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Photo Reconnaissance

Photo Reconnaissance seeks to collect information about an enemy. This includes types of enemy units, locations, numbers and intensions or activity. A number of acronyms exist for the information to be gathered- mainly coined by the US- including salt (size, activity, location, and time), salute (size, activity, location, unit, time and equipment), sam & doc (strength, armament, movement, deployment, organization, and communications). Thus photo reconnaissance is a fundamental tactic which helps to build an intelligence picture.

Photo Reconnaissance such as Soviet missile installations, played a key role. In 1944 a Bulgarian Albotros aircraft was used to perform Europe’s first photo reconnaissance flight in combat conditions.

During the First World War, photo reconnaissance was one of the early uses of the airplane. Aviators evolved an entire range of new flying and photography techniques to use the new technology in the equally new environment of trench warfare.

Before the Second World War, the conventional wisdom was to use converted bomber types of airborne photo reconnaissance. These bombers retained their defensive armament, which was vital since they were unable to avoid interception.

In 1939, Maurice Longbottom of the RAF was among the first to suggest that airborne photo reconnaissance may be a task better suited to fast, small aircraft which would use their speed and high service ceiling to avoid interception. Although this seems obvious now, with modern photo reconnaissance tasks preformed by fast, high flying aircraft, at the time it was radical thinking. He proposed the use of Spitfires with their armament and radios removed and replaced with extra fuel and cameras. This led to the development of the Spitfire PR variants. Spitfires proved to be extremely successful in their photo reconnaissance role and there were many variants built specifically for that purpose. Immediately after World War II, long range aerial photo reconnaissance was taken up by adapted jet bombers capable of flying higher or faster than the enemy. After the Korean War, RB 47 aircraft were used. These were at first converted B-47 jet bombers, but later these were purposely built RB-47 photo reconnaissance planes. They did not carry any bombs. They had large cameras mounted on the belly of the plane, and with a truncated bomb bay used for carrying flash bombs.
The onset of the Cold war led the development of highly specialized and secretive strategic photo reconnaissance aircraft, or spy planes. Flying these aircraft became an exceptionally demanding task, as much because of the aircraft’s extreme speed and altitude as it was because of the risk of being captured as spies. As a result, the crews of these aircraft were invariably specially selected and trained.

Some military elements tasked with photo reconnaissance are armed only for self- defense, and rely on stealth to gather information. Others are well-enough armed to also deny information to the enemy by destroying their photo reconnaissance elements.

Photo reconnaissance in force is a type of military operation used specifically to probe an enemy’s disposition. By mounting an offensive with considerable (but not decisive) force, the commander hopes to elicit a strong reaction by the enemy that reveals its own strength, deployment, and other tactical data. In modern warfare, key weapon systems such as surface to air missile batteries, radar sites, artillery, and so forth can give their location away to everyone for miles around when actively fighting. The RIF commander retains the option to fall back with the data or expand the conflict into a full engagement.

Photo Reconnaissance by fire is a tactic which applies a similar principle. When not trying to be stealthy, photo reconnaissance units may fire on likely enemy positions to provoke a reaction. Long range photo reconnaissance is defined as recon in small groups behind the enemy lines, tens or hundreds of kilometers into hostile territory. While almost every frontline military unit is sometimes assigned to do limited patrolling or surveillance of one kind or another, this kind of stealthy scouting far from friendly bases is particularly dangerous. Light Calvary often served this purpose in the past, and modern militaries keep specialized infantry units ready for similar roles, often verging on special force.

Early photo reconnaissance equipment was ill-suited to the task. Airmen who operated the standard press cameras necessarily wore heavy gloves as a measure against freezing conditions and the quality of photographs was often poor.

Thus new camera models were developed for use in 1915, manufactured by Thornton-Pickard for the British and Flieger Krammer for the Germans, who were similarly prompt in realizing the potential benefits of photo reconnaissance.
Airmen sent on photo reconnaissance missions ran notable risks however. Necessarily flying at a low altitude in two-seater aircraft with the observers handling the camera- at least during the early stages of the war while camera equipment was being refined- they comprised straightforward prey for anti-aircraft artillery and pursuit aircraft.

Photo Reconnaissance developed from such missions were carefully studies for evidence of troop movements and industrial sites, the latter providing useful target information for subsequent bombing raids. The former could (and often did) provide early warning of an impending attack.


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