Floating in his bright red balloon over the sunlit meadows of Fleurus, the engineer Jean-Marie-Joseph Coutelle looked down on soldiers hacking each other to death with their bayonets. The battle ended with the triumph of French revolutionary arms over the combined houses of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Hanover and the Habsburgs. Few French generals, though, were inclined to share credit with the twice-a-day surveillance missions conducted by L’Entreprenant, the world’s first military observation balloon.
“This ridiculous innovation would not even deserve to be mentioned if it hadn’t been made out to be something important,” grumbled Marshal Jean-de-Dieu Soult.
Last month, a People’s Liberation Army surveillance balloon—likely blown off-course from its target in Guam by weather and operator errors—was shot down after it traversed the continental United States, sparking off a bitter diplomatic row. For all the outrage, the spy balloon amounted to little. Two centuries later after L’Entreprenant’s debut in 1794, every corner of the Earth is under almost-constant satellite surveillance.
Eyeball-to-eyeball in outer space, China, Russia and the United States are engaged in a high-stakes, no-rules struggle for supremacy. The spy balloon is just part of an effort to dominate near-earth space—capable of observing an adversary, but out of reach of its means of interception. The means range from China’s spy balloon programme, to robotic aircraft like the United States’ super-secret X-37B.
Faced with similar risks, Russia and the United States signed a treaty to allow spy flights over their territory, allowing both superpowers to develop confidence about the intentions and capabilities of the other. The Open Skies Treaty collapsed in 2020, after Russia blocked spy flights over the strategic enclave of Kaliningrad. But the time might have come, many experts believe, to create norms that similarly regulate—and even facilitate—espionage from space.
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Eyeballing the Earth
Low-earth satellites—orbiting at altitudes less than 1,000 kilometres from our planet—have been nudging up against each other for over a decade, experts Matthew Mowthorpe and Markos Trichas have noted. The major powers have all sought to manoeuvre surveillance satellites to within hundreds of metres of those of their adversaries, to spy on their capabilities and monitor data. Future wars could see anti-satellite missiles—or even robotic arms—being used to disable enemy communications.
The risks of accidents or missteps involving satellites don’t take much to imagine. Last summer, Chinese spy satellites Shiyan-12-01 and Shiyan-12-02 engaged in evasive manoeuvres to avoid inspection by United States space surveillance satellite 270—and then ought to turn the tables. In a crisis, an accident could only too easily be mistaken for a first strike designed to blind an adversary.
From the second half of the nineteenth century, the advantages of aerial surveillance had become evident to even the most conservative generals. The use of cameras that could be mounted on balloons, kites and even pigeons became increasingly routine. The new science of photo interpretation provided armies with critical intelligence on enemy trenches and artillery dispositions through the First World War.
Lockheed’s U2 ‘Dragon Lady’—capable of flying at over 21,000 metres, by pilots equipped with potassium cyanide suicide pills—represented the pinnacle of a century of development. First flown over Poland and East Germany in 1956, the U2’s sensors provided critical intelligence among other things, giving reason to question boastful Soviet claims about the size of its nuclear missile arsenal.
Although the Soviet Union was aware of these flights, the country did not publicise the intrusions into its airspace—fearing embarrassment. Finally, on 1 May 1960, a Soviet SA2 missile damaged a U2, forcing its pilot to eject. The diplomatic crisis that ensued derailed President Dwight Eisenhower’s hopes of de-escalating Cold War tensions.
U2 missions into Soviet airspace ended—but a new technology, Eisenhower was aware, provided even sharper eyes.
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A god’s-eye view
Ten years after Soviet Union launched Sputnik—the first artificial satellite, and a demonstration of its long-distance missile capabilities—major nations agreed on the principles governing the peaceful use of outer space. Sputnik, and the satellites that followed it, established that space, unlike airspace, knew no territorial control. The treaty asserted that space “shall be free for exploration and use by all states.” There was, however, no consensus, law scholar Joseph Soraghan has noted, on what exactly peaceful use meant.
Eisenhower had offered the Soviet Union mutual open-skies rights as early as 1955—a proposal that was flatly rejected. The new satellites, though, gave any power with the resources a god’s-eye view of the world.
From 1959, the US began launching its Keyhole satellite series, carrying film in capsules which would be ejected over the Pacific after a four-day mission, to be recovered by aircraft. The technology wasn’t without its problems—one capsule accidentally ended up with a Venezuelan commercial photographer, who attempted to ransom it. The results were impressive, though: A declassified history of the project records images established that no Soviet ballistic missiles were emplaced for launch.
Even as late as 1960, experts were unconvinced satellites could substitute traditional image intelligence. Among the problems, one top-secret report noted, was that reconnaissance images “must be made up of a fantastically large number of bits of information—a number so large that there is not time enough to transmit all of these bits of information from satellites to earth.”
The KH-1 satellite series launched in 1976, though, solved that problem of sending back images captured with charge-coupled devices in real time. The Soviet Union succeeded in launching a similar platform six years later. For its part, China began launching its Fanhui Shi Weixing reconnaissance satellites in 1974.
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The electronic panopticon
Few inhabitants of our planet grasp the sheer scale of surveillance the technology has enabled. According to a European Union report as early as 2001, the Echelon surveillance system—operated by the so-called Five-Eyes Alliance of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada—was vacuuming gigantic volumes of electronic data using a global network of satellites, and subjecting it to searches. The scale and sophistication of the technology have increased massively, experts say.
Even though the technology has raised concerns of abuse by nation-states, there is a good case to be made that it has left the global system safer. The prospects of great powers being able to initiate wars by stealth, or developing secret military capabilities, has significantly diminished. The technology allows nation states to insulate themselves against surprise, and the ability to make informed assessments at times of crisis.
Lack of effective surveillance satellites, nation-states have discovered, can be lethal. The Russian offensive in Ukraine has been significantly damaged because the country has just two optical reconnaissance satellites, with a resolution of 50 centimetres per pixel—against just 5 centimetres per pixel in United States systems. Even commercial satellite systems typically have resolutions of 10-15 centimetres per pixel.
Even though China is investing in more sophisticated surveillance capabilities—with its new Gaofen series approaching the optical resolution of commercial Western satellites—the technology gap remains. Scholar Brian Weeden has noted China is also making ever-larger investments in counter-space technology, developing weapons that will allow it to destroy the satellites of adversaries in the event of war.
Failing to agree on the regulation of space, expert John Mecklin has observed, hurts the interests of nation-states themselves—and inexorably leads to weaponisation. The world needs to ensure the “final frontier of humankind does not also become its final battleground.”
The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)