Aviation Intelligence, History

Aviation Intelligence, History


As lengthy and complicated as any aspect of modern espionage, the history of aviation intelligence has involved the use of aircraft both as intelligence-gathering platforms and as objects of study. These two aspects of aviation intelligence are known as aerial reconnaissance and air technical intelligence, respectively. Over the decades, the United States has emerged as a leader in both regards, from the earliest studies of the British DeHaviland fighter in World War I, to investigations of Soviet MiG fighters during the Cold War. From prop planes to missiles, from rickety biplanes to modern satellites high above

From the Cuban missile crisis overflights to missions in support of United Nations weapons inspection teams in Iraq, the U-2 spy plane performs a diverse array of intelligence gathering operations. ©CORBIS SYGMA.
From the Cuban missile crisis overflights to missions in support of United Nations weapons inspection teams in Iraq, the U-2 spy plane performs a diverse array of intelligence gathering operations. ©

Earth's surface, aviation intelligence has involved a variety of tools since the time of its inception, just a few years after the birth of flight.


The use of aircraft as instruments of both combat and reconnaissance began with the Italo-Turkish War of 1911–12. On October 23, 1911, the Italians first used an aircraft to conduct reconnaissance, against Turkish troops near Tripoli in what is now Libya. On November 1, the Italians again made aviation history when they conducted the first aerial bombing raid against an enemy. In 1912, during the same war, an Italian officer took the first aerial photographs of enemy forces from an airplane.

Aircraft also figured in the U.S. military action against Pancho Villa's Mexican rebels in 1911, and in the 1912–13 Balkan Wars. Yet at the beginning of World War I, the U.S. Army aeronautical division was woefully unprepared to gather intelligence in or on aircraft. To redress this shortcoming, the Army Signal Corps established an air technical intelligence (ATI) facility at McCook Field near Dayton, Ohio. There, in July 1917, they studied their first foreign aircraft, a British DeHaviland-4.

Meanwhile, in Europe, both sides in the world war conducted extensive aerial surveillance, with the Germans alone taking some 4,000 photographs a day. Despite Russian shortcomings in many aspects of military technology and tactics, Russia produced the most notable spy plane of the First World War: the Il'ya Mourometz bomber. Regarded as the world's first strategic reconnaissance aircraft, the Il'ya Mourometz was also the first operational four-engine plane, and could fly deep behind German lines at an altitude beyond the reach of what passed for antiaircraft artillery at the time.

By 1920, the Army ATI facility in Dayton had become the Technical Data Section (TDS), which relocated in 1927 to Wright Field (today known as Wright-Patterson Air Force Base) near Riverside, Ohio. TDS studied more than 300 captured German aircraft, as well as hundreds of British, French, and Italian planes. Weapons, parachutes, and various airplane parts were also among the materials examined by TDS.

During the interwar years, the Germans perfected the airship, which offered considerable promise as a reconnaissance platform at a time when the use of aircraft for this purpose in its infancy. In fact, the Graf Zeppelin, most famous of the airships, would barely see service in a reconnaissance capacity during World War II, and then only in the early months of the conflict. On the other hand, as the Allies would discover after hostilities began, the Germans had studied reconnaissance aircraft, which yielded results in the high-altitude Ju (Junker) 86P and 86R, as well as the extremely durable Ju 88.

Other totalitarian powers also used the interwar years to build up their aerial capabilities. The Fascist Italians set the altitude record, and the Communist Russians the distance record, for aircraft during the 1930s, while the Nazi Germans established speed records. In 1939, more than a decade before jet aircraft came into use, the Germans even demonstrated a turbojet. Also during the 1930s, the Italians in Ethiopia, the Italians and Germans in Spain, and the Japanese in Manchuria, each gained considerable experience at aerial combat.

The most significant effort in aviation intelligence conducted by the British and French during the interwar years was a series of overflights in western Europe. French pilots conducted reconnaissance over western Germany beginning in 1936, and throughout 1939, British and French intelligence agencies sent Australian aviator Sidney Cotton on several flights over German and Italian facilities in Europe and North Africa. Using a specially modified Lockheed 12-A Super Electra, Cotton took a great number of photographs, and continued his reconnaissance missions throughout the war.

