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Balloons are a new weapon: the Pentagon came up with an unusual way to spy on Russia and China

The Pentagon is slowly transferring high-altitude balloon projects to military service, reports Political.

Photo: Shutterstock

The Pentagon is working on a new military plan to outdo competitors from China and Russia: balloons.

High-altitude inflatable aircraft flying at an altitude of 18 to 27 km will be added to the Pentagon's extensive surveillance network and could eventually be used to track hypersonic weapons.
This idea may sound like science fiction, but the Pentagon documents show the technology is moving from the Defense Department's scientific community to the military.

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“High-altitude and very-high-altitude platforms have a great advantage due to their on-station endurance, maneuverability, and flexibility for multiple payloads,” said Tom Karako, senior fellow at the International Security Program and director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Pentagon continues to invest in these projects because the military can use high-altitude inflatable aircraft for a variety of missions.

According to budget documents, the Pentagon has spent about $3,8 million over the past two years on inflatable aircraft projects and plans to spend $27,1 million in fiscal year 2023 to continue work on numerous projects.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is working on its own hypersonic weapons program despite the failure of the latest test on June 29th.

The important point for the US is that these air vehicles can help track and deter hypersonic weapons being developed by China and Russia.

In August, China surprised the Pentagon by testing a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile that narrowly missed its target by about 40 km.

Russia began ramping up development of hypersonic weapons in response to the US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. The Russian government said it launched a hypersonic missile in an attack on Ukraine in March, marking its first combat use.

This is one way airborne vehicles are used to supplement expensive satellites for tracking missiles. Teardrop balloons collect complex data and navigate using artificial intelligence algorithms.

invisible and useful

For years, the Department of Defense has conducted tests using high-altitude balloons and solar-powered drones to collect data, provide ground troops with communications, and troubleshoot satellites. The Pentagon discreetly transfers balloon designs to the military to collect data and relay information to aircraft, as POLITICO found in US Department of Defense budget justification documents.

In 2019, the Covert Long-Dwell Stratospheric Architecture (COLD STAR) project, designed to detect drug traffickers, was widely reported. At the time, the Pentagon launched 25 observation balloons from South Dakota as part of a demonstration.

The Pentagon has confirmed to POLITICO that the COLD STAR program has been taken over by the Department of Defense and does not disclose details of the effort because it is classified.

Another initiative aims to tie all technologies together. The Pentagon is holding demonstrations to evaluate how to use high-altitude balloons and commercial satellites in an attack known as the "kill chain."

“They can be carriers for any number of platforms, whether they be communication and data hubs, ISRs, tracking air and missile threats, or even various weapons – and without predictable satellite orbits,” Karako said.

The Department of Defense is also working on using drones equipped with "stratospheric payloads" along with balloons to track moving ground targets, provide communications and intercept electronic signals. The idea is that the technology will be transferred to the army and the US Special Operations Command, according to budget documents.

Finding other ways to track ground targets is a Pentagon priority as the Air Force retires spy planes.

Unusual hot air balloon

Raven Aerostar, a division of Raven Industries, manufactures aerial vehicles. Raven said they consist of a flight control unit powered by batteries that are charged using renewable solar panels. They also have an electronic payload package that controls flight safety, navigation and communications, Russell Van Der Werff, CTO of Raven Aerostar, said in an interview.

The wind currents allow the balloon to follow the desired flight path, and the company takes advantage of the different wind speeds and directions to move the aircraft to the desired area.

But that's not all. According to Van Der Werff, the Raven Aerostar uses a proprietary machine learning algorithm that predicts wind direction and combines incoming sensor data in real time. The company also uses software to pilot and monitor its fleet of aircraft, and has a mission control center staffed by trained flight engineers 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Balloons can complement the work done by traditional aircraft and satellites, and they can be built and launched with less cost and time. For example, the cost of launching and operating aircraft for weeks or months is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars compared to the millions or tens of millions required to launch and operate aircraft or satellites.

Not for the first time

NASA has been running helium-filled stratospheric balloons as far back as the 1950s, and in recent years the Army has been experimenting with these systems at lower altitudes.

The private sector is also investing in the balloon market. Alphabet deployed aerial vehicles in 2017 to provide mobile communications in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

In the mid-2010s, the Army was investing in a spy airship program, which it eventually canceled in 2017. This work is known as the Joint Surface Attack Cruise Missile Elevated Reticle Sensor System, or JLENS.

The airship was tethered, unlike high-altitude balloons, and is designed to track boats, ground vehicles, drones and cruise missiles. The balloons currently used by the Department of Defense are smaller, lighter and can fly significantly higher than a spy airship.

Beginning in 2015, the Army conducted a three-year exercise to determine whether to continue buying JLENS airships from Raytheon. But the airship pulled away from a dock near Baltimore, flew for three hours, and eventually landed near Moreland Township, Pennsylvania.

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The Army decided to abandon the program. The JLENS development cost nearly $2 billion and was intended to be deployed by US Central Command.

“If we just grow up and overcome our doubts about the JLENS event, airships, hot air balloons and hot air balloons can have a bright future,” Karako said.

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