On the outbreak of war in September 1939, a small photographic interpretation section was attached to the Intelligence Staff of the British Expeditionary Force - GSIa(V), which consisted of three officers trained on an Army Interpretation Course. The key Royal Air Force reconnaissance aircraft - the Bristol Blenheim - was soon found to be inadequate for its long range photographic reconnaissance role and trouble was also experienced with existing camera systems. This meant the only source of long range aerial photography was that provided by the freelance civilian aerial photographer Sidney Cotton using his Lockheed aeroplane. Cotton persuaded the Air Ministry to give him an assortment of Hudsons, Beechcrafts, Blenheims and Spitfires for adaptation as photographic reconnaissance aircraft. This small group of aircraft operated from RAF Heston, Middlesex, on secret reconnaissance operations and was officially known as No 2 Camouflage Unit. Cotton, then in the rank of Wing Commander, commanded the unit later known as the Special Flight, and experimented with modified, unarmed Spitfires, flying at heights above 30,000 feet.
Cotton sought the aid of his friend Major H Hemming, Managing Director of the Aircraft Operating Company Ltd, an aerial survey firm based at Wembley, Middlesex. The Heston Special Flight, which was renamed the Photographic Development Unit (PDU) in January 1940, continued, unofficially, to use the resources of this company to process and interpret its films and to make detailed drawings with its specialist equipment. After much pressure from the Admiralty, the Air Ministry decided to give the company a formal contract to operate as part of PDU from 1 April and later that month moved its photographic interpretation cell AI1(h) into the company's premises at Wembley. AI1(h) merged with the company in May and on 12 June 1940 the Wembley organisation was given its own identity as the Photographic Development Unit - Interpretation and Intelligence, (PDUI). Major Hemming, now in the honorary rank of Squadron Leader, was placed in charge of the section where he was joined by Squadron Leader Riddell from the Bomber Command photographic interpretation section.
On 18 June 1940 control of PDU and PDUI passed from the Director of Intelligence, Air Ministry, to HQ Coastal Command and on 11 July 1940 a further renaming of the two units took place. PDU was renamed the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU), and PDUI became the Photographic Interpretation Unit (PIU). During 1940 the accommodation at Wembley was rapidly outgrown and the work was continually disrupted by bombing raids. In April 1941 PIU moved to Danesfield House at Medmenham, Buckinghamshire, and was renamed the Central Interpretation Unit (CIU). Later that year the Bomber Command Damage Assessment Section was absorbed, and amalgamation was completed when the Night Photographic Interpretation Section of No 3 PRU, Oakington, was integrated with CIU in February 1942. During 1942 and 1943 the CIU gradually expanded and was concerned in the planning stages of practically every operation of the war, and in every aspect of intelligence. American personnel had for some time formed an increasing part of the CIU and on 1 May 1944 this was recognised by changing the title of the unit to the Allied Central Interpretation Unit (ACIU). There were then over 1700 personnel on the unit's strength. In 1945 daily intake of imagery averaged 25,000 negatives and 60,000 prints. By 'VE' day (8 May 1945) the print library, which documented and stored world-wide imagery, held 5,000,000 prints from which 40,000 reports had been produced. The title of the unit reverted to Central interpretation Unit when the Americans returned home in August 1945.
The CIU was placed under the control of the newly established Central Photographic Establishment of Coastal Command. In August 1947 the unit's name was changed yet again, this time to the Joint Air Photographic Intelligence Centre (UK) - (JAPIC (UK)). In October 1947, APIC (UK) was renamed the Army Photographic Interpretation Unit (UK), (APIU (UK)), and although it continued to operate within JAPIC (UK), had special responsibilities to the Director of Military Intelligence. The Officer Commanding APIU (UK) was also deputy commandant of JAPIC (UK). In March 1950 the Central Photographic Establishment was disbanded and administrative control of JAPIC (UK) was transferred to HQ No 3 Group, Bomber Command, with Intelligence Control exercised by the Air Ministry. In December 1953, the unit was given the title of the Joint Air Reconnaissance Intelligence Centre (United Kingdom), (JARIC (UK). The personnel of APIU (UK) were absorbed into the establishment of this Joint Service Unit.
On 19 April 1996 the unit ceased to fall under operational control of the Royal Air Force and became an agency under the operational control of the Director General Intelligence and Geographic Requirements (now Director General Intelligence Collection), taking a more centralised government role within the Ministry of Defence. On 1 April 2000 the unit stopped functioning as an independent agency and merged with Military Survey into the Defence Geographic and Imagery Intelligence Agency (DGIA). On 10 June 2006, DGI (as it became after agency status was removed) was renamed the Intelligence Collection Group (ICG) comprising the Defence Geographic Centre (DGC) based at Feltham, Middlesex, The Joint Signals Support Organisation (JSSO), based at RAF Digby, the Joint Aeronautical and Geographic Organisation (JAGO) at Hermitage and RAF Northolt and JARIC based at RAF Brampton.
JARIC is today the prime provider of imagery intelligence and the UKs only Satellite Imagery Exploitation Unit. Although initially established to provide strategic intelligence for the needs of the British Government, its role has evolved from the more traditional photographic analysis to encompass more technical intelligence disciplines such as:
- IMINT (IMagery INTelligence). IMINT is an intelligence gathering discipline which collects information via satellite and aerial photography. JARIC is involved in all aspects of imagery analysis from basic activity reporting to advanced scientific-based MASINT analysis.
- MASINT (Measurement And Signature INTelligence). MASINT is scientific and technical intelligence derived from the analysis of data obtained from sensing instruments for the purpose of identifying any distinctive features associated with the source, emitter or sender, to facilitate the latters measurement and identification. JARIC is the UKs only provider of imagery derived MASINT otherwise known as AGI or Advanced Geospatial Intelligence.
- GEOINT (GEOspatial INTelligence). GEOINT is an intelligence discipline comprising the exploitation and analysis of geographically determined information. GEOINT sources include imagery and mapping data, whether collected by commercial or military satellites, or by other capabilities such as UAV (Unmanned Airborne Vehicle) or reconnaissance aircraft.