Reconnaissance is a term for efforts to gain information about an enemy, usually conducted before, or in service to, a larger operation. The French word entered the English language in 1810—not coincidentally, at a time when British and other armies were at war with Napoleon's French forces. Reconnaissance is an important component of military and intelligence activities, as well as civilian undertakings designed to protect the public safety from hazards both natural and manmade.

In the military or espionage environment, reconnaissance can take the form of activities by scouts or other specialists. The use of what would now be called "human intelligence" in a reconnaissance capacity dates back to ancient times, when, according to the Christian Old Testament, 12 spies went into the land of Canaan to scout out the territory. Today, reconnaissance is the work of special units practicing a specialized craft.

Reconnaissance aircraft range from the U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird to the E-2C Hawkeye and P-3 Orion. Additionally, the skies bristle with reconnaissance satellites operated by the U.S. military, the National Security Agency, and military or intelligence services of other nations. Even some seagoing craft, most notably submarines, can serve a reconnaissance function.

The major reconnaissance components of the U.S. intelligence community are the National Reconnaissance Organization and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency. In the civilian realm are meteorological services such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which makes extensive use of reconnaissance technology to map and forecast weather patterns. Additionally, the Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, and other organizations conduct reconnaissance for radiological hazards and other forms of danger.



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

Day, Dwayne A., and John M. Logsdon. Eye in the Sky: The Story of the Corona Spy Satellites. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998.

Gann, Ernest. The Black Watch: The Men Who Fly America's Secret Spy Planes. New York: Random House, 1989.

Osborn, Shane, and Malcolm McConnell. Born to Fly: The Untold Story of the Downed American Reconnaissance Plane. New York: Broadway Books, 2001.


National Imagery and Mapping Agency. < > (April 1, 2003).

National Reconnaissance Office. < > (April 1, 2003).


Balloon Reconnaissance, History
NIMA (National Imagery and Mapping Agency)
NRO (National Reconnaissance Office)
P-3 Orion Anti-Submarine Maritime Reconnaissance Aircraft
Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC), United States National
Photography, High-Altitude
Satellites, Spy

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