Aerial Surveillance: A threat to the National Security of States?


“Big brother is watching you”, to a layman this phrase would have little value, besides, a dystopian fiction novel cannot obviously turn into reality, right? But in the 21st century that is not the case, Big brother is, and will continue to watch you, whether you associate Big brother with repressive, authoritarian regimes spying over their citizens or with imperialistic hegemons spying over their enemies and allies.

Aerial Surveillance: A theoretical overview

Over the years scholars and philosophers have attempted to explain and justify the act of surveillance. One such theory was put forward by the French philosopher Michel Foucault in his 1975 book titled, “Discipline and Punish”. Now generally known as the “Panopticon principle”, Foucault argues how human beings have now moved from an era of sovereign power where control is established through the use of force to disciplinary power where control is instead established through monitoring the populations. He states that aerial surveillance and surveillance of all forms in general can be used as a tool by the state to track citizens and ensure prevention of crime and prevalence of order in the society. Just the threat of being watched will prevent individuals from committing felonies. However, this theory initially reserved for criminals in a state has now expanded to include interstate relations and safeguarding of national security interests as well. States are increasingly using aerial surveillance to spy on other states, particularly their strategic locations and military/government installations. This has prompted a lot of debate on whether such acts of asymmetrical surveillance where (quoting Foucault), “He is seen but he does not see, he is an object of information, never a subject in communication”[1] are violations of privacy or against norms and ethics.

Similarly, another theory put forward by the German sociologist Ulrich beck is the Risk Society theory, where he introduces the idea of “manufactured risks”, in other words increasing technological advancements and modernization has resulted in societies being plagued with constant risks and perils. Aerial Surveillance is a prime example of this theory, although using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and satellites have contributed to endurance of law and order, establishment of security and pre-empt threats, it has also created a constant threat of abuse, violation of airspace of countries, misuse and misinterpretation of data. Thus, this technological advancement comes with its associated liabilities and risks.

Drones, Satellites and Spy balloons: The evolution of surveillance technology

In the modern world as globalization and technological innovation has taken hold, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that the battlefields have changed. Instead of direct head-to-head confrontation between states, a new form of warfare has emerged. This is one where states employ technological instruments whether it be social media, cyber-attacks, or hackings to spy on opponents, harm their facilities and garner strategic objectives. One such tool that has been employed is the use of aerial surveillance devices to monitor an adversary’s movements, command-and-control systems and civilian populations. If that isn’t enough, new surveillance technologies have the capability to attack through precision strikes. Therefore, it is imperative that we understand how these technologies work and what they are capable of.

The first unmanned radio-controlled aerial vehicle was developed by the British army in 1916 during WWI, advancements in technology resulted in the launch of surveillance drones in the 1980s courtesy of the US military and in the 1990s drones first began to be used for combat purposes in the military. When it comes to the workings of a drone, it is usually powered by a battery pack or in some cases fuel, moreover, in order to be able to fly in various directions and to help in the maintenance of altitude, drones also contain an elaborate propulsion system consisting of propellers. Like airplanes, drones can communicate through a wireless connection with ground control and operators. Contemporary versions are fitted with a GPS and inertial sensors for aiding in navigation, they’re able to carry payloads as well including cameras and sensors. These types of drones can be used for commercial purposes other than surveillance, for example in the construction industry to monitor the progress of projects or in the services industry for package delivery. Military or combat drones on the other hand are weaponized, they are equipped with weapons such as bombs, missiles and guns to attack targets on ground and in the air. They are also capable of staying airborne for a longer period of time to conduct surveillance over a large area. Furnished with stealth technology, it is difficult for these drones to be detected by detection systems such as radars.

Another important component of aerial surveillance technology are satellites. They evolved in the mid-20th century with the Soviet Union introducing the Sputnik 1 in 1957. This then heralded the famous Space race with the USA rushing to develop satellite technology of its own. Although, earlier versions of satellites were used for scientific research purposes such as mapping, weather forecasting and telecommunication, over the years advanced satellite technology has played a crucial role in military surveillance. It can now be used for intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance. A satellite’s advanced sensors, high resolution cameras and radar systems can provide intelligence agencies and military commanders with valuable information about the enemy’s movements. A military satellite is capable of monitoring troop movements, detecting missile launchers and tracking maritime activity, this information can be used by military personnel to devise their own strategies during on ground military operations. Another interesting version of the satellite are SIGINT satellites, which are capable of intercepting various electronic signals such as radio signals. This then allows combatants to listen to and decode an adversary’s conversation.

Lastly, spy balloons have also emerged as a means to spy over a rival’s counter force and counter value targets. It was the Japanese who first used these balloons for espionage purposes during World War II, Fu-go or fire balloons were designed to fly over North America carrying bombs and once reaching the target they were meant to start forest fires in the USA for creating panic amongst the population. During the Cold War era it was used for intelligence gathering purposes, for example, the Soviet Union’s project PLUTO utilized balloons to carry out surveillance over the Western nations, while the USA’s project Mogul used balloons to aid in detection of sound waves from Soviet nuclear tests. Modern spy balloons are helium filled and contain sophisticated cameras and imaging technologies for infiltration. In all, these surveillance technologies have played a vital part in warfare in the past and owing to the impressive technological breakthroughs in the modern era their services are being employed in recent times as well.

Aerial Surveillance in the 21st Century: How Surveillance technology has come to define Security

Johannes Erwin Rommel, a German field marshal during WWII once said “The future battle on the ground will be preceded by battle in the air. This will determine which of the contestants has to suffer operational and tactical disadvantages and be forced throughout the battle into adopting compromise solutions”[2]. This quote has never been more applicable than today, at a time when states are making use of satellites, drones and balloons for spying, it isn’t a head-to-head battle with fighter planes and jets as Rommel might have envisaged but it is still a battle in the air for dominance nonetheless. Whether we look at the war on terror, the Ukraine war or the skirmishes in the Arab world, intelligence gathering mechanisms have been used multiple times.

Pakistan for example had to suffer the brunt of this lethal technology. For example, during the U2 incident in 1960s, a US U2 spy plane flew off from the Badaber air facility in Peshawar over to soviet territories for spying. USA acknowledged its real intentions behind this operation after the plane was shot down and the Soviet Union produced imagery of its bases from the spy plane’s software. This incident not only dealt a blow to the US-Soviet relations during the Cold War era but also tainted Pakistan’s relations with the Soviet Union for many years. Similarly, during the war on terror an estimated 23,300 innocent civilians were killed in drone strikes over the course of the war since 2001[3]. Drones were used to spy over Osama bin Laden the night before he was killed through a US special operations unit raid on 2nd May, 2002 in the Pakistani city of Abbotabad. Although, some would argue that these drone strikes and surveillance operations were for the ‘greater good’ and resulted in the deaths of many terrorist leaders like Baitullah Mehsud, his successor Hakimullah Mehsud or Hafiz Saeed, one cannot argue against the great collateral damage these covert operations have caused the country. Later, in 2013 Pakistan introduced its own UCAV (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle) called the Burraq, initially equipped only with surveillance capabilities it was fitted with combat capabilities in 2015 and was used the same year to attack a terrorist compound in the tribal areas. Thus, Pakistan became the fourth country to use drones for combat after the USA, UK and Israel.

Talking about drone strikes, the terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State has used drones to drop light ammunition on settlements in Iraq and Syria. It was a drone strike that killed the Iranian general Qasim Soleimani in 2020 and the Al-Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri in 2022. UCAVs were used in the Syrian Civil War and by Azerbaijani military against its Armenian counterparts during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. During the ongoing Russia Ukraine war, drones have been used by both sides to gain the upper hand when it comes to launching offensives. Whether it be the Ukrainian military which has been employing the help of Turkish made Bayraktar TB2 UCAVs or the Russian military which has been utilizing the Iranian made HESA Shahed 136 drones.

