Border Surveillance – Can Technology Help?

Author: Air Marshal Bharat Kumar, PVSM, AVSM (Retd)

Period: October 2003 - December 2003

Border Surveillance – Can Technology Help?

Air Marshal Bharat Kumar, PVSM, AVSM (Retd)

Brief Overview

Borders are considered to be sacrosanct and the safety of borders is the responsibility of every government and its armed and paramilitary forces. Everything must be done to ensure the country’s territorial integrity is not threatened and for that an utmost and constant vigil of country’s borders is required. Borders are essentially arbitrary creations and they neither necessarily follow physical features, nor are they always straight lines. Take the Indian example. We have nearly 5422 kilometres (km) of main coast line. There is nearly 3310 km of border with Pakistan and another 3917 km with China. We also have borders with Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The terrain on these borders varies from marshlands in the Kutch, deserts and its shifting sand dunes in Rajasthan, plain areas with a wide network of canals and rivers and man-made obstacles in the Punjab, snowbound rugged hilly terrain in the Jammu and Kashmir (J and K) with hill features at an average altitude of 12,000 feet and the famous Siachen Glacier where average altitude is 18,000 feet the great Himalayas in the North and the jungles along Myanmar, hilly tracts and rivers and rivulets all along Bangladesh. 

With this varied nature of terrain, we have various systems for surveillance of our borders and observation of activities across it. The coast is guarded by the Navy and the Coast Guard. They use ships, crafts and aircraft for this purpose. In addition, state police and the Border Security Force (BSF) take on the task of patrolling the coastline. On land, there are permanent border check posts and border observation posts. Some of these are manned round the year while others are manned when weather permits and when there is higher likelihood of infiltration. There is a system of patrolling using vehicles, animals like camels, and foot soldiers. Since the infiltrators still manage to come across, a system of obstacles like barbed wire fencing has been installed in some areas and some areas are mined when and where chances of conflicts are high. Fencing and obstacles deter but they do not always stop a determined infiltrator to get across. Aerial reconnaissance and satellite imagery are also used for surveillance of selected areas. In spite of all these measures, infiltration continues. It is just not possible to have a person posted every few metres to ensure that there are no gaps and not a soul can intrude into our territory. It is both impractical and extremely costly. When Pakistan announced in 2002 that there was no infiltration across the Line of Control (LOC) in spite of India’s allegations, there was no let up in infiltration across the LOC. The US authorities suggested use of various technological means to verify the exact situation. This idea did not find favour with the Indian military mainly because the terrain in J and K would not permit use of such technical devices. This lack of confidence could also be because these devices had not been tried out; the past experience of their use elsewhere had not been very encouraging.

The obvious question that arises is can technology help in border surveillance and, if so, to what extent? What are various tools for this purpose which are either already operational or are in the pipe line?

Types of Technologies

There are a number of technologies that can assist in border surveillance. These can be on board aerial or space platforms, or be ground based, and can be placed under water. Each has its own advantages as well as limitations and for maximum effect more than one technology may have to be used depending on terrain and the exact situation on ground.


Unattended Ground Sensors

The most important ground based technology for this purpose is the use of Unattended Ground Sensors (UGSs). These were first used during the Vietnam War. Since then, quite a bit of research has gone in development of sophisticated and advanced UGSs. These sensors utilise infra red (IR), sound, seismic, magnetic and other sensing methods to do their tasks and relay information to the control station mostly through satellites. 

There are also networked UGSs. In this network a cheap, low powered ‘tripwire sensor’ detects a possible ‘target’ and sends a warning message to other nearby sensors. These nearby sensors with more capabilities ‘wake up’ and use IR, sound, seismic, magnetic and other sensing methods to classify the target. A local hub acts as gateway, gathering information from nearby sensor clusters. The gateway then alerts other clusters and the force commanders. Further research is in progress in this field. 
The UGSs can be implanted in the enemy lines by aircraft, artillery shells and by hand placement. A need exists to deploy several UGS devices in the vicinity of one another to ensure continuous monitoring of detected targets. UGSs consist of a variety of sensor technologies that are packaged for deployment and perform the mission of remote target detection, location and/or recognition. 

