Intelligence Vs. Surveillance Vs. Reconnaissance: What Makes Reconnaissance Different?

Greenwood Aerospace is dedicated to providing you with the best service and information in the industry. We support intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions across the Army and Air Force and understand the value that ISR systems bring to the battlespace. ISR data is some of, if not the most, valuable information in the operational environment. 

Each military service approaches the intelligence process differently, but intelligence information is a core decision-making process for military commanders and military planning. 

We will look at how reconnaissance systems are changing, what they bring to the decision-makers, and how the critical roles of intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance work together to build a cohesive picture of the battlefield.

The Components Of ISR

Before we can start to dissect how one component of the ISR umbrella is different from another, you need to have a good overview of what ISR is as a whole. 

So, what exactly is ISR? 

More than anything else, ISR is a process. It is the process of gathering, analyzing, and correctly disseminating information through the appropriate channels. The endgame of ISR is to provide accurate and timely information to the decision-maker. Now, these decision-makers operate throughout all levels of the government, both civilian and military. 

Situational awareness is of paramount importance to combatant commands to identify enemy threats, and intelligence is the key ingredient.

ISR consists of

  • Intelligence 
  • Surveillance 
  • Reconnaissance

Superficially, these three components sound similar, and in some ways, they are similar. But similar is not the same. Our focus today is on reconnaissance, which is information-gathering to answer one specific question.

For instance, we need to know what frequencies suspected combatants use, so an aerial asset is deployed to the AOR to listen in on the conversation and find out what frequencies are being used. Reconnaissance is the action of finding this information. Recon and surveillance are similar, and the methods may be interchangeable. It may be visual on the ground or in the air, or it could be electronic observations.  

Despite the common verbiage of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and the acronym ISR, reconnaissance is actually the second step in the process. In fact, in the order of procedure, ISR is backward. The process goes: 

  1. Surveillance
  2. Reconnaissance
  3. Intelligence (finished product)

What Is Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR)?

Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance are the trifecta of processes to collect information, refine and analyze information, and then finally produce a finished product (intelligence). 

The first stage of the process is surveillance. According to NATO, surveillance is “the persistent monitoring of a target.”   

Time and specificity are the main distinctions between surveillance and reconnaissance: although surveillance is a more deliberate, longer-term process, reconnaissance missions are typically faster and more focused on obtaining precise information.

Recon missions exist to answer specific questions that are churned up during the surveillance process. For instance, potential unfriendlies are observed moving and from a specific area or areas during surveillance. The purpose of reconnaissance is to see where they are going. It has a defined purpose; surveillance is an overall observation of an area, whereas surveillance is fact-finding because something has caught the attention of intelligence analysts.

Intelligence is the process of compiling data from multiple sources into a package that speaks to specific concerns. It explains the capabilities of potential adversaries, provides early warning to potential threats, and provides information to military and civilian decision-makers, especially regarding operation planning and execution.

Intelligence is largely an analytical process. It does not conduct the legwork; instead, intelligence takes the information that is provided by friendly forces (although not all allied forces will part with their information).  This is quite different from reconnaissance, which is the actual process of gathering information about enemy combatants through a vast array of channels and data sources. 

Reconnaissance helps the intelligence community refine its products and analysis by honing in on specific, targeted areas to reveal detailed information like frequencies used, armament and equipment, anti-aircraft batteries, combatant counts and formations, and anything else deemed necessary.   

Roles & Responsibilities of Reconnaissance

The role and responsibility of reconnaissance is to be directed by their commander. There is a prevailing sort of thought process that tends to suggest that the reconnaissance platform dictates the function, but that is not the case

ISR, as a whole, is a support function; it is never the end user. Reconnaissance exists further to extrapolate data from areas in the battlespace where refined data is needed. This may be for target acquisition or to analyze enemy capabilities. For instance, for Army operations, there are several broad categories of reconnaissance that are used for all kinds of missions. These are:

  • Route reconnaissance is a directed effort to monitor and get detailed information about a specific route used by the enemy, along with terrain and topographic information. 
  • Area recon focuses on capturing info about the terrain and combatant movements within a specific area.
  • Zone reconnaissance exists to get information about all routes, obstacles, terrain issues, and enemy combatants within a zone with defined boundaries. 

Reconnaissance Systems in The Military

Reconnaissance relies upon a number of different platforms to gather the necessary information, one primary source being aerial surveillance.

The RC-12 Guardrail program has been in continuous operation for several decades, using the C-12 Huron as the prime mover. However, it is getting outdated, and hard to find parts to keep in the air without relying heavily on cannibalization. The Army is in the process of replacing the RC-12 with a Challenger 650 for deep ISR work. The aircraft is actually owned by Leidos, making the process substantially more streamlined for maintenance work and parts procurement.

The Air Force is the sole operator of the MC-12 platform, another ISR community's mainstay, and is poised to stay in operation for years to come. The MC-12W is a versatile and capable ISR aircraft that has been used in all kinds of missions around the world. It has been used to support ground operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and monitor maritime activity and counter-narcotics operations.

Final Thoughts

Reconnaissance is a critical component in the DNA of ISR. The detailed work of collecting the information matters most for the mission at hand. It may be to a specific route or a dedicated area. The taskings include accurate troop counts, analysis of weapons systems used and available, and even signals intelligence to provide info on the frequencies used. 

Aerial ISR assets are some of the highest-demand and lowest-density assets in the military, so keeping them reliable is paramount. Greenwood Aerospace has been the industry leader in this space for decades and is your #1 stop for procuring parts for the King Air 350 and King Air 350ER fleet. Give us a call or start your quote today to see what we can do for you!