Flying objects how balloons have been used for military espionage

Flying objects: how balloons have been used for military espionage for over 2 centuries

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  • Author, Jo Adetunji*
  • Roll, The Conversation
  • February 13, 2023

    Updated 8 hours ago


A Chinese balloon was shot down over the Atlantic

One of the most surreal sights of the recent war in Afghanistan was captive balloons (also known as “aerostats”) hovering over bases of international forces.

These “permanent threat detection systems” carried an array of 360degree cameras that gave US “force protection” teams at the heavily guarded facilities a constant view up to 100 miles of the surrounding area.

The recent fourday saga of a Chinese spy balloon investigating US nuclear secrets is a reminder that older technologies are still being used and developed to have military effect.

Balloons have been used in military service longer than air forces as we know them today.

It was the brilliant French engineer JeanMarieJoseph Coutell (founder of the French Aerostatic Corps) who first demonstrated the potential of using a balloon to observe enemy positions.

In June 1794 he skimmed the Battle of Fleurus and reported on the Austrian positions, dropping from his captive balloon some messages describing the movements and positions while being fired upon unsuccessfully by somewhat surprised gunners.

But despite this success, Coutell’s team was disbanded in 1799 after the detachment went to Egypt with Napoleon, who failed to see the potential of this new weapon.

Balloons saw limited use in the American Civil War and the FrancoPrussian War. But in World War I, airships came to the fore.

The airships, the famous Zeppelins which by definition were motorized and steerable had a shortlived role as bombers.


US ships and divers are still searching for more debris from a crashed balloon off the coast of South Carolina.

However, the role of balloons on the battlefield had much more immediate consequences.

They provided relatively stable platforms high above the battlefield for observing and directing artillery fire at enemy positions.

The downside, of course, was that they were easily visible from the same enemy positions.

Every effort was made to shoot them down, making participating in balloon crews a remarkably dangerous task.

The size and difficulty of maneuvering balloons compared to powered aircraft, as well as the greater accuracy of antiaircraft guns, made them an impractical idea as artillery observation platforms in World War II.

But they did provide important, if lackluster, service in an air defense role, forming unmanned “barrages” particularly in Britain, where they were used in towns and around key targets.

The cables holding the balloons to the ground were deadly to lowflying aircraft, forcing planes to fly over or around them.

The presence of barrage balloons became a feature in German Luftwaffe surprise raids on the United Kingdom.

Slightly less effective was Japan’s attempt to terrorize the US population by sending thousands of balloon bombs (known as “FuGo” in Japanese) across the Americas.

Six people were killed in the state of Oregon the only casualties of hostile action inside the United States during that conflict.

Another major military use of balloons occurred during the Cold War, when hundreds of balloons were sent to spy on the Soviet Union as part of America’s “Moby Dick” project.


A photo posted to social media shows a balloon flying over Billings, Montana on February 1, 2023.

simple and effective

Balloons could appear as “unlikely” equipment for longrange reconnaissance, as China recently attempted.

They are only airshipable by changing altitude and using changing air currents to change direction.

Last week, a cleverly planned use of air currents and currents carried a surveillance balloon over the US military’s most sensitive element: the ICBM bases in Montana.

The US Department of Defense stated that “other instances of this type of balloon activity have been observed in previous years”.

China has denied the balloon was involved in surveillance activities, saying it was a “civilian airship” collecting meteorological data and went off course.

Despite their size and vulnerability, airships like this offer advantages over satellites and manned aircraft.

They are slow and can stay on a target much longer than a satellite flying by at orbital speed.

The cameras flying at 60,000 feet (or 20 km) can achieve higher resolution than those based on a 100 mile (160 km from the ground) orbit.

They are also cheaper than satellites, drones and manned aircraft, can carry large payloads and offer a less aggressive image.

Rather, they offer the possibility of plausible confidence—who would a mere hotair weather balloon threaten?

However, from the point of view of the military intelligence service, this mission should not have achieved much.

At the very least, the US took precautions to jam the balloon’s communications systems and cameras.

But it might have been useful to possibly convey a message, as if China were saying, ‘Here is this public dilemma for you. What do we do next?”

The balloon was eventually shot down in the Atlantic Ocean on February 4, recovered from the sea off the coast of South Carolina, and taken to the FBI lab in Quantico, Virginia, to be examined by military experts.

Ironically, the US could learn a lot more than China from this particular spy mission.

*Jo Adetunji is the Editor of The Conversation UK website.