Ideally, the UGSs need to be small, low cost and robust, and are expected to last in the field for extended periods of time. New power management techniques have made it possible for these sensors to have long on-task-life.

In order to support varied missions of UGS systems, robust and reliable communication links must provide timely message transmissions back to a command and control centre. Optimum performance of UGS systems is based on terrain, weather, and background noise estimates. How will they perform in the extremes of weather conditions and the terrain available in J and K and what would be the effect of their being covered by snow or sand can be gauged only by actual physical trials. It is presumed that this aspect must have been taken into consideration by the system designers. 

These devices could be used to perform various missions including perimeter defence, border patrol and surveillance, target acquisition, and situation awareness. Application of UGSs include detecting helicopters from their rotor noise; measuring local radiation levels; confirming presence of chemical and biological contaminants; meteorological observation and most importantly, detecting enemy movements. They are particularly useful in sensing intrusion into restricted areas. For example, Rafael’s Gamma 2000 system includes IR sensors which provide real-time imagery covering 15-km long perimeter. Other uses of UGSs are battlefield surveillance, target acquisition, night observation, battle damage assessment and electronic warfare. 

It will thus be seen that the UGSs have a great potential and need to be fully exploited. This is one technology which is relatively cheap and can pay rich dividends in border surveillance. 

Ground Surveillance Radars

Surface-based ground surveillance radars have been traditionally used to monitor forward edge of battle area and detect movements of enemy forces. These radars also have a role with forward observers. In this role, radar assists in target acquisition by registering and correcting the fall of shot from friendly artillery and mortar fire. As in the case of all radars, these operate on the principle of line of sight.

Elta and Thales are dominant manufacturers of these radars and the more prominent of these are Elta EL/M-2129 MDSR/Telephonics ARRS, Elta EL/M-2140NG AGSR, Thales (A) MSTAR, Thales BOR-550 and Thales SQUIRE. All these are pulse Doppler radars except for SQUIRE which is frequency modulated continuous radar. Operating in I and/or J band, the typical detection ranges for personnel vary between 10 to 15 km while for the vehicles these are between 20 and 30 km. Main battle tanks (MBTs) can be picked up at longer ranges. These radars can detect impact of artillery shells. Typical range for detecting impact of 155mm artillery shell is 15 km. 

There are also perimeter surveillance radar systems which can detect intruders up to 500 metres (m), but these have limited application in border surveillance.


Space and airborne technologies can assist the ground commanders in detecting activities along and across the border as well as for detecting infiltration. Some of these are described in subsequent paragraphs.


Satellites cannot provide imagery of the border in real time as their revisit rate varies from 24 hours to a few days. However, they operate non-obtrusively and can provide both electro-optical (E-O) and radar imagery of sub-metre resolution. E-O imagery can be executed only in good weather and during day light hours. The solution is to use IR or synthetic aperture radar (SAR) sensors. The latter can capture images of the earth through clouds, fog, haze, and darkness. However, resolution of the radar images is not as good as that of E-O images. Presently, most countries are using remote sensing satellites meant for earth observation for military purposes on as required basis. Our Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) series satellites are also used in a similar manner. 

Satellite imagery can provide a visual representation of the Earth. This representation can be combined with information from ground and aerial survey and models of border areas can be prepared. By using Global Positioning System (GPS) technology, a computer model can be prepared indicating position of armour, infantry and other information. This image can be fused with estimates of where enemy forces might be to present a picture of the battle. Information taken from satellites can be used to map out border areas in the same way. 

Further, satellite images can help border patrols keep track of what happens to an area over time. There would be certain activities taking place on either side of the border that one would like to monitor on a regular and periodic basis. The satellite could go over the same area on the required periodicity and take high-resolution images. In some cases where revisit period is high, a constellation of satellites can be used. The images can be taken from different angles if the situation so demands.