World War II. During World War II, the U.S. Army Air Force (established in 1941) modified a number of aircraft, including the B-17 Flying Fortress, B-24 Liberator, and P-51 Mustang, for reconnaissance missions. The United States also developed a few special photo-reconnaissance planes, primarily the F-11 and F-12. By the end of the war, the U.S. Ninth Air Force alone was flying some 600 photo reconnaissance missions a month from bases in the United Kingdom and western Europe.

Beginning with a U.S. Navy B-17 mission over the Solomon Islands in 1942, Allied forces also used aircraft to collect electronic intelligence (ELINT). These efforts continued and escalated throughout the remainder of the war.

At the same time, captured German and Japanese aircraft provided valuable material for study at Wright Field's ATI facility. Officers there learned to glean intelligence from the most seemingly innocuous details; for example, studies of ball bearings on German planes led to a number of successful bombing runs against German ball-bearing plants in 1943. Similarly, the nameplates of Japanese aircraft provided a wealth of target data on defense manufacturing plants in Japan.

Both sides used aircraft as a means of penetrating enemy territory and inserting intelligence operatives. This was an area in which the Germans particularly excelled, using captured Allied aircraft so as to appear less conspicuous as they dropped troops behind enemy lines. The Germans even developed a special three-man container for parachuting operatives and their equipment into hostile territory.

The Cold War

During World War II, the Army Air Force had organized the Air Documents Research Center (ARDC) in London to study literally tons of captured German technical documents. This effort, along with a similar one in the Pacific, greatly informed ATI during the early Cold War, an era in which aviation intelligence in all regards reached maturity.

Among the best-known aspects of the Cold War are the spy flights conducted by the United States against the Soviet Union and its allies using the U-2 and other craft. But this was only one aspect of aviation intelligence in the period after 1945, when the U.S. military turned its attention from the Axis powers to the Communist world.

So great was the number of aircraft populating the skies in the late 1940s that the Air Force—established by the National Security Act of 1947—established Project Sign (later named Project Grudge) to study unidentified flying objects (UFOs). These studies continued through 1969, and as documents released years later would show, there was never any credible evidence to authenticate the popular association of UFOs with extraterrestrial visitors. However, the widespread hysteria over UFOs in the early Cold War era serves to exemplify the palpable sense of external threat that characterized those years.

In September 1946, the United States conducted the first of many intelligence-gathering missions against the Soviets, in this case using a B-17 to collect ELINT from a Soviet station in the Arctic. In May 1951, the Air Force established the Air Technical Intelligence Center (ATIC), the principal military agency for ATI during the 1950s.

During the Korean War, the first major conflict using jet aircraft, ATIC personnel studied captured Soviet-built MiG-15 jets, as well as Il-10s and Yak-9s. At the same time, Allied forces flew reconnaissance using the RB-45C Tornado jet and other craft, collecting hundreds of thousands of images with an average of nearly 2,000 missions a month throughout most of the war.

Even as the jet made its debut, the U.S. military in Europe conducted reconnaissance against the Soviets using much older aerial technology, the balloon. Projects Moby Dick and Grand Union in the early 1950s, and Genetrix in the mid-1950s, proved less than successful, however. These failures helped influence the first over-flights of Soviet territory, initially with the British Tornado, and later with the American U-2.

For their part, the Soviets proved highly adept at deceiving U.S. intelligence regarding their capabilities. They invited the American air attaché to the rehearsal for Soviet Armed Forces Day in 1954, at which their guest was shown what appeared to be 28 "Bison" bombers. This led to American estimates of a "bomber gap," though it would later turn out that the second wave of 14 bombers witnessed by the attaché was actually the first wave, flying back over. With the advent of the U-2, U.S. intelligence developed better estimates of Soviet bomber production, and instead of fearing a "bomber gap," U.S. leadership projected a "missile gap." This, too, would turn out to be a fallacy, thanks to intelligence collection efforts, as well as studies by ATIC in the 1950s.

