By Emre Basaran
ISTANBUL (AA) - The Pentagon said in a statement on Friday that a suspected Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon was spotted over the continental United States, which brought to mind an obvious question: Why did Beijing resort to using such an outdated way of spying?
After all, it’s 2023 and the sky is brimming with spy satellites that global powers use to peek on each other. Nevertheless, there is a solid reason why China decided to resurrect the World War II relic.
Spy balloons are typically constructed by suspending a camera beneath a balloon. The equipment – which may include radar systems and can be solar-powered – is then sent to hover above a predetermined area and is carried by the wind.
Spy balloons usually operate at altitudes of between 24,000 and 37,000 meters (78,740 to 121,391 feet), which does not pose any risk to commercial air traffic, as airliners almost never fly higher than 12,000 meters (39,370 feet), while top-notch warplanes do not operate above 20,000 meters (65,617 feet), even though some spy aircraft such as the U-2 can hover around 24,000 meters.
So, there is no actual risk of being detected by or crashing against other flying objects when a country decides to employ a spy balloon. And the reason for doing so are the facts that modern kinetic weapons and lasers can be very effective in thwarting espionage by spy satellites, while spy balloons are much cheaper to launch and much easier to retrieve.
Being a relic from the past also has drawbacks too, of course. Spy balloons typically do not offer the same level of persistent and stable surveillance as satellites.
But the mere fact that a spy satellite needs a space launcher – which usually costs in the ballpark of hundreds of millions of dollars – can be enough for a country to opt for a spy balloon and risk being called a throwback.
In addition, spy balloons can scan vast areas from a closer altitude than satellites and can spend more time hovering over a zone determined beforehand. Another disadvantage for the balloons is that they cannot be directly steered, although they can be roughly guided by changing their altitude to make use of different wind currents.
- History of spy balloons
Spy balloons are a surprisingly old technology considering that they continue to be actively used in the 21st century.
The use of balloons for military purposes dates back to the third century A.D., when Han dynasty Chancellor Zhuge Liang (Kongming) was surrounded by Wei dynasty Gen. Sima Yi at Pinlo, situated in the Sichuan province of modern-day China. Zhuge Liang used paper-made "lanterns," or hot air balloons, to signal the rescue forces.
But the first decisive use of a balloon for aerial warfare did not happen until the late 18th century. At the Battle of Fleurus in 1794, the French Aerostatic Corps used the aerostat – a type of a “lighter-than-air” aircraft – called l’Entreprenant.
The following year, an observation balloon was employed again, this time during the Siege of Mainz.
In 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte considered invading England by landing troops transported by balloon, but the plan was never put in practice due to unpredictable winds over the English Channel.
Fifty-five years later, the French went to war against the Austrians using observation balloons, which contributed to Napoleon III’s victory over Franz Joseph. Aerial reconnaissance balloons were also used by the French in 1870 during the Siege of Paris and the Franco-Prussian War.
On the other hand, the first use of balloons for espionage purposes dates back to the American Civil War of 1861-1865. Back then, the North led by President Abraham Lincoln employed hot-air balloons carrying troops trying to gather information – through the use of binoculars – about Confederate activity from further away. They would usually send back gathered information about the Rebels using Morse code.
World War I also saw the military use of observation balloons, which were extensively employed by both alliances.
During World War II, the Japanese military tried to send bombs into American territory using balloons specifically designed for use in jet stream air currents.
The Soviet Army also employed observation balloons during the war. Eight "Aeronautical Sections" were in place, while nearly 20,000 observation flights were performed by Red Army balloonists during the war.
Right after the war, the US military also began working on using spy balloons at high altitudes.
The efforts, which later led to a large-scale series of missions called Project Genetrix, saw photographic balloons being flown over the territory of the USSR in the 1950s.
Since the inception of the satellites, spy balloons were rendered largely obsolete but as counter-espionage technology also advances, it seems like this piece old tech will remain relevant for years to come.