The latest information tool is the space based radar system. A system of space based radar constellation coupled with GPS will be able to provide round the clock surveillance of the area of interest. Thus it is possible to obtain images from satellites which may not be available through an aircraft as it may not be allowed to fly into the enemy territory.


The most important airborne application for border control is the use of surveillance aircraft using optical photography and SAR. With digitalisation of E-O photography, it is now possible to capture images other-than-visible wavelengths, such as IR, enabling day and night operations. Digitalisation also permits compression of large imagery data and its transmission in real time to the ground commander and other recipients and thus reduces sensor to shooter time. Unlike in the past, one does not have to wait for aircraft to land, time taken to develop films and preparation of prints. The airborne surveillance aircraft can operate on own side of the border without exposing itself to the enemy air defences. The SAR technology has been in use now for a number of years to detect mobile and fleeting target systems with E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Systems Radar (J-Star) being the most prominent platform. 

Defence Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) of the United States has developed a highly successful programme called Affordable Moving Surface Target Engagement (AMSTE). This is a networked target approach to find and follow in real time and all weather moving targets trying to evade detection and thereafter destroy them with relatively cheap satellite-guided bomb or glide weapon – all from stand-off ranges beyond the reach of most air defence systems. The AMSTE concept uses multiple ground-moving target indication (GMTI) radars on J-Star. These GMTI radars can look deep into hostile territory from standoff positions and can detect convoys and vehicles moving on ground over long distances. AMSTE fuses data from a number of GMTI sensors. The programme has been able to produce terminal accuracy of 10 m or less and has been able to track moving targets. Actual trials have indicated very high success rate in tracking and destruction of mobile targets. 

Visual reconnaissance from helicopters and fixed wing aircraft has been in use ever since aircraft came into being and this form of reconnaissance continues even today. The main limitations are the capability of human mind to absorb all the information and its dependence on good visibility.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

The other platforms that can be used are the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). An UAV flies automatically between points and at high altitude is difficult to be located. Once there is intelligence that there is a force coming from a certain direction, all one has to do is put in the coordinates to show the area. The UAVs will thereafter give real-time image by day and night. 

Normally video imagery is used by the UAVs but this does not permit determining GPS coordinates, thus preventing the use of pre-programmed Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs). This shortfall will be overcome by use of laser ranging and high accuracy inertial navigation systems, wherein the target location will be calculated directly from measurement of the camera location and altitude and the range of the target. This system, called direct geo-referencing is expensive and is some years away from becoming operational. 

The other problems with the UAVs are the initial cost and the poor flight safety record but these are bound to improve as more experience is gained and the economies of scale are available. 

The experience in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo and during Operation Prakram shows that the UAVs with their E-O and SAR with moving target indicator (MTI) payloads will have a significant role in border surveillance as well as in signals intelligence (SIGINT) tasks. The potential of UAVs can be assessed from the fact that the SAR system onboard Global Hawk UAV scans from either side of the vehicle to obtain 10 km swath-width radar images with 1 metre resolution in the wide-area search mode, 0.3 m (1 foot) resolution in the spot mode and 4-knot minimum detectable vehicle velocity in the MTI mode – all from ranges greater than 250 km from the target area. Global Hawk can operate at high altitude for 35 hours continuously without aerial refueling and can be used to cover wide areas. If a specific area needs to be investigated by the personnel who are on the border either at static locations or on patrol, they can utilise tactical and mini UAVs for this task.


One of the cheapest methods for continuous observation of area of interest is the use of aerostats. For instance, Lockheed Martin’s Tethered Aerostat Radar System is a balloon-borne radar system that the US federal agencies use for drug interdiction and which could also potentially be used for other kinds of border patrol missions. The biggest advantage of the system is the cost of acquisition as well as that of operation. An aerostat can stay aloft for weeks at a time at very nominal cost and a fraction of operating cost of an aircraft on a similar mission.

