THE IMPORTANCE OF accurate and timely battlefield aerial reconnaissance information cannot be understated. Knowing the activities and intent of hostile forces can give a tremendous advantage, with the potential to swing the successful outcome of a battle. It is for this reason, even with the National Defence surveillance system of sophisticated satellites, that each of the armed forces has supported a special reconnaissance aircraft.
Past strategy has been to provide a reconnaissance aircraft that was a dedicated special version of the premier fighter. The aircraft would then have the speed and manoeuvrability to go with or follow behind the strike (ordnance delivery) flight to photograph the damage.
The premier airborne weapon delivery system during the 1960s, 1970s and into the early ’80s for most of the western world air forces was the McDonnell F-4 Phantom II. It was clearly the fastest, most versatile, and most powerful aircraft built when it entered service and capable of performing the multi-role missions of fighter, interceptor, fighter-bomber, attack, or reconnaissance.
The Reconnaissance Phantom
Designated the RF-4, the reconnaissance version had the missile fire control radar and delivery system of the fighter removed and the nose area extended 33 inches. This area became the camera bay and was packed with sophisticated electronic sensory equipment for optical, radar, and infra-red imagery. Since the fire control radar was gone there was no need for missiles or their launch equipment and thus no weaponry. The new radome housed a smaller APQ-99 forward-looking radar system, with terrain-mapping, terrain-following and terrain-avoidance modes.
The forward-looking terrain radar system allowed all-weather navigation at 250ft AGL. Behind the radome is the camera bay, which could be configured to house up to three stationary cameras; two low altitude day/night cameras and a high altitude day camera. The forward-looking oblique camera faced forward directly under the nose with the high and low altitude panoramic cameras mounted vertically in the rear camera bay. The forward-looking and side-looking oblique cameras were located on rotatable mounts that were set up before the mission or could be moved in flight.
Imagery could be collected by cameras using black-and-white, colour, black-and-white infrared, or camouflage-detection film — in stereo. To expedite mission turnaround the cameras were mounted on large swing down doors for easy access. The RF-4 was also capable of developing black-and-white film in a special camera and ejecting the canister to the ground. Side-looking airborne radar (SLAR), located under the fuselage, could record day or night images and through any weather or battlefield smoke. A later modification to the SLAR allowed real time imagery to be received from the aircraft over 150 miles away. Also under the fuselage was an infra-red line scan mapping system that was capable of detecting very small radiation differentials and recording them on film as a pictorial display.
Precise navigational accuracy was critical, and the RF Phantom was equipped with a LORAN (LOng RAnge Navigation) or an INS (Inertial Navigation Systems). To prevent picture blurring, an automatic camera system adjusted the exposure for aircraft speed, altitude and light. For night optical photography, magnesium flares could be ejected from a tail fuselage canister to light the area. With all these systems deployed, little could be hidden from the RF-4 Phantom.
It was also equipped with a high frequency single-sideband radio to allow communications when at low altitudes and out of ‘line of sight’ required for UHF radio. The only defensive equipment the RF Phantom could carry was a centreline electronic countermeasures (ECM) pod that could jam enemy radar or warn of a hostile missile launch. However, the centreline fuel tank configuration was most often chosen. Later RF-4 upgrades incorporated this critical defensive ECM equipment into internal bays.
Three reconnaissance models of the Phantom were made, and all contained initially the same equipment listed above. These variants were the RF-4C for the US Air Force, the RF-4B for the Marine Corps, and later the RF-4E for foreign Air Forces. The Marine Corps ordered 46 RF-4B reconnaissance versions in May 1965. The RF-4B is the multisensor reconnaissance version operated by Marine Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron Three (VMFP-3) stationed at MCAS El Toro, California.
VMFP-3 Squadron History
VMFP-3 was activated in the Third Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW) at MCAS El Toro, California on July 1, 1975. Initially each of the three Marine Air Wings had a Composite Reconnaissance Squadron (VMCJ-1, VMCJ-2 and VMCJ-3) located at MCAS Iwakuni, Japan, MCAS Cherry Point, NC and MCAS El Toro, respectively. These squadrons (each flying the RF-4Bs and EA-6s) were consolidated into two reconnaissance squadrons — VMAQ-2 at MCAS Cherry Point, N.C. operating the electronic reconnaissance EA-6 aircraft and VMFP-3 operating the photo reconnaissance RF-4Bs. All Marine Corps photo reconnaissance operations were to be conducted by VMFP-3, which became the ‘Eyes of the Corps’.
VMFP-3 Rhinos mission was to conduct aerial multisensor imagery reconnaissance to include aerial photographic, infra-red, and side-looking airborne radar reconnaissance in support of Fleet Marine Force operations. In addition to their mission statement, VMFP-3 had many other tasks, including aircrew training, and overseas deployments.
Initial reconnaissance training for new aircrews was often done by Air Force squadrons, but VMFP-3 acted as its own training squadron to complete the training required for combat-ready aircrews. While conducting this, VMFP-3 also conducted two unit-deployment workups a year (including carrier landing qualifications prior to 1984), and provided additional operational detachments to exercises throughout CONUS.
It was not uncommon for VMFP-3 to have three detachments deployed at once. The unit also would regularly deploy detachments with the 1st MAW in Iwakuni, Japan. Overseas detachments, in addition to supporting FMF operations, continued the Seventh Fleet support started by VMCJ-1 in 1974. The RF-4Bs of VMFP-3 were permanently deployed aboard the aircraft carrier USS Midway until 1984.
The Tactical Reconnaissance mission
Tactical photo reconnaissance missions acquired photos for planning, targeting and intelligence purposes. To get the pictures, the ‘recce’ aircraft would often have to go into high-threat areas, alone and unarmed. The RF Phantom also flew in with or behind the strike flight, often orbiting until the strike was over, to photograph the damage.
