U.S. Air Force Spy Planes Recorded 1,000 Hours of Video Every Day
2012 disclosure offers glimpse at huge global surveillance effort
The U.S. Air Force’s fleet of drones and manned spy planes recorded nearly 50 days’ worth of surveillance video every 24 hours in 2012, according to one former top official.
The video comprised a portion of the roughly 1.3 million megabytes of data that the Air Force’s Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency gathered daily, then-lieutenant general Larry James said at an industry event in April 2012.
Today James works for NASA.
The general’s remarks—and other surprising insights into the Air Force’s spying efforts—are included in the ISR Agency’s official history for 2012, a heavily-redacted copy of which War Is Boring obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
In the two years since James revealed the extent of the flying branch’s aerial spying, the Air Force has changed significantly—retiring many aircraft and adding others, all in line with the Pentagon’s shifting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and other war zones.
But it’s unlikely the aerial spies are less busy today than they were in 2012.
In 2012, the ISR Agency’s main aircraft included the Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk drones, the E-8, U-2 and RC-135 manned spy jets and U-21 and MC-12 propeller-driven surveillance planes—close to 400 aircraft, in all.
It’s likely the agency also makes use of the Air Force’s secretive fleet of RQ-170 stealth drones, although the official history for 2012 makes no mention of them.
In 2012, most of the roughly 40 U-21s and MC-12s were in Afghanistan. The 250 or so Predators, Reapers and Global Hawks were spread out across Africa, the Pacific and Southwest and Central Asia. The U-2s and E-8s deployed to the Middle East for missions across the region. The RC-135s toured Europe, the Pacific and Southwest Asia.
The RC-135s, U-2s, E-8s and Global Hawks haul sophisticated electronic eavesdroppers, cameras and radars for scooping up fine-grain intelligence on a strategic level.
The Predators, Reapers, U-21s and MC-12s are more suitable for finding and tracking small groups of insurgents. Among other sensors, they pack video cameras for continuously monitoring the ground below.
In 2012, it took 20,000 airmen to operate the spy planes and analyze the resulting intelligence, according to the history.
“If you look across the ISR enterprise, we fly about 1,500 hours of airborne ISR missions every day,” James told the audience at an Air Force Association
breakfast on April 26, 2012.
Those missions “include more than 1,000 hours of full-motion video daily, as well,” James added, describing the Air Force’s aerial spying as the world’s “gold standard.”
For America’s enemies, the consequences of this intensive spying effort were profound. Just one surveillance unit—the 600-person 361st ISR Group—helped U.S. Special Operations Forces kill more than 1,200 enemy combatants in 2012 alone, according to the history.
The ISR Agency’s official history doesn’t explain how the 2012 spying effort compared to previous years—at least not in explicit terms. But the history does provide some useful metrics to illustrate the expansion of America’s aerial surveillance in the middle years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Since 2008, the number of Department of Defense ISR platforms has
increased 238 percent, making up almost one-third of the all U.S. military aircraft by 2012,” according to the history. “In fact, spending on ISR reached $67 billion since the events of 11 September 2011.”
After 2012—with the main American force out of Iraq and the Afghanistan occupation quickly winding down—the Air Force cut almost a fifth of its spy planes.
The five U-21s retired, as did many of the older Predators. The Air Force transferred the three dozen MC-12s to the Army and Special Operations Command. To make up for the losses, the flying branch continued buying Global Hawks and Reapers.
Although slightly smaller, today’s spy fleet is probably no less busy than it was in 2012. Predators spy on Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. Reapers hunt for rebels in Africa’s Sahel region. And the RC-135s have been snooping on Russian installations in the Baltic region—and dodging the fighter jets that Moscow sends to intercept them.
So it’s likely the Air Force is still recording something like 50 days of video every 24 hours. And if it isn’t, it still could.