An aerostat equipped with a surveillance system like the Lockheed L88 radar can observe over a radius of around 200 nautical miles. The system could be deployed in areas of armed conflict to get a good picture of the ground. The problem with aerostats is their limitation of operating in high wind conditions and a tendency to break tether in hilly terrain like that of J and K. Another example of the system is Elta of Israel displayed at the recent Paris Air Show. The high altitude surveillance aerostat was equipped with long range movement detection radar. In this system targets are displayed in the ground based command post, but only in the predetermined areas of interest, thus making the monitoring task that much easier. 

High Altitude Airships 

A system that is immune to wind and weather and can stay in the air almost indefinitely and that too outside the range of most air defence weapons including manned aircraft is the helium filled high altitude airship (HAA). The US Missile Defence Agency (MDA) has awarded a contract to Lockheed Martin and StratCom International as well as the Aeros Company for development of the HAA Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD) programme. There are a number of other companies like the UK’s Advance Technology Group with its StratSat programme working on a similar concept. All these firms are trying to construct a prototype cum production HAA that would operate at about 70,000 feet in a geostationary position by 2005-2006. 

According to the manufacturers, the HAA can be manoeuvered and repositioned if the situation so demands. It will have a payload of 4,000 pounds though the bigger version of the airship will have capability to lift 20,000 pounds. Surveillance coverage extends over the horizon and it monitors a diametric surface area of over 775 statute miles. The sensors could be E-O, SAR, millimetric radar etc. The system could be brought down to lower altitudes if the demands for higher resolution so dictate. One or two such systems would provide adequate round the clock cover of the most areas of interest. The extent of coverage of the airship 

sensors can be gauged from the fact that mere 11 of these HAAs would provide overlapping radar coverage of all maritime and southern border approaches to the continental US.


Sea borders are as important as the land borders and their surveillance also needs as much attention. Some of the technologies described above can be used equally effectively at sea as well. Needless to say that there have to be conventional patrols for detection of hostile vessels and Marine Security and Safety Teams (MSSTs) to tackle them and technology can only assist and augment their effort.

As in the air, there is the problem of identification of various vessels. This problem becomes a nightmare when one is confronted with large number of ships, pleasure boats and fishing vessels near the coast. There are two systems that have been developed to meet this challenge at least in peace time. First of these is Automated Information System (AIS) in the US that uses satellite-tracking devices to automatically broadcast identity of ships and their position. Presently the system is mandated for ships over 300 gross tons. Vessels entering the US waters are required to inform their details at least 96 hours in advance to help the system keep track of the shipping. 

For keeping track of smaller vessels and boats, there is radar but while it can see all, it has problem sorting out each one of them. One system that can perhaps help is a radar system that was originally developed by Canada and now being tested by the US Coast Guard. This radar system can detect fast boats, fishing boats, large support vessels up to a distance of 200 nautical miles and stores their movement pattern for the previous 24 hours and passes information to the concerned agencies for them to take a decision whether a patrol boat or aircraft needs to be dispatched for closer scrutiny of the track. By tracking movement over time, suspicious vessels can be identified. The system is akin to the identification friend or foe (IFF).

A lot of work has gone in for providing security to the ports and offshore rigs. For example there are remotely operated underwater vehicles with cameras that are used to inspect the subsurface areas of vessel hulls or facilities within a port area. MSSTs use thermal imaging and night vision technologies to guard and inspect facilities in the port areas. To detect the presence of swimmers and divers within security zones, an automated underwater system using sonar technology has been successfully tested in the US. The software is such that it can differentiate people from marine life and other objects in the water.


Technology can assist in the task of border surveillance. One does not know what resources the Americans have deployed along the US-Mexican border. They have not been able to stop smuggling and illegal immigration. As any person involved in counter insurgency operation will tell you that there is no substitute for actual troops patrolling the border areas and manning vital posts. Technology cannot replace the patrolling soldiers or policemen. Man is the most lethal weapon and the most advanced sensor on the battlefield. We must put man in the arena to employ technology as an extension of his natural senses. We must give him a new set of eyes with which to see the enemy in all types of weather and in all conflict environments. Only man can look at all available information and make an informed decision as to whether a target has been destroyed or is, in fact, a legitimate target and not a decoy. In other words, the better informed the soldiers on patrols are, the better they would be able to complete the mission. 

