactical manned airborne reconnaissance. It is capable of simultaneous airborne and ground screening capabilities and was designed to replace the US Navy’s Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance Pod System. (Source: Wikimedia)

Further advances in tactical reconnaissance sensor capability also provide value for money. Take for example the development of multi-spectral sensors for detection of camouflaged and concealed targets at longer stand-off ranges. Additionally, tactical reconnaissance sensors now have datalink connectivity resulting in an ability to pass image chips forward via airborne assets for early exploitation and analysis. Tactical reconnaissance vendors are also promoting requirements for expeditionary processing, exploitation, and dissemination (PED) cabin for deployed operations. Expeditionary PED is critical to the tactical reconnaissance mission, particularly if it is likely that communications bearers are at risk. Furthermore, the transmission of terabytes of imagery through a communications bearer for analysis may not be viable due to bandwidth constraints on protected networks.  The significant volume of imagery data collected from tactical reconnaissance pods will necessitate a form of ‘triage’ of the imagery to focus analytical efforts on priority information requirements. Therefore, sending analysts closer to the fight may be required to overcome the effects of a contested communications environment.

In a future high-intensity war, ADF will not have the unfettered use of space and Electromagnetic Spectrum (EMS) to which it has become accustomed. Near-peer adversaries such as China and Russia have made their intentions clear regarding the denial of space and communications bearers for the US and its allies during any potential conflict. Therefore, the ability to carry an imagery collection sensor on an aircraft that can penetrate and survive in contested airspace, conduct a tactical reconnaissance mission, and return the imagery for exploitation is vitally important. Early phases of a high-intensity war against a sophisticated integrated air defence system (IADS) will see our traditional ISR assets operating at significant stand-off ranges that will degrade their operational utility. The F-35 can penetrate IADS; however, the sensor suite is not optimised for long-range, wide field-of-view imagery collection. The high-end battle may require traditional reconnaissance methods to get the job done. This is particularly important for targeting intelligence and post-strike assessment – to ensure the commander apportions the right platforms and weapons against the right target sets to achieve the desired effects at the lowest risk available.

For a small but technically advanced air force like the RAAF, the acquisition of imagery sensors that can be carried in a fast jet-configured pod would provide a low-cost capability for imagery collection for use during high-intensity war, complementing available satellite and larger airborne imagery collection systems. The tactical reconnaissance pods can also be utilised in permissive environments when tasked and could be considered for use to support the full spectrum of operations. The most likely candidate platform for the ADF tactical reconnaissance capability would be the F/A-18F Super Hornet, given the already demonstrated role with the USN and SHARP. The flexibility of a podded sensor allows the fighter aircraft only to carry the pod when required vice having a permanently fixed sensor with inherent penalties of sensor carriage. An airborne tactical reconnaissance capability could provide responsive, survivable, and high-quality imagery to the joint force a range of scenarios.

Imagery collection capabilities are facing increasingly sophisticated threats across the air, electromagnetic, space and cyber domains. The development of an ADF airborne tactical reconnaissance capability would add another layer to Australia’s tactical imagery collection requirements while also enhances its self-reliant military capability and its value as a contributor to coalition ISR operations. Tactical reconnaissance provides necessary redundancy, survivability, and responsiveness required when the high-intensity war means commanders cannot access strategic collection capabilities – due to access or priorities – and reduces the information gush to a trickle. In high-intensity war and pulling the digital ‘wet-film’ imagery from a pod-equipped fighter jet may be the only viable reconnaissance method available to reveal adversary posture and intent.

Squadron Leader Rodney ‘Neville’ Barton is an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.

Header Image: An RAF Tornado GR4 from RAF Marham in Norfolk with a RAPTOR airborne reconnaissance pod fitted beneath the fuselage, c. 2009. The images received by the pod can be transmitted via a real-time data-link system to image analysts at a ground station or can be displayed in the cockpit during flight. The imagery can also be recorded for post-flight analysis. The RAPTOR system can create images of hundreds of separate targets in one sortie; it is capable of autonomous operation against preplanned targets, or it can be re-tasked manually for targets of opportunity or to select a different route to the target. The stand-off range of the sensors allows the aircraft to remain outside heavily-defended areas, to minimise the aircraft’s exposure to enemy air-defence systems. (Source: UK Ministry of Defence)