The capture of U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers in 1960 did not bring an end to U.S. intelligence-gathering missions. American intelligence continued to use the U-2, as well as other craft, including the SR-71 Blackbird and the A-12 Oxcart. All of these flew extensive missions over North Vietnam, North Korea, China, and the Middle East in the 1960s. Overflights of Cuba using U-2s provided intelligence critical to the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. Other important aerial reconnaissance craft used during the 1960s and beyond included the A3D Skywarrior and A3J Vigilante, both flown from aircraft carriers, the RF-4 (a reconnaissance version of the F-4 Phantom), the P-3 Orion, the C-47 and C-130, and others.

In the realm of ATI, ATIC became the Foreign Technology Division (FTD) in July 1961. FTD pioneered a number of technologies for the analysis and production of intelligence. As with ATIC, which brought its first Readix computer on line in 1955, FTD personnel made extensive use of computers such as the Photo Online System (PHOTOLS), an imagery database introduced in 1961. FTD also introduced the Central Information Reference and Control (CIRC) system, a computerized technical database, in 1963. Additionally, FTD pioneered machine translation of foreign languages in the Department of Defense. From an IBM Mark I Translating Device acquired by ATIC in 1959, FTD graduated to a Mark II, which provided word-for-word Russian translations at the rate of 5,000 words per hour, in October 1963.

From the Late Cold War to the Present

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, FTD provided extensive support to U.S. efforts in Vietnam, including the December 1972 "Christmas bombings" of Hanoi and Haiphong. Beginning in 1969, FTD turned its attention from war to the prospect for peace, providing intelligence that greatly assisted U.S. diplomats taking part in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) and later the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) discussions. Throughout the era of detente that opened with these arms limitation talks, the United States continued to conduct surveillance against the Soviet Union. So, too, did the Soviets, whose acquisition of numerous allies during the 1970s gave them a number of friendly bases from which to conduct aerial reconnaissance missions.

U.S. efforts gained a massive boost with the launch of the KH-11, the first photographic satellite capable of directly transmitting images to a control base, in December 1976. The late Cold War also saw the introduction of unmanned reconnaissance vehicles, first flown by the Air Force in the 1960s. During their 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the Israelis debuted their Scout drones, and in the Persian Gulf War of 1991, the U.S. military made heavy use of the Pioneer, modeled on the Scout. Operation Desert Storm also saw the extensive use of American aerial capabilities, including the E-2C Hawkeye, J-STARS, Skywarrior, Orion, and other craft. Behind the scenes, FTD provided the Pentagon with a veritable encyclopedia of Iraqi equipment, most of which had been produced by the soon-to-be defunct Soviet Union.

In October 1991, the Air Force established the Air Force Intelligence Command (AFIC), of which FTD became a part as the Foreign Aerospace Science and Technology Center (FASTC). Beginning in 1992, FASTC participated in the Open Skies treaty, whereby friendly nations flew observation aircraft freely over one another's territory to collect information on military activities. FASTC operated the Open Skies Media Processing center from 1993. It also served as project manager for Red Tigress, a component of the Ballistic Missile Defense program, formerly known as the Strategic Defense Initiative. In October 1993, AFIC became the National Air Intelligence Center, which in turn merged with Air Combat Command in February 2001.



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

Kreis, John F. Piercing the Fog: Intelligence and Army Air Forces Operations in World War II. Washington, D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1996.

Polmar, Norman, and Thomas B. Allen. Spy Book: The Encyclopedia of Espionage. New York: Random House, 1998.

Richelson, Jeffrey T. The U.S. Intelligence Community, fourth edition. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999.

Stanley, Roy M. World War II Photo Intelligence. New York: Scribner, 1981.

Taubman, Philip. Secret Empire: Eisenhower, the CIA, and the Hidden Story of America's Space Espionage. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.


U.S. Air Combat Command. < http://www2.acc.af.mil/ > (April 13, 2003).


Aircraft Carrier
Air Force Intelligence, United States
Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, United States
Balloon Reconnaissance, History
Hypersonic Aircraft
Korean War
P-3 Orion Anti-Submarine Maritime Reconnaissance Aircraft
Persian Gulf War
Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC), United States National
Photography, High-Altitude
SIGINT (Signals Intelligence)
SR-71 Blackbird
U-2 Spy Plane
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic:

Aviation Intelligence, History forum