Needless to say there are other ways in which technology is assisting and can assist soldiers in this difficult task. For observation during the period of darkness and adverse weather, there are sophisticated night vision devices and thermal imaging albeit with limited ranges. The detection ranges of this system are claimed to be 500 m for personnel and 1,000 m for vehicles. Another problem that the soldiers face in such hostile terrain is that of navigation. Hand held GPS receivers both for navigation as well as for passing target coordinates have solved this problem. Another technological asset which is absolutely essential for survival and quick reaction is fail safe secure communication which modern technological advances can provide in rugged and miniaturised form. Technology is also there to help in the form of lighter and more effective personal weapons, lighter and more effective clothing to protect one from weather as well as enemy’s fire, and specially prepared and packed food that can be carried by the soldier and preserved for weeks and months at a time.

Border control is difficult but an essential task. It is boring, routine and fatiguing but one can not afford to let one’s guard down. This task has to be done both in peace and war. The technologies are there to assist soldiers in performing these tasks efficiently and without too many casualties. Technology does not come free. Equipment will cost a hefty package. The question is whether the countries are willing to invest for better border control?


Air Marshal Bharat Kumar, PVSM, AVSM is a former Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Southern Air Command.


USI-ICWA UN Webinar Challenges of Mission Leadership in UN Peace Operations

USI is conducting a series of webinars on the UN themes in collaboration with ICWA Since 2021, for the cross-fertilization of ideas and generating policy recommendations for reforms and restructuring …

War Disabled Personnel of Indian Armed Forces: Challenges, Concerns and Aspirations

Soldiers/Sailors/Airmen sacrifice their lives & limbs for many reasons, like national, regimental and unit pride; high level of motivation; courage; call of duty; and above all the understanding that …

Major Navdeep Singh: USI War Wounded Foundation Event

Talk by Maj Navdeep Singh, Author and Legal Luminary Need for Formulating a ‘War Disabled Persons Special Disability (WDPSD’s) Act’ for War Disabled Personnel and its Important Components.

38th USI National Security Lecture

The 38th USI National Security Lecture was delivered by Lt Gen Raj Shukla, PVSM, YSM, SM, ADC on Wednesday, 13 April 2022 at 1100 h (IST) at the United Service Institution of India. 37th National Se…

'Is The New Cold War a Myth or Reality'?

A talk on 'Is The New Cold War a Myth or Reality'? by Mr Atul Singh, Founder, CEO & Editor-in-Chief Fair Observer, USA scheduled at the USI, New Delhi on Wednesday, 23 Feb 2022 from 1100 to 1300 H (I…

UN Peace Operations: Women, Peace and Security

Along with the decline in inter-state conflicts and a sharp increase in intra-state conflicts in the last two decades, there is a consequent increase in the casualties to innocent civilians. Taking no…

National Security Policy of Pakistan (NSPP) 2022-2026

USI is conducting a panel discussion on the ‘National Security Policy of Pakistan (NSPP) 2022-2026’ on 07 Feb 2022 from 1100 h to 1300 h.

FRONTLINE COMMANDER: The Military Biography of the Late Lt Gen Jaswant Singh, PVSM, AVSM


37th National Security Lecture: The Chinese Challenge - Its Many Dimensions and India's Options

Shri Maroof Raza, a well know commentator on strategic security and military issues will deliver the lecture on 24 Nov 2021 at 1100 hrs at the USI. The focus of the talk will be the geo-strategic as w…

Indian Military Operations Mukti Bahini & the BSF Salient Factors in the Liberation of Bangladesh

Shri VK Gaur and Lt Col BB Singh with Dr Sanjeev Chopra (based on VK Gaur’s book Yoon Janma Bangladesh) Chair: LS Bajpai

Naval Operations Beyond Naval Blockade Valley of Words 2021

Sandeep Unnithan in conversation with Admiral Anup Singh - Valley of Words 2021.