#ResearchNote – A Different Kind of Shooting: A Photo-Recon Pilot’s Life in 1944

#ResearchNote – A Different Kind of Shooting: A Photo-Recon Pilot’s Life in 1944

By Mike Hankins

One of the lesser known large contributors to Allied victory in World War II was the role of aerial photographic reconnaissance. The allies relied on up-to-date photographs from the air. Flying these photo ‘recce’ missions could be every bit as harrowing as combat sorties. Recce planes flew over enemy territory with their guns removed and replaced with cameras. If they were attacked, pilots had no choice but to try and escape using only speed and manoeuvring, hoping to hide inside cloud cover or just to outrun the enemy. Up until the D-Day invasion, many of these missions were flown at extremely high speed and low altitude, as low as five to fifteen feet over the beaches of Normandy. Pilots likened these missions to throwing dice across a gambling table and called them ‘dicing’ missions. To get an in-the-cockpit view of what flying recce missions could be like, I am going to outline a brief period in the career of First Lieutenant George Adams, Jr., who joined the 30th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron (PRS) in Toussus le Noble, France at the end of July 1944.

Adams flew the F-5, which was a Lockheed P-38 Lightning modified to take photos. The P-38 was not an uncontroversial plane, drawing mixed reviews from those that flew it. Ace fighter pilot Captain Jack Ilffey called it ‘a beautiful monster.’[1] Famed pilot Brigadier General Robin Olds, later noted for his contributions to air combat in the Vietnam War, first earned ace status in a P-38 in World War II. As he recalled,

I loved the P-38 but I got those kills in spite of the airplane, not because of it. […] The P-38 Lightning was too much airplane for a new kid and a full-time job for even a mature and experienced fighter pilot. Our enemies had difficulty defeating the P-38 but, as much as we gloried in it, we were defeating ourselves with this airplane.[2]

Although, from an air combat perspective, the P-38 was not nearly as effective as other fighter types, such as the North American P-51 Mustang, the Lightning’s high speed, long range, and sheer toughness allowed it to excel in the role of photo reconnaissance. Allied forces had learned early on that a group of F-5s together was easily spotted, so to reduce the likelihood of being seen, photo reconnaissance missions were often flown by single planes, unescorted and completely alone, usually deep over enemy territory.

2-Adams after landing in Mussidan, France
Adams after landing in Mussidan, France. (Source: Morse Special Collections, Kansas State University, Personal Papers of George Adams, Box 3)

Adams happened to arrive at a time when the 30th PRS was busier than it ever had been. The official unit history referred to August of 1944 as the ‘month of months.’ Ten August 1944 saw more missions take to the air than on D-Day itself. [3] For Adams, however, that month witnessed one of the defining moments of his career and very nearly cost him his life.

3-Adams welcomed in Mussidan
Adams welcomed in Mussidan. (Source: Morse Special Collections, Kansas State University, Personal Papers of George Adams, Box 3)

On 3 September, Adams was flying a reconnaissance mission over Belgium, when the weather took a turn for the worse. Due to extremely limited visibility, Adams flew far off course. With his fuel tanks almost empty, he had no choice but to land in the town of Mussidan in southwestern France. Luckily, just over one week previously on 25 August, the town had been liberated by the French Forces of the Interior (FFI). The townspeople welcomed him as a hero and gave him a place to stay at a nearby hotel for three days. The French resistance was able to purchase some German gasoline, and at the first sign of clear weather, on 6 September, Adams took off. After signalling his thanks by flying a few victory laps around the town, he headed back to Toussus le Noble.[4]

Adams’ ordeal was not over. The weather, which the 30th PRS unit historian called, ‘the airman’s most relentless foe,’ again proved troublesome for Adams on his flight back to base. After becoming lost in rough weather and losing all radio contact with his commanding officer, Major William Mitchell (not to be confused with the other Billy Mitchell, author of Winged Defense), Adams attempted to land in a field near Morannes and slammed his P-38 into a grove of trees. Adams himself was unharmed, but the aircraft was disabled. There was a military group at Morannes, and Adams stayed with them before travelling to an airstrip at Le Mans, about thirty miles away. Cooperating with intelligence services at Le Mans and the FFI, Adams tried to contact Major Mitchell but was unable to do so. The officials at Le Mans eventually brought Adams to Versailles on 8 September, where he was able to reconnect with the 30th PRS, and he returned to flying duty the next day.[5]