When the mission was completed, the film was processed immediately and photo interpreters would carefully scrutinise over, analyse and mark the target areas. The film recovery, processing and analysis usually took 3 hours before the commander had his pictures. This information was then used to confirm that the mission objective was completed or for future strike planning.
Optical photo-reconnaissance was used for both wide area mapping and close ground support. Use of optical for daylight damage recording, and infra-red for night damage confirmation was commonly used. This information would allow identification of the exact target areas and visual markings of the critical sites as well as serve as the briefing to the pilots for the strike mission.
The recce aircraft would go in again to get the pictures of the post-strike results, for documentation of damage estimates. Often a night infra-red mission over the plant was done to confirm that the plant was out of operation. The infra-red film could detect heat to determine if the plant’s blast furnace was in operation. During night imagery against enemy concentration or troop movements, the infra-red imaging could detect the transport vehicles engine heat or even the individual foot soldier’s body heat.
During the Vietnam War, forward Marine Corps bases relied on RF-4B reconnaissance aircraft to continually monitor and forewarn of any enemy buildups that would indicate increasing threats. The Composite Reconnaissance Squadron VMCJ-1 spent more time in the war zone being submitted to hostile fire than any other Marine Air squadron, yet lost only four aircraft. A testimony to the robust reliability of the Phantom — it could take lots of ‘hits’ and still get you home.
Mission flight profiles
To accomplish the mission of flying over hostile areas in an unarmed aircraft, the recce pilot had to be well briefed, and use all of his aircraft’s capabilities of speed and manoeuvrability to full advantage.
Flight ready room meetings defined the mission objective and involved weather, intelligence and operation briefings for the aircrew. These were critical since the pilot had to have a tactical situation awareness of the war zone throughout the mission. The recce pilot and the Reconnaissance Systems Officer (RSO) planned their route to accomplish the mission and minimise their time in high-threat areas. Navigational accuracy required for low-altitude terrain-following left zero margin for error, and required constant teamwork between the pilot and RSO informing each other of factors that could effect the mission success.
Intelligence briefings revealed how the target was defended, with identification of the threat types and locations. High-altitude threats such as hostile aircraft or SAM sites were countered by using high speed low-altitude terrain following. The counter tactic for a low-altitude threat, such as a radar guided AA ground site, would be to stay outside the gun range. The type of threats that existed in the target area and the reconnaissance coverage were used to plan the flight profile.
In low-threat environments where the mission called for close area target coverage a HI-LO-HI profile would be used. This profile started with a cruise at typically 30,000ft and confirmation with the RSO of the route fixes and precise camera activation times. The aircraft would then descend for target coverage prior to the photo run.
The recce aircraft would normally return to altitude for fuel reasons, however if a SAM threat materialised, evasive manoeuvres were initiated with a descent ‘to the deck’. If an aircraft threat appeared, the pilot would ‘unload’ and go for separation. This would put zero ‘g’ forces on the airframe, so the Phantom could use all her power for acceleration. The descent was to lose SAM radar tracking in ground clutter or take the evasive manoeuvre advantage using the terrain-following radar guidance of the RF-4 Phantom.
If the target was heavily defended with high-altitude threats a LO-HI-LO profile would often be used. This involved a high speed low altitude terrain following route of visual or radio fixes into the battle zone. Approaching the target, and prior to the photo run the aircraft would ‘pop-up’ in altitude for target coverage. After the pictures were taken, the aircraft would descend to resume a high speed terrain following exit route and ‘bug out’.
For night optical photography the deployment of a series of magnesium photo-flash flares was required to light the area, prior to the photo run. This manoeuvre involved a circle over the target area with the ejection of flare cartridges at key quadrants and altitudes. The recce aircraft completed the circle while timing the flares to assure optimum target lighting before the photo dash.
A common low altitude evasive manoeuvre from radar guided AA ground fire, or a pursuing aircraft was a technique called ‘jinking’. This violent technique minimised radar lock and eluded the gunsite of the pursuing aircraft by doing quick tight rocking S-turns, constantly changing altitude, airspeed and direction of flight. When following terrain with this technique often the pilot would roll upside down after going over a rise and descend inverted into the valley. This maintained close ground contact to elude hostile radar, and allowed a panoramic view through the top of the canopy to identify visual route fixes.
Future Reconnaissance platforms
A major transition in tactical reconnaissance is the joint services programme for an Advanced Tactical Reconnaissance System (ATARS) for manned and unmanned aircraft. This system is a replacement for existing film-based sensors to electro-optical sensors that use a video camera with recording and editing functions. The purpose is to increase capability and reduce the processing time to provide near real-time tactical reconnaissance information.
Manned aircraft versions will have video editing functions done by the aircrew, to review and verify target coverage before sending the video data. The video image data is transmitted directly from the aircraft via a data link to a ground processing station then relayed to front line commanders.
The USAF has plans to integrate the ATARS system into the nose of its RF-4C aircraft for testing and evaluation by 1992. The Air Force is also evaluating a podded version expected for the F-16 or F-15 aircraft. The Navy plans to replace its present Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod System (TARPS) used on the F-14As with ATARS wired into the F-14Ds by the mid-1990s.
USN and USMC are presently integrating ATARS into the F/A-18D to replace the RF-4B, these are expected to be operational by 1994.
The use of unmanned Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPVs) for reconnaissance in high-threat areas is a future trend (see article in AFM January) and both Navy and Marine Corps are evaluating RPV launch capabilities from ship and ground platforms to support fleet and ground operations. The USAF current development plan calls for introduction of operational RPVs and ATARS equipped unmanned air reconnaissance systems (UARS) by 1993, with future integration into manned aircraft squadrons.