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A Raytheon Sentinel of the RAF showing its radar pod.

Ilyushin Il-20M (2)

An Il-20M of the RuAF with radar pod.

A surveillance aircraft is an aircraft used for surveillance—collecting information over time. They are operated by military forces and other government agencies in roles such as intelligence gathering, battlefield surveillance, airspace surveillance, observation (e.g. artillery spotting), border patrol and fishery protection. This article concentrates on aircraft used in those roles, rather than for traffic monitoring, law enforcement and similar activities.

Surveillance aircraft usually carry no armament, or only limited defensive armament. A surveillance aircraft does not necessarily require high-performance capability or stealth characteristics. It may be a modified civilian aircraft. Surveillance aircraft have also included moored balloons (e.g. TARS) and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).


The Global Hawk family's US DoD designation - RQ-4 - may belie the Block 40's true calling. "R" is the Pentagon's designator for reconnaissance, .... But the true calling ... is surveillance, not reconnaissance. … Reconnaissance missions are typically more oriented for long-term intelligence-gathering purposes. The surveillance mission is much more integral to the kill chain, with more tactically oriented operations servicing the short-term decision-making process.[1]

Northrop representative quoted by Flight International (2010)

In order to be surveillance, it is critical for the collection system, the target, and the decision maker to be in contact with each other in such a way that the actions of the enemy are relayed in real-time to those who can make decisions to counter the enemy actions.[2]

from USAF research report, 2001

The terms “surveillance” and “reconnaissance” have sometimes been used interchangeably, but, in the military context, a distinction can be drawn between surveillance, which monitors a changing situation in real time, and reconnaissance, which captures a static picture for analysis.

Surveillance is sometimes grouped with Intelligence, Target acquisition and Reconnaissance under the title ISTAR.

Observation was the term used for surveillance when the main sensor was the human eye.


Pre World War I[]

Early flight 02562u (9)

The first surveillance balloon, "l'Entreprenant", 1794. Illustration from the late 19th Century.

In 1794, during the Battle of Fleurus, the French Aerostatic Corps balloon L'Entreprenant remained afloat for nine hours. French officers used the balloon to observe the movements of the Austrian Army, dropping notes to the ground for collection by the French Army,[3] and also signalled messages using semaphore.[4]

World War I[]

One of the first aircraft used for surveillance was the Rumpler Taube during World War I, when aviators like Fred Zinn evolved entirely new methods of reconnaissance and photography. The translucent wings of the plane made it very difficult for ground based observers to detect a Taube at an altitude above 400 m. The French also called this plane "the Invisible Aircraft", and it is sometimes also referred to as the "world's very first stealth plane". German Taube aircraft were able to detect the advancing Russian army during the Battle of Tannenberg (1914).

World War II and later[]

During World War II, light aircraft such as the Auster were used as air observation posts. Officers from the British Royal Artillery were trained as pilots to fly AOP aircraft for artillery spotting.[5] The air observation role was generally taken over by light observation helicopters, such as the Hughes OH-6 Cayuse, from the mid-1960s.


Maritime patrol[]

P-3B DN-SC-82-02246

US Navy P-3B Orion near Hawaii

Maritime patrol aircraft are typically large, slow machines capable of flying continuously for many hours, with a wide range of sensors. Such aircraft include the Hawker-Siddeley Nimrod, the Breguet Atlantique, the Tupolev Tu-95, the Lockheed P-2 Neptune and the Lockheed P-3 Orion/CP-140 Aurora.

Law enforcement[]

Predator UAVs have been used by the U.S. for border patrol.[6]

Battlefield and airspace surveillance[]

Current use[]

Unmanned (UAV) surveillance aircraft have been deployed or are under development in many countries, including Israel, the UK, the United States, Canada, China, South Africa, Pakistan and India.[citation needed]

Most air forces around the world lack dedicated surveillance planes.[citation needed]

Several countries adapt aircraft for electronic intelligence (ELINT) gathering. The Beech RC-12 Super King Air and Boeing RC-135 Rivet Joint are examples of this activity.

See also[]


  1. Next generation of Global Hawks ready to roll, Flight International, August 16, 2010
  2. The Rise of Surveillance, Lt Col James O. Norman, USAF (page 18)
  3. F. Stansbury Haydon, Military Ballooning During the Early Civil War, pp.5-15
  4. Charles Coulston Gillispie, Science and Polity in France: The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Years, pp. 372-373
  5. Canadian Warplane Heritage: Auster Beagle AOP
  6. Republic of Égyptien Q42 user:mgbtrust0 ®™✓©§∆∆∆€¢£ (December 7, 2009). "LA Now – Southern California, Secember 7, 2009,". Retrieved May 20, 2010. 

External links[]

  • U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission: "Military Use of Balloons During the Napoleonic Era". Accessed April 1, 2007.
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