A Raytheon Sentinel of the RAF showing its radar pod

A surveillance aircraft is an aircraft used for surveillance. They are operated by military forces and other government agencies in roles such as intelligence gathering, battlefield surveillance, airspace surveillance, reconnaissance, 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. They do not always require high-performance capability or stealth characteristics, and may be 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.[3]

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

A Royal Flying Corps observation balloon on the Western Front, during World War I

Main article: History of military ballooning

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,[4] and also signalled messages using semaphore.[5]

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

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.[6] The air observation role was generally taken over by light observation helicopters, such as the Hughes OH-6 Cayuse, from the mid-1960s.

Pre war, the British identified a need for an aircraft that could follow and observe the enemy fleet at a distance. To this end the slow-flying Airspeed Fleet Shadower and General Aircraft Fleet Shadower designs were built and flown in 1940 but they were made obsolete by the introduction of airborne radar.

Cold War

Spy flights were a source of major contention between the US and Soviet Union during most of the 1960s.[7]


Maritime patrol

A US Navy P-8 Poseidon on take off

Main article: Maritime patrol aircraft

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. Smaller ship-launched observation seaplanes were used from World War I through World War II.

Law enforcement

Main articles: Use of UAVs in law enforcement and Surveillance § Aerial surveillance

Predator UAVs have been used by the US for border patrol.[8]

Battlefield and airspace surveillance

Main articles: Airborne early warning and control and Airborne ground surveillance

Current use

The RQ-4 Global Hawk is a high-altitude, remotely-piloted surveillance UAV.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) surveillance aircraft have been "deployed or are under development in many countries, including Israel, Iran, the UK, the United States, Canada, China, India, South Africa and Pakistan."[9] Drones are increasingly used in conservation work to complete tasks such as mapping forest cover, tracking wildlife, and enforcing environmental laws by catching illegal loggers or poachers.[10]

Unmanned surveillance UAVs include both airships—such as Sky Sentinel[11] and HiSentinel 80[12]—and airplanes.

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.[13]

Business aircraft

With smaller equipment, long-range business aircraft can be modified in surveillance aircraft to perform specialized missions cost-effectively, from ground surveillance to maritime patrol:[14]

See also


This article needs additional citations for verification. Please help improve this article by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed.Find sources: "Surveillance aircraft" – news · newspapers · books · scholar · JSTOR (May 2015) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
  1. ^ "Next generation of Global Hawks ready to roll, Flight International, August 16, 2010".
  2. ^ Lt Col James O. Norman, USAF. "The Rise of Surveillance" (PDF). p. 18.
  3. ^ Gates, J.W.C (December 2002). "Surveillance and reconnaissance imaging systems – modelling and performance prediction". Optics and Lasers in Engineering. 38 (6): 607–608. doi:10.1016/s0143-8166(01)00180-4. ISSN 0143-8166.
  4. ^ F. Stansbury Haydon, Military Ballooning During the Early Civil War, pp. 5–15.
  5. ^ Charles Coulston Gillispie, Science and Polity in France: The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Years, pp. 372–373.
  6. ^ "Canadian Warplane Heritage: Auster Beagle AOP".
  7. ^ "Reds, U.S. Face Hot Plane Debate at U.N.". The Paris News. Paris, Texas (US). Associated Press. May 23, 1960. p. 1.
  8. ^ "LA Now – Southern California, December 7, 2009". Latimesblogs.latimes.com. December 7, 2009. Retrieved May 20, 2010.
  9. ^ Rogers, Simon (2012-08-03). "Drones by country: who has all the UAVs?". The Guardian. Retrieved 2019-03-19.
  10. ^ Koh, Lian Pin and Serge A. Wich. 2012. "Dawn of Drone Ecology: Low-Cost Autonomous Aerial Vehicles for Conservation." Tropical Conservation Science 5(2):121–32. Retrieved March 4, 2019 ( doi:10.1177/194008291200500202).
  11. ^ Govers, Francis X. III (2013-06-11). "Nevada company launches silent Sky Sentinel UAV airship". gizmag.com. Retrieved 2014-08-16.
  12. ^ Perry, William D. (Fall–Winter 2010). "Sentinel in the Sky" (PDF). Technology Today. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2011-05-24. Retrieved 2014-08-16.
  13. ^ Withington, Thomas (2017-10-16). "Keeping Your Ears Open". Armada International. Retrieved 2020-04-11.
  14. ^ Graham Warwick (Jan 10, 2018). "Spotlight on Bizjet-based Special Mission Aircraft". Aviation Week & Space Technology.

Further reading