Air Operations Experience of First Heliborne Operation Valley of Words 2021 1080p

Sqn Ldr Rana Chinna in conversation with Sqn Ldr Pushp Vaid, VrC

Air Operations Air War in the West Valley of Words 2021 1080p

AVM Manmohan Bahadur in conversation with Jagan Mohan (Unheralded operations by Vampires, 'Texan' Harvard, Canberras and An-12)

Stories of Valour Narration of stories of valour by Maroof Raza Valley of Words 2021

Narration of stories of valour by Maroof Raza. Maroof Raza talks of forthcoming book The Contested Lands (India-China border dispute) - Valley of Words 2021

Managing Future Conflicts Role of World and Regional Fora Valley of Words 2021

Ambassador Asoke Mukerji and Maj Gen Dhruv Katoch Moderator: Lt Gen JS Lidder original video can be accessed from:…

Perceptions India’s Compulsions and Outlook on East Pakistan Objectives and Strategy

Shri Iqbal Malhotra in conversation with Lt Gen Nirbhay Sharma and Maj Gen Ian Cardozo - Valley of Words 2021

Perceptions Western Pakistan’s Designs on East Pakistan Campaign, Objectives and Strategy

Lt Gen PJS Pannu in conversation with Christine Fair and Ambassador Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty

Contribution of Indian Cinema in Infusing Patriotism Valley of Words 2021

Lt Gen PJS Pannu and Maroof Raza in conversation with Shri JP Dutta (producer, director, filmmaker) and Nomination of Bollywood film Border on 1971 War. Original video can be accessed from: https://w…

Diplomacy and Statecraft Perceptions Information and Media Operations Valley of Words 2021

Lt Gen PJS Pannu in conversation with Sir Mark Tully, Subroto Chattopadhyay and Vishnu Shankar (Editor, TV9 Network) Original video can be accessed from :…

USI- FO Live: Evolving Geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific Region

The United Service Institution of India (USI) and Fair Observer present a panel discussion on the evolving geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific region. Lately, the AUKUS Deal has added another twist to th…

𝐒𝐓𝐑𝐈𝐕𝐄 𝐖𝐞𝐛𝐢𝐧𝐚𝐫 on Buyout Sino Pak Collusivity Implications For India Maj

STRIVE a Lucknow based National and Defence Security Studies Centre organised a Webinar in collaboration with Military Literature Festival, Lucknow on a highly sensitive and contemporary issue the “B…

Can India and Pakistan Take Steps Towards Rapprochement

In this episode Major General BK Sharma (Director - United Service Institution of India) and Lt. General Asad Durrani (Former Director General ISI, Pakistan talks with Analyst Arvind Saharan on Indi…

𝗨𝗡 𝗣𝗲𝗮𝗰𝗲𝗸𝗲𝗲𝗽𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗢𝗽𝗲𝗿𝗮𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻𝘀: 𝗣𝗿𝗼𝘁𝗲𝗰𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻 𝗼𝗳 𝗖𝗶𝘃𝗶𝗹𝗶𝗮𝗻𝘀

Over the past few decades, inter-state conflicts waned but there has been an increase in Intra-state conflicts. In any conflict, the innocent civilians are the ones who suffer the most. But the suffer…

Valedictory Address by CDS General Bipin Rawat PVSM UYSM AVSM YSM SM VSM ADC

Valedictory Address by CDS General Bipin Rawat PVSM UYSM AVSM YSM SM VSM ADC The original video of the event can be accessed on the VoW youtube channel:…

Managing Future Conflicts Deterrence and Conflict Prevention: Valley of Words 2021

Major General Dhruv C Katoch, SM, VSM (Retd) in conversation Lieutenant General JS Lidder, UYSM, AVSM (Retd), Ambassador Asoke Mukerji, Shri Arvind Gupta and Lt Gen Prakash Menon PVSM, AVSM, VSM [Retd…


close slider

    All classes of membership except temporary membership and membership of Service Officers applying for Correspondence Courses being conducted by the USI, will be subject to approval by the Executive Committee. The following are ordinarily eligible to become members of the Institution, with full voting rights:-

    Read More