What are spy balloons and why could they play a key role in the future of aerial reconnaissance? | American News

In an age when orbital satellites are so advanced they are able to distinguish objects half the size of cars from space, a spy balloon might seem like a bit of a relic.

They were a prominent reconnaissance tool during the Cold War and were even used in a more basic form for intelligence gathering during the Napoleonic Wars over 200 years ago.

But security experts say the balloons are just the ‘tip of a revolution’ in the development and use of new high-altitude surveillance gear, with the UK even investing millions in a development project of spy balloons last year.

Saturday, the United States shot down suspected Chinese spy balloon flying over its airspace.

A senior defense official previously said the US had ‘very high confidence’ that it was a high-altitude Chinese balloon and was flying over sensitive sites to gather information , while China did not immediately deny that the ball belonged to them.

The Pentagon acknowledged reports of a second balloon reportedly seen hovering over Latin America, saying, “We are now evaluating this to be another Chinese surveillance balloon.”

A high-altitude balloon floats over Billings, Montana

The sightings prompted US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone a high-level visit to China due to begin on Sunday, while the Pentagon accused Beijing of spying on sensitive military sites.

Beijing admitted the initial balloon had come from China, but insisted it was a ‘civilian airship’ that had strayed into US airspace and was intended for the meteorological research and other scientific research.

What are spy balloons?

The devices are lightweight balloons, filled with gas, usually helium, and attached to spy equipment such as a long-range camera.

They can be launched from the ground and are sent into the air where they can reach heights between 60,000 feet (18,000 m) and 150,000 feet (45,000 m), above the flight paths of commercial aircraft in an area known as “near space”. “.

Once in the air, they travel using a mixture of air currents and pockets of pressurized air, which can act as a form of direction.

Why are they still useful in the age of satellites?

According to defense and security analyst Professor Michael Clarke, the biggest advantage of spy balloons over satellites is that they can survey an area over a longer period of time.

Sky News' Defense Analyst, Professor Michael Clarke
Professor Michael Clarke

“The advantage is that they can stay in one place for a long time,” he told Sky News.

“Because of the way the Earth rotates, unless one satellite is over the equator, you need three to five satellites going all the time to track the same location.

“These balloons are also relatively cheap and much easier to launch than a satellite.”

Will balloons continue to be used for espionage in the future?

Absolutely, according to Professor Clarke.

Despite the wide use of satellite technology, countries like the UK are also focusing on the development and use of spy gear to operate in the upper atmosphere.

In August it was announced Department of Defense had struck a £100million deal with US defense firm Sierra Nevada to supply high-altitude unmanned balloons to be used for surveillance and reconnaissance.

Professor Clarke said: “(These balloons) are the cutting edge for passive aircraft in the upper atmosphere.”

He said other defense companies, such as BAE, were working on ultralight solar-powered drones capable of operating in the upper atmosphere and staying in place for up to 20 months.

Why is China using them now?

According to Professor Clarke, the use of these balloons, if indeed they were launched by China, would probably have been a message to the United States following its decision to open new military bases in the Philippines.

“I think it’s a challenge,” he said.

“They (China) are signaling that if the United States gets closer to them, they will be more aggressive in their surveillance.

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“It also poses a political problem in the United States now, because it will be seen as a sign of weakness not to bring it down.

“It causes some embarrassment, but the United States does not need to react.”

The balloon was spotted over Billings, Montana, Wednesday – near one of three US nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.

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Mao Ning, spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, said those involved should have a ‘cool head’

Military and defense leaders initially decided against shooting down the balloon due to the security risk of falling debris.

Professor Clarke added: “I think the debris problem is a bit of an excuse. It was over one of the least densely populated areas in the United States and if they needed it they would have could ask everyone to stay inside.

“I don’t think they wanted to make it a bigger issue because China is challenging them to take it down and make it an international issue.”


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