Monday, February 6, 2023

Surveillance balloons. There's THERE there, but some folks protest a little much

 Lots of drama these days about surveillance balloons after a China balloon sailed across our country and we shot it down.

And now there’s another China balloon over Latin America.

But a lot of the political furor over this is misplaced, or at least uninformed.

There’s a lot to the balloons story, and it’s an old, old tale. And to be clear, the United States has conducted balloon surveillance over both the Soviet Union and China since right after World War II. Many of those were shot down by the other guys. Here’s a technical report on that

It continues to this day, and there are lots of folks engaged in the inflatable wars.

A year ago, Hawai’i was in an uproar when a strange large balloon was spotted drifting off North Kauai, and eventually continued on to O’ahu. It was February 2022. Pacific Air Forces Public Affairs told me: "We are actively monitoring it via joint capabilities and it is under evaluation. In the event the unmanned balloon threatens the U.S. airspace or sovereignty or fails to demonstrate due regard for safety of flight, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command forces are postured to take necessary and appropriate actions in response."

It turned out it was one of two surveillance balloons developed by a company called Raven Aerostar. They had been launched from South Dakota and navigated to Hawaii by rising and falling to ride winds going in selected directions. (Which raises the interesting questions of whether, if we can control our balloons that well, the Chinese government is stretching the truth when it says it had little control over the route of its balloons.)

Raven Aerostar’s Hawai’i balloons supposedly couldn’t image the land below them, but they had others that could, and were used for surveillance and intelligence gathering by Google, NASA and the Air Force.  

But we do a lot of our own balloon work here in Hawai’i, including National Weather Service balloon launches. And big test balloons have also gone up from the Pacific Missile Range Facility at Barking Sands, Kaua’i.

Most balloon surveillance is domestic. It is governments—including ours—surveilling their own citizens or checking out the atmosphere for weather reporting, but they are also used for military purposes—and have been for more than 200 years since the French military established its air spying operations in 1794. (And the Chinese were launching flame-powered floating lanterns 2,000 years ago, but that’s a different thing.)

We launch dozens of weather balloons daily across the country. 

The U.S. Border Patrol has used blimps to keep watch on the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Israel ten years ago was using balloons—they were being called blimps—to allow police a bird’s eye view of domestic disturbances.

The Army calls its balloons system the Persistent Threat Detection System. 

China was using blimps to conduct, one presumes, spying operations in the South China Sea in 2019. 

The U.S. used lighter-than-air devices extensively in the Afghanistan war. 

Twenty years ago, Lockheed Martin had this report on balloons, which they called aerostats: “Using aerostats for surveillance purposes has a long history, from the use of hot-air balloons during the Civil War to the recent deployment of tethered air vehicles to monitor drug-running activity in the Caribbean.” 

Both the Confederate and Union armies used balloons for surveillance.

It’s not surprising that balloons are still being used in an age of satellites and drones: they’re low tech, they’re way cheaper than satellites, it doesn’t cost much if they get shot down or fail, and they stay aloft far longer than any powered aircraft that might operate at similar elevations—including drones.

So for folks with security clearances, whether in Congress or current or past administrations, to say they knew nothing about this balloon business. Well you might take that with a grain of salt. Or you might assume a little political positioning.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2023

No comments: