Remote Sensing And The Military

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From its beginning remote sensing has served for military purposes and has always been attractive to the military field while taking different configurations throughout History. Starting by aerial photograph on a balloon, remote sensing in the military has evolved to the use of satellites and UAVs

Technology has changed not only the way the real world is represented, but also the relationship between a state and its own people as well as the inter-relationships between states. Let us look at  a brief history of remote sensing in the military area.

The regulation will be mentioned in the same part. Also, a second part will deal with the main issue of remote sensing in the military, which are the high resolution imagery and the security.

1.1 A brief history of Remote Sensing and the Military

The use of remote sensing in the military area can be traced back to 1858, when Gaspar Felix Tournachon, nicknamed “Nadar”, took the first aerial photograph on a balloon. Nadar had patented the idea for taking aerial photographs for surveying.

In the beginning of the 20th century pigeons, with a photograph attached to their breast, were used for military surveillance (Figure 1 and 2), (Professional Aerial Photographers Association (PAPA) International History of Aerial Photography.mht).

Wilbur Wright took the first aerial photography taken from an airplane, in 1909. He had carried a passenger with him who took pictures of military fields, (Figure 3); (Professional Aerial Photographers Association (PAPA) International History of Aerial Photography.mht).

In 1912, Albert Maul in Germany, suggested to the Austrian Army to use rockets mounted with camera for aerial photograph, (Figure 4);(Professional Aerial Photographers Association (PAPA) International History of Aerial Photography.mht). However, airplanes came out to be more efficient.

In World War 1, aerial photograph was used for reconnaissance and surveillance missions, replacing sketching and drawing. Later on, the first applications of photography using infrared and microwave radiation were used during World War II.

In 1960, when space based remote sensing started, except TIROS-1 (Television and Infrared Observation Satellite), all the space programs were classified military (Read and Torrado, 2009). Such as the U.S. military reconnaissance program, Corona (Lillesand and Kiefer, 2000).

During the Cold War, a large amount of “secret” imagery has been captured by spy satellites.

Over the last decade, geospatial surveillance systems are used in the “war against terror”. In 2001 the U.S. Department of Defense acquired exclusive rights to Space Imaging’s Ikonos (Figure 5) for the war in Afghanistan in order to influence the public policy debate.

With Gulf war II, imagery was used to provide visual proofs to support decision making for taking action towards war against Iraq. Also, another application involves locating eventual nuclear sites in Iran (Figure 6) and North Korea, seen as a threat by, mainly, the USA and Europe (Perkins and Dodge, 2008).

Remote Sensing from the beginning seems to find its first and main domain of application in the military field. Obviously its proven efficiency is attractive to the Great Powers (e.g. USA, Russia, UK, and France). As they need to have knowledge of their geographical weaknesses and strength, as well as the ones of their adversaries, since states have understood the importance of the knowledge of geographical realities. Remote Sensing until today has been used for military strategies development. It is essential for military purposes to have an accurate and actual representation of a specific zone of interest anywhere in the world.

2.2 High resolution imagery and Security

Remote sensing using high-resolution sensors discloses the sensed country’s military potential. In 1978, under Carter’s presidency, the U.S. had decided to impose limitations in the quality of images (resolution of 10 meters) from the US Landsat satellite which could be spread in the open market. The polemic arose again when the French launched SPOT-1 spacecraft (1986) and the use of SPOT images by the news media. The issue of high resolution imagery is one of the main issues of overhead imagery and needs to be addressed; however, it is really barely expectable that the dissemination of high resolution images can be, one day, completely controlled.

Space control

What is Space control?

“Space Control describes the means to ensure U.S. forces have unhampered access to space-based services and to deny an enemy the advantages of space capabilities.”

Navigation Systems

The Russian, after the American GPS, launched their own navigation system GLONASS, initiated in the mid-1970, the first satellite launched in 1982. Europe launched it own positional global system, GALILEO, the first satellite, GIOVE-A was launched on the 25th December 2005, the Chinese have their Beidou system, two satellites were launched in October and December 2000. All these Positioning systems meet both civilian and military needs. Many countries have launched their own satellites into space. Most of these satellites have got complex sensors capable of real time monitoring of objects on the ground. This has greatly improved the quality of military intelligence. The military now are able to monitor enemy bases through their complex satellite systems. 

Countries such as North Korea have also launched their own satellite systems to keep tabs on their enemies.

This is why a strong military body is vital to a state, and this is why remote sensing has found an important place among the strategic priorities of Great and emergent Powers. On the other hand, it has created other problems, like the privacy, the security, or the limitations of distribution and free access to information. States are also trapped, as they are unable to regulate remote sensing. Any attempt to impose limits will be applicable against them as well. Today the race for space control is still ongoing, new countries are launching satellites while others try to impose their power.

Remote sensing has become state’s eyes in the sky; the irony of the story and the history, is that aerial photographs and satellites were supposed to give to states representations of the real world, but we will end up having, in the sky, a representation of the struggle for power between states, in the real world.


Read, J. M., and Torrado M., (2009), Remote Sensing, Maxwell School of Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY, USA

Day, D.A., Logsdon, J.M., Latell, B., 1998. CORONA and the revolution in mapmaking. In: Day, D.A., Logsdon, J.M., Latell, B. (Eds.), Eye in the Sky: The Story of the Corona Spy Satellites. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington DC, pp. 200-214.

Von Kries,W. (2000), Towards a new remote sensing order? German Aerospace Center, Linder Hohe, D-51147 Cologne, Germany, Space Policy 163-166

Ade Abiodun,A. (1998), Remote Sensing in the information age, office for outer space affairs, United Nations, PO Box 500, A-1400 Vienna, Austria.

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