When it comes to drones for surveillance purposes only, Israeli forces have used the Heron TP with a range of 7,000 kilometers to surveil over Gaza and the West Bank. The Chinese military has used drones such as the Wing Loong with a range of 4000 kilometers for spying on the border regions it shares with India and in the largely contested South China Sea. Saudi Arabia has made use of these Chinese made drones to carry out spying operations on Houthi rebels in Yemen. The Pakistani military has used the help of drones for surveillance in the tribal areas alongside the Afghan border, this has been done to pinpoint any breakouts of violence in the region.

Coming to satellites, over the course of the Cold War, satellites were used by both major powers to monitor troop movements and military installations. They were deployed by the US against the North Korean military during the Korean War from 1950 to 1953. It was through satellite imagery that Iraqi nuclear installations and their military buildup was discovered both before US invasion of Iraq, it was also on the claims that Iraq was developing a nuclear weapon that the USA and its allies invaded the country in 2003. Satellites have been employed to surveil over Chinese military bases on artificial islands in the South China Sea, and to monitor Chinese naval and aircraft activities near the Taiwan Strait region. It was also through the aid of satellites that the USA was able to warn the west of Russia’s military deployments near its border with Ukraine before it invaded the country on 24th February, 2022.

Modern spy balloons on the other hand, are a recent addition to the triad of aerial surveillance technologies. Interestingly in 2017, India reportedly used spy balloons along the border with Pakistan to monitor smuggling and cross border infiltration. More recently, a Chinese spy balloon entered the US airspace through Alaska on January 28th, 2023. It was later able to gather information from sensitive military sites such as the Malstorm Air force base where some of the USA’s nuclear assets are kept, and according to US officials was able to send sensitive information to operators in China in real time. According to US officials the intelligence gathered by China was based on electrical signals as opposed to imagery, however, these spy balloons have been alleged to fly over Canada, Japan, Taiwan and Latin American countries previously too. The whole ordeal finally came to an end when it was shot down by the US military over the Atlantic Ocean, but despite China’s claims of the balloon being a civilian airship that accidentally strayed off course this incident further tainted the already dire US-China relations and resulted in the cancellation of the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to China in February (the Secretary of State later visited China in June).

A way forward?

Aerial surveillance comes with its associated benefits and risks. On the plus side, aerial surveillance can be used to monitor a country’s borders and help prevent illegal immigration, cross border terrorism or smuggling. It can be employed by a state to prevent crime and track suspects, assess and address the damage caused to infrastructure after a natural disaster and aid in search and rescue operations. On the other hand, aerial surveillance techniques pose a risk to privacy by suspension of civil liberties and violation of a state’s national security. It is ethically wrong to monitor the civil and military installations of an adversary without their knowledge. Similarly, countries are increasingly vulnerable to their state secrets being let out courtesy of surveillance techniques, wrong assessment of surveillance data can lead to misconceptions between countries which can have a risk of escalating to direct confrontation. Misuse of surveillance data or the hacking and interception of surveillance devices can result in sensitive information falling in the hands of non-state actors such as terrorist groups as opposed to a credible government. This can severely hamper a country’s national security, sovereignty and integrity. Therefore, it is imperative that this technology, which cannot be reversed is at least regulated. Governments can ensure that the military carries out surveillance activities in compliance with international law such as the laws of war and human rights law. In addition, a country must seek the permission of the concerned country before entering its airspace and conducting counter terrorism operations with aerial vehicles, they should also ensure stringent data security measures are in place to prevent surveillance data leaks. These covert intelligence gathering operations must not breach and corner the national security assets of an enemy state to such an extent that it is forced to retaliate. Moreover, such operations by the military must be subjected to transparency and accountability by their respective governments. If these actions are put into force, then only would security in the international system prevail, only then would the human, economic, political and military security of countries be safeguarded. Only then can Ulrich beck’s ‘manufactured risks’ and Michel Foucault’s asymmetrical surveillance methods be disannulled.

[1] Thomas McMullan, “What does the panopticon mean in the age of digital surveillance?”, published 23rd July 2015

[2] Az Quotes

[3] “Pakistani Civilians,” last modified June, 2021

Mashaal Shahnawaz
Mashaal Shahnawaz
Undergraduate Student of Strategic and Nuclear Studies at the National Defence University (NDU), Islamabad, Pakistan.


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