Looking at Earth

Military Reconnaissance

The zigzag pattern of World War I trench systems could be viewed best from the air.
From the National Archives

The Fairchild K-3B camera was designed for both vertical and oblique photography. It could be operated manually or electrically. Developed in the 1920s, the K-3s were the standard Army and Navy cameras of their day and became the forerunners of many of the major World War II aerial cameras.

Located on the Khwae Yai River in Thailand, the bridge in the background was built by prisoners of war as a vital segment of a Japanese supply route. It was successfully bombed in February 1945 by an American squadron of B-24s.
Royal Air Force Photograph

Known from the book and movie A Bridge Too Far, the bridge across the Waal River at Nijmegen, Holland was captured by the Allies, after many losses, on September 20, 1944.
Courtesy of CIA

Reconnaissance photos show Peenemunde, site of German World War II rocketry research. Arrow indicates V-2 rocket lying on its side. Photos such as these helped Allies to understand the nature of reported new German "secret weapons" research.
Courtesy of CIA

Monte Cassino
Air photos graphically depict the destruction of the abbey of Monte Cassino in southwestern Italy. Monte Cassino was the target of several concentrated Allied air strikes and assaults in the early months of 1944.
From the National Archives

Aerial scene of World War II bombing around Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
From the Col. Roy M. Stanley Collection

Aerial view of Corregidor, an island strategically situated in the mouth of Manila Bay in the northern Philippines. After a gallant defense effort by U.S. and Philippine troops, Corregidor was surrendered to Japan in May, 1942, and served as a Japanese garrison for nearly three years.
From the National Archives

Rabaul, located in the South Pacific east of New Guinea, was occupied by the Japanese in January 1942, and became a significant site for air and naval bases. Surrounded by volcanoes and possessing an excellent harbor, the Japanese stronghold was the target of repeated American air attacks which successfully neutralized its effectiveness.
From the National Archives

Fairchild F-1 Camera
The F-1 was a World War II aerial camera designed for taking hand-held oblique photographs in rapid succession. It was used extensively for high altitude photography of military installations.

An aerial photograph from 1944 shows the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland.
From the National Archives

Solomon Islands
The Solomons are an island chain in the South Pacific east of New Guinea. During World War II, Guadalcanal and other islands in the group were occupied by the Japanese. Bitter battles in Guadalcanal's jungles resulted in the liberation of the island in 1943.
From the National Archives

Far above the raging battles on the Normandy beaches, airplanes recorded a reconnaissance view of the action. Prior to the invasion, a massive photointerpretation effort was launched to identify enemy defenses in great detail.
From the National Archives

K-20 Camera
The K-20 was a lightweight handheld World War II aerial camera. Equipped with a high speed shutter, it was used between 1941 and 1946.

Arctic Seaport
Soviet submarines viewed along the Kola Peninsula in the Barents Sea.
Courtesy of CIA

Bomber Gap
During the Cold War, U.S. officials feared our bomber capabilities lagged behind the Soviets. This 1956 U-2 photo showing details and numbers of Soviet bombers helped confirm that this was not true.
Courtesy of CIA

Panmunjom, Korea
Aerial photo of Panmunjom taken during the Korean Conflict. Panmunjom, located on the dividing line between North and South Korea, was the site of the conclusion of the Korean peace talks.
Courtesy of CIA

San Diego
View of San Diego from a U-2 test run.
Courtesy of CIA

Launch Facility
In 1959, a U-2 aircraft was used to photograph this view of the Soviet space and missile launch facility at Tyuratam.
Courtesy of CIA

Atomic Test Range
Soviet nuclear test site, from a U-2 aircraft.
Courtesy of CIA

Vietnam War
Column of North Vietnamese troops unloading at a railway siding.
Department of Defense Photograph

Aerial view of the Caribbean island of Grenada, where U.S. troops landed in 1983.
Department of Defense Photograph

Automated pilotless aircraft called drones were used for aerial photo reconnaissance during the Vietnam War. This drone is mounted beneath the wing of a military transport plane.
Department of Defense Photograph


Different techniques of camouflage are often used in an attempt to thwart efforts of reconnaissance photographers and confuse photointerpreters. Can you spot the camouflage in these photographs?

This German photograph from World War II shows camouflage in the Kremlin. To the trained eye the "dummy" buildings are clearly evident. The clue is that the real buildings cast long shadows, while the flat false structures have hardly any shadows at all.
Department of Defense Photograph

Oil storage tanks are camouflaged in this photograph. Telltale circular features are visible beneath the false roofs.
Department of Defense Photograph

A World War II aircraft factory is hidden in the photograph on the top. The road that goes nowhere (arrow) is a clue to the deception. Sheets of painted fabric supported by telephone poles have been spread over the plant. Shown in the image on the right is the Lockheed plant in Burbank, California, before the camouflage was applied.
Photographs courtesy of Lockheed Aircraft Company

Inflatable equipment can fool reconnaissance flyers.
Department of Defense Photograph

Japanese boats concealed by local vegetation.
Department of Defense Photograph

Cuban Missile Crisis

Photoreconnaissance played a vital role in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Aerial photos verified both the presence and removal of Soviet missiles in Cuba.

This U-2 reconnaissance photo showed concrete evidence of missile assembly in Cuba. Shown here are missile transporters and missile-ready tents where fueling and maintenance took place.
Courtesy of CIA

Low altitude view of missile preparation area. The pilot taking this shot flew at an altitude of about 76 meters (250 feet), and at the speed of sound.
Courtesy of CIA

Photographed from an RF-101 Voodoo, this view of a Soviet SA-2 (surface-to-air) missile pattern provided additional evidence of the Russian arming of Cuba.
Courtesy of CIA

Adlai Stevenson shows aerial photos of Cuban missiles to the United Nations in November 1962.
From the UN Photo Library

President Kennedy meets in the Oval Office with General Curtis LeMay and reconnaissance pilots who flew the Cuban missions. Third from the left is Major Richard Heyser who took the photos on which the Cuban missiles were first identified.
Courtesy of CIA