Spy balloon: A political football

Chuck Roberts

Balloons launched by adversaries over the United States are nothing new. In the Civil War, the Union Army launched manned, hydrogen-filled, observation (spy) balloons to keep tabs on the Confederate Forces. In World War II, the Japanese launched thousands of balloons carrying bombs which drifted toward the U.S. on the jet stream, arriving over the U.S. in a few days. When I was a teenager in Alaska in the mid 1950s, we were told that if we found a downed balloon bomb, not to touch it and call bomb disposal.

Fast forward to 2023 and a large balloon (about the size of three school buses) traversed the country. Hundreds of balloons traverse the country each day having been launched from research institutions, weather tracking operations and hobbyists. The unique aspect of this balloon was that it was huge and everyone could see it at 60,000 feet. The Chinese accepted ownership of the balloon but claimed it to be a weather balloon off course. It doesn’t take a genius to observe the several solar collectors and antenna suspended below the balloon to conclude that this was a surveillance device (spy balloon). Why it was allowed to traverse the United States is still unclear. It was detected leaving China and over international waters long before it reached North America. The joint chiefs said that it posed no threat. However, military doctrine considers any spy or spy device a threat. Espionage is punishable with sentences on the order of several years in federal prison. The suspended balloon’s electronics could be gathering data on signal transmission as well as photographic data at sensitive military sites that would be immediately transmitted to the People’s Republic of China. Militaries often develop a grid system which describes characteristics of an adversary’s military in various grid squares on a map, which is a possible product of the surveillance delivered by this balloon.

The administration was widely criticized for not shooting down the balloon as it entered United States’ air space. Shortly afterward, American fighter jets shot down additional flying “objects” over Canada. According to the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade (a hobby balloon club), they lost track of one of their balloons over Canada at nearly the same time and location of the fighter jet that reported shooting down an object the size of a car. Balloon clubs all over the country launch balloons with tracking devices (HF and VHF/UHF radio links) that report their location periodically. When super pressure balloons (a type of hobby balloon) are fully inflated at altitude, they can be as large as an automobile. One balloon stayed aloft for over 700 days and circled the globe many times. These balloons, if below a certain weight, are not required to be registered with the FAA. The cost of a typical hobby balloon and tracker is around $200. The current administration reported that it would be impossible to find the debris from one of the automobile-size objects that was shot down. This may be favorable to the current administration since the discovery of the target being a hobby balloon could prove embarrassing. One cannot rule out that the shooting down of these “small objects” may be an overreaction to criticism.

So what can be done about all this? Obviously large spy balloons should not be allowed to enter United States’ airspace. Better training for pilots on the identification of the myriad of balloons traversing the country may help identify friend or foe. Hobby balloons have tracking devices that transmit their location and identification as they travel around the globe. This data could be made available to the military. A registration number for visual identification could be affixed to a balloon like that which is required by the FAA on drones. Finally, a more cost-effective way to shoot holes in adversarial balloons should be used. A $400,000 Aim-9X sidewinder missile or a $200,000 practice missile is overkill for a $200 balloon.