4-The wreckage of Adams' P-38 near Morannes
The wreckage of Adams’ P-38 near Morannes. (Source: Morse Special Collections, Kansas State University, Personal Papers of George Adams, Box 3)

Typically, the weather of the winter months limits photo recce missions. However, that was the least of the allies’ problems in December of 1944 as eight panzer divisions tore their way through the Ardennes forest, beginning what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. The 30th PRS joined the battle, providing valuable photographs to aid ground units. However, the weather again reared its head. Only five days before the end of the year were suitable for taking photos. The 30th managed to squeeze out 96 missions in those five days. Adams and his fellow pilots flew as much as possible, including flying multiple missions on Christmas Eve, Christmas day, and New Year’s Eve. The squadron set a record for a number of photographs processed: nine miles of film, consisting of 44,306 negatives that produced 153,579 prints.[6]

On New Year’s Day, 1945, ground forces requested an urgent, secretive mission to be flown over a particularly well-defended area of the German lines during the Battle of the Bulge. The nature of the photographs needed required a low-altitude approach of 2,000 feet, rendering the reconnaissance planes especially vulnerable to ground defences. Adams and six other pilots volunteered for the job. Four of them, including Adams, flew out twice. Despite the heavy risk and the intrusion of adverse weather conditions, the mission was a success, providing valuable intelligence to the front lines. The secretive nature of the mission prevented much discussion of it at the time, however, several months later, on 21 July 1945, Adams was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for flying his ‘unarmed photographic aircraft under circumstances entailing utmost courage and skill.’[7]

In the popular memory of World War II, we often tend to celebrate or romanticise the fighter pilots or bomber crews that engaged in seemingly heroic combat actions. However, Adams and his fellow recon pilots should not be forgotten. They took serious risks and made key contributions to the Allied victory in World War II.

Mike Hankins is a doctoral candidate at Kansas State University, where he teaches World History, the History of Airpower, and the History of Comic Books, and he is currently working on his dissertation, ‘Sources of Innovation: The Cultural and Technological Origins of Fourth Generation Fighter Aircraft, 1964-1991.’ He completed his master’s thesis at the University of North Texas in 2013, titled ‘The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air-to-Air Combat in the Vietnam War. He has a web page and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

Header Image: Ground personnel of the 7th Photographic Reconnaissance Group fit cameras into a Lockheed F-5 Lightning before a long-range mission. Image by Staff Sergeant Robert Astrella, 7th Photographic Reconnaissance Group. (Source: ©IWM (FRE 5390))

[1]    Robert F. Dorr, ‘Why the P-38 Flunked in Europe,’ Aviation History 24 (May 2014), 22.

[2]    Ibid.

[3]    US Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA), Maxwell AFB, 30th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron Unit History for the Month of August, 1944; Morse Special Collections, Kansas State University, Personal Papers of George Adams, Box 3, George Adams Pilot Information File, August 1944. Hereafter, the Adams Papers.

[4]    AFHRA, 30th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron Unit History for the Month of September, 1944; Testimony of Labattu de Montpon, as related in email from Mayor Stephane Triquart to Bruce Adams, 21 January 2016.

[5]    AFHRA, 30th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron Unit History for the Month of September, 1944.

[6]    Ibid.

[7]    AFHRA, Recflash, Vol. 2 No. 1, Highlight Missions, 2, attached to Historical Records and History of Headquarters 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Group, Month of January 1945; Morse Special Collections, Kansas State University, Adams Papers, Box 3, Quote from Distinguished Flying Cross award citation, General Orders 116, 27 June 1945.

#BookReview – Eyes All Over the Sky: Aerial Reconnaissance in the First World War

#BookReview – Eyes All Over the Sky: Aerial Reconnaissance in the First World War

By Dr Tyler Morton

James Streckfuss, Eyes All Over the Sky: Aerial Reconnaissance in the First World War. Oxford, UK: Casemate Publishers, 2016. Maps. Bibliography. Notes. Index. Hbk. 239 pp.

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Aviation historian after aviation historian has fallen into the trap of overlooking the important role played by airborne intelligence collection platforms during the First World War. Mystified with the glamorous images of Baron von Richthofen and Eddie Rickenbacker, the historical narrative has primarily focused on the exploits of the fighter pilot. This narrative has been fueled by a general lack of scholarly writing about the important role played by airborne-derived intelligence. In Eyes All Over the Sky: Aerial Reconnaissance in the First World War, James Streckfuss seeks to remedy the oversight.

