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Reconnaissance

Reconnaissance

The first military space mission was reconnaissance, and that remains the most important mission, offering capabilities that cannot be obtained by any other means. A number of countries possess military satellite reconnaissance systems, including the United States, Russia, France (in cooperation with Germany, Italy, and Spain), and Israel. China apparently has abandoned its reconnaissance satellite system. Japan has plans to develop an extensive reconnaissance satellite capability, and Canada, India, and Brazil operate "civilian remote sensing satellites" that have limited military uses. Since the late 1990s several private companies have offered to sell satellite imagery of increasingly high quality. Virtually any country can now buy detailed pictures of any place it wants to see.

At the most basic level, reconnaissance involves looking at an area of Earth to determine what is there. Among the ways this can be done from space, the primary methods are visual and radar reconnaissance. Visual reconnaissance can be conducted in black and white or in color, although black-and-white images provide more detail. The major problem is that visual reconnaissance is impossible when the target is covered by clouds. Radar can penetrate cloud cover, but the images it returns are of lower quality. Radar reconnaissance is more challenging, and fewer countries operate dedicated radar satellites.

The United States was the first country to consider the use of satellites for reconnaissance. In 1946 the RAND Corporation conducted a study for the U.S. Air Force of the potential military uses of satellites, and reconnaissance was high on the list. However, the high cost of launching a satellite into orbit was prohibitive. In 1954 RAND conducted a much more extensive study of reconnaissance satellites and their capabilities. RAND proposed an atomic-powered satellite carrying a television camera. When the U.S. Air Force began a reconnaissance satellite program, the television camera proved impractical, and a "film-scanning" system was chosen instead. That system would take a photograph, develop the film aboard the satellite, and then scan the image and transmit it to Earth. Solar panels were substituted for the atomic power supply. The Atlas ICBM was to be used to launch the satellite into orbit, but the U.S. Air Force was unwilling to fund the program until after Sputnik was launched in October 1957.

After the advent of the space age, satellite reconnaissance received much more attention in the United States, which feared that the Soviet Union had large numbers of ballistic missiles at sites deep within that country. The U.S. Air Force funded a series of film-scanning satellites called SAMOS, and the Central Intelligence Agency was placed in charge of an "interim" program called CORONA. Unlike SAMOS, CORONA returned its film to Earth in a small capsule that was caught in midair by an airplane trailing a cable.

After a string of failures, the first CORONA satellite returned its film to Earth in 1960. The pictures were grainy and showed relatively little detail but provided a wealth of information on the Soviet Union, including the fact that the Soviet Union did not have more missiles than the United States did. CORONA became more successful, and its images improved in quality, whereas SAMOS experienced numerous failures. At its best CORONA could photograph objects on the ground that were a minimum of 6 to 9 feet long. That did not allow observations and measurements, and so the U.S. Air Force canceled SAMOS and began a satellite program called GAMBIT. GAMBIT, like CORONA, returned its film to Earth, but it could photograph much smaller objects. CORONA was discontinued in 1972, but GAMBIT kept flying until 1985, and late models of the satellite could photograph objects as small as a baseball.

Developments in Reconnaissance Technology

The next major leap in reconnaissance satellite technology occurred in 1976, when the United States launched a satellite known as KENNAN, later renamed CRYSTAL. KENNAN could transmit images directly to the ground, using a camera similar to a common digital camera. The images were black and white and took several minutes to transmit, but this was far faster than the days or weeks required with the film-return system. These satellites could see objects no smaller than a softball. With the increase in speed came a change in the ways the satellites were employed. Instead of being used to prepare long-range plans and studies, they could now be used in crisis situations, and the president could make instant decisions based on satellite photographs.

Later versions of KENNAN probably are still in use, but these satellites are limited by their inability to see through clouds. In the late 1980s the United States launched a radar satellite called LACROSSE (later renamed ONYX) that could look through clouds and smoke. The major drawback of LACROSSE was that it could see objects no less than 3 three feet long.

Soviet Reconnaissance Satellites

The Soviet Union developed similar systems, usually trailing about three to seven years behind the United States. Its first reconnaissance satellite, Zenit, was similar to the first Soviet spacecraft to launch a man into orbit, Vostok. Unlike CORONA, Zenit returned both the film and the camera to the ground in a large capsule. The Soviets later developed a higher-resolution system called Yantar. It was not until the 1980s that the Soviets had a satellite, Terilen, capable of transmitting images to the ground in "real time." The Russians still use modified versions of Zenit and Yantar, although economic problems have limited the number of satellites they can launch.

