How are spy balloons used today?

Matthew G. Yuching
How are spy balloons used today?
While modern satellites can capture images thousands of kilometers away in orbit, spy balloons allow close-up and detailed photos of the earth’s surface

MANILA, Philippines – The US military shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon on Saturday, February 4. After it drifted over the continental US for over a week, the balloon raised questions about how much information it gathered during its flight.

A similar incident happened in Pangasinan in December 2022, when an unidentified object was spotted over Pangasinan and Baguio. The Philippine military has not released a statement on the object, as of posting time.

What are the uses of these balloons today, in the era of satellites and planes?

Origins in warfare

Spy balloons trace their history back to blimps, a type of airship. Airships are built with a rigid frame inside, while blimps rely only on gas to keep their shape.

Its development can be traced back to the US during World War I, when a plane’s body, or fuselage, was attached to the blimp as a means of powering it. These were mainly used to patrol waters and escort ships.

During World War II, the Japanese made use of balloons designed to utilize jet stream air currents to drop incendiary bombs on US territory.

After the war, blimps were also designed as a means of private transport, but the idea never took off.

There are around 25 blimps in operation today, mainly only used as advertisement space.

History of spy balloons

The first recorded use of a spy balloon was during the French Battle of Fleurus in 1794, though it was noted not to have any strategic value at the time.

After World War II, the US military developed high-altitude spy balloons under Project Genetrix. The project was able to successfully fly balloons with cameras attached over Soviet bloc territory in the 1950s. 

The Soviets captured some of these balloons and made use of the film stored inside to take the first photos of the dark side of the moon.

One advantage of spy balloons is their capability to operate at much higher altitudes than conventional planes. These operate between 24,000-37,000 meters, only matched by powerful spy planes

While modern satellites can capture images thousands of kilometers away in orbit, spy balloons allow close-up and detailed photos of the earth’s surface.

Another advantage is its lower cost to produce, as well as its ability to spend a long time in one area.

These balloons are not steered, but take advantage of wind currents at different altitudes to roughly make their way to a target location.

The simple design of the balloons also makes them harder to track on radar. The Wall Street Journal reported that the balloon recently seen over the US was first reported by civilians on a commercial plane.

Airships over the Philippines

In 2017, the Philippines received a radar blimp from the US capable of weather and maritime surveillance. 

In a tweet, ImageSat reported a sighting of an airship-shaped object over Mischief Reef in November 2019. The airship is capable of continued surveillance over the West Philippine Sea, which continues to be hotly contested.

The unidentified object that flew over the country in December 2022 was suspected to be a Chinese airship, with its reflective and metallic features being similar to designs found online, according to the Eurasian Times. According to related documents, it is capable of missile detection, surveillance, and communication. –

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