From the dawn of war, military commanders have sought enhanced intelligence to assist decision making. For much of history, the quest for better information was limited to the use of spies or, at best, the ability to obtain improved vantage points from high terrain or even trees. Almost immediately after man achieved flight, military thinkers put the air platform to intelligence use and in June 1794 the French conducted the world’s first military airborne reconnaissance sortie when they used balloons to reconnoitre Austrian forces near the town of Maubeuge on the border with Belgium. Military use of the air asset proliferated and by the start of World War I, the balloon and the aeroplane were firmly entrenched in militaries around the world. In every case, the air assets were reconnaissance platforms. This point, more than any other, drives Streckfuss’ subsequent analysis of the importance of airborne reconnaissance in the war.

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A German balloon section mooring an observation balloon to a new position. (Source: © IWM (Q 54462))

After briefly outlining the early days of the balloon – and aeroplane – based reconnaissance, Streckfuss dives right into the tactical fight of the First War. Choosing first to highlight the little-known importance of balloon reconnaissance, Streckfuss thoroughly examines all the major combatants’ use of balloons comparing the challenges faced by each as they tried to maximise the impact of this still unfamiliar capability. Of note in this section is the advanced progress which the Germans had made as compared to that of the Allies. Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s determination to make Germany the air power envy of the world had resulted in considerable pride and dedication to balloons. When the war began, they were significantly ahead of the Allies. Unfortunately for the Germans, their commanders on the Western Front had not been convinced of the veracity of the intelligence their airborne reconnaissance platforms provided.[1] Thus, German commanders ignored the information provided by their airmen and instead made disastrous moves that eventually resulted in the famous German retreat to the Aisne River and the subsequent stalemate that characterised much of the war.

Over the next several chapters, Streckfuss lays out a well-told story of aviation’s wartime missions of artillery spotting, infantry liaison, and photographic interpretation. These chapters magnificently describe the primary missions conducted by the various air forces during the war. As the war was, by any estimation, a war of the ‘big guns,’ the importance of aviation to the artillery mission cannot be overstated. Due to air power, the artillery could now hit targets all over the battlefield – even deep behind enemy lines – with previously unheard of accuracy. As Streckfuss writes, airborne intelligence ‘held the key to making the artillery more deadly than it had been in any previous war’ (p.84).

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Air Mechanic Cecil Haliday of the Royal Flying Corps demonstrates a ‘C’ type aerial reconnaissance camera fixed to the fuselage of a BE2c aircraft. (Source: © IWM (Q 33850))

The book’s final chapter examines the reasons why the success of airborne reconnaissance was downplayed after the war. Thoroughly convinced that air power would be the dominant force in all future wars, airmen of the major victorious powers sought to free – or in the case of the British, keep free – their air arms from the control of the British Army and the Royal Navy. According to Streckfuss, this dogged drive for independence caused airmen to highlight the ‘power’ part of air power and to minimise the primarily ‘service’ role air power had played in the war. The ability to singlehandedly win a war was a far more compelling argument than the contributions the air forces had made in their support of the Army and Navy.

Streckfuss’ argument is compelling. Airborne reconnaissance was the primary purpose of air forces going into the First World War and, contrary to some beliefs, it contributed significantly to both victory and defeat. This new book is a welcome addition and helps fill a historiographical gap in the literature about the war and our general understanding of the importance of airborne reconnaissance. I highly recommend it for the air power expert and novice alike.

Dr Tyler Morton is a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force (USAF) and holds a PhD in Military Strategy from Air University. A graduate of the USAF’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS), he is currently converting his dissertation on the evolution of manned airborne intelligence collection into a book which he hopes to publish in 2017. His research interests include the history of airborne reconnaissance with a focus on airborne linguists, the role of intelligence in the formulation of grand strategy, and the importance of innovation to the next era of military capability.

Header Image: An RAF aerial photograph showing how the enemy attempted to conceal gun positions by artificial smoke screens, which were defeated by the use of the camera. (Source: © IWM (Q 12224))

[1] Eric Dorn Brose, The Kaiser’s Army: The Politics of Military Technology in Germany During the Machine Age, 1870-1918 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001), 191.