The United States is gradually shifting from using a few large reconnaissance satellites to employing more smaller satellites as part of its Future Imagery Architecture. The purpose of this shift is to decrease the amount of time it takes to photograph any spot on the ground. It now requires a day or more before a photograph of a potential trouble spot is taken by a reconnaissance satellite.

Commercial Reconnaissance Technology

The United States will be helped in this shift by the proliferation of commercial reconnaissance satellites. In the early twenty-first century, commercial satellites such as Ikonos-1, operated by an American company, can provide satellite imagery of virtually any place on Earth for a fee. Commercial satellites generally show objects on the ground that are as small as 3 feet long, and this is useful for many civilian and military purposes. As with the military satellites, these images are still pictures, not the moving images shown in spy movies. They sometimes are referred to as "the poor man's reconnaissance satellite," but they can dramatically increase the power of a military force by allowing the users to know what their adversaries are doing from a vantage point that the vast majority of the world cannot reach.

see also Global Positioning System (volume 1); Military Customers (volume 1); Military Exploration (volume 2); Military Uses of Space (volume 4); Remote Sensing Systems (volume 1); Satellites, Types of (volume 1).

Dwayne A. Day

Bibliography

Burrows, William. Deep Black. New York: Random House, 1986.

Day, Dwayne A., Brian Latell, and John M. Logsdon, eds. Eye in the Sky. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998.

Richelson, Jeffrey T. America's Secret Eyes in Space. Philadelphia: Harper & Row, 1990.

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Reconnaissance

Reconnaissance

Reconnaissance is a term for efforts to gain information about an enemy, usually conducted before, or in service to, a larger operation. The French word entered the English language in 1810not coincidentally, at a time when British and other armies were at war with Napoleon's French forces. Reconnaissance is an important component of military and intelligence activities, as well as civilian undertakings designed to protect the public safety from hazards both natural and manmade.

In the military or espionage environment, reconnaissance can take the form of activities by scouts or other specialists. The use of what would now be called "human intelligence" in a reconnaissance capacity dates back to ancient times, when, according to the Christian Old Testament, 12 spies went into the land of Canaan to scout out the territory. Today, reconnaissance is the work of special units practicing a specialized craft.

Reconnaissance aircraft range from the U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird to the E-2C Hawkeye and P-3 Orion. Additionally, the skies bristle with reconnaissance satellites operated by the U.S. military, the National Security Agency, and military or intelligence services of other nations. Even some seagoing craft, most notably submarines, can serve a reconnaissance function.

The major reconnaissance components of the U.S. intelligence community are the National Reconnaissance Organization and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency. In the civilian realm are meteorological services such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which makes extensive use of reconnaissance technology to map and forecast weather patterns. Additionally, the Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, and other organizations conduct reconnaissance for radiological hazards and other forms of danger.

FURTHER READING:

BOOKS:

Burrows, William E. By Any Means Necessary: America's Secret Air War in the Cold War. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.

Day, Dwayne A., and John M. Logsdon. Eye in the Sky: The Story of the Corona Spy Satellites. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998.

Gann, Ernest. The Black Watch: The Men Who Fly America's Secret Spy Planes. New York: Random House, 1989.

Osborn, Shane, and Malcolm McConnell. Born to Fly: The Untold Story of the Downed American Reconnaissance Plane. New York: Broadway Books, 2001.

ELECTRONIC:

National Imagery and Mapping Agency. <http://www.nima.mil/> (April 1, 2003).

National Reconnaissance Office. <http://www.nro.gov/> (April 1, 2003).

SEE ALSO

Balloon Reconnaissance, History
E-2C
NIMA (National Imagery and Mapping Agency)
NRO (National Reconnaissance Office)
P-3 Orion Anti-Submarine Maritime Reconnaissance Aircraft
Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC), United States National
Photography, High-Altitude
Satellites, Spy

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reconnaissance

re·con·nais·sance / riˈkänəzəns; -səns/ • n. military observation of a region to locate an enemy or ascertain strategic features: an excellent aircraft for low-level reconnaissance | after a reconnaissance our forces took the island | [as adj.] reconnaissance missions. ∎  preliminary surveying or research: conducting client reconnaissance.

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reconnaissance

reconnaissance ascertainment of the position and strength of an enemy. XVIII. — F., f. stem of reconnatre, later form of reconnotre (:- L. recognoscere RECOGNIZE), whence reconnoitre make a reconnaissance (of). (XVIII).

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reconnaissance

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