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The paper discusses the processing of synthetic-aperture-radar (SAR) data from an optical perspective, with emphasis on real-time operations. To appreciate the problem of storing and processing the large quantity of data derived from recent, and projected, satellite-borne SAR missions a brief review of optical and digital techniques is presented. It is evident that there are still severe difficulties to be overcome in achieving real-time processing of satellite-borne SAR data with present digital electronic systems. In the paper several specific optical solutions to the data processing bottleneck are examined in detail, all are based on charge coupled devices (CCDs) configured to perform multichannel processing integrated with a variety of acoustooptic architectures. These systems have the potential to rival the performance of present digital electronic systems and offer substantial reductions in size, weight and power consumption. With future increases in SAR data throughput requirements in a wide range of applications it is argued that both present and future optical systems can offer a cost-effective processing facility which may complement digital electronic computers.