Explained: High-altitude spy balloons – old concept, new applications

Explained: High-Altitude Spy Balloons – Old Concept, New Applications Explained: High-Altitude Spy Balloons – Old Concept, New Applications
Photo: PA Images
Share this article

The US has identified and continues to monitor a Chinese "surveillance balloon" which has been flying over the United States for several days.

Using high-altitude balloons for spying and other military missions is a practice that dates to the middle of the last century.

Here's a look at how these devices operate and what they can be used for...

During World War Two, the Japanese military tried to loft incendiary bombs into US territory using balloons designed to float in jet stream air currents. No military targets were damaged, but several civilians were killed when one of the balloons crashed in an Oregon forest.

Just after World War Two, the US military started exploring the use of high-altitude spy balloons, which led to a large-scale series of missions called Project Genetrix. The project flew photographic balloons over Soviet bloc territory in the 1950s, according to government documents.


Such balloons typically operate at 80,000-120,000 feet (24,000-37,000 meters), well above where commercial air traffic flies - airliners almost never fly higher than 40,000 feet. The highest-performing fighter aircraft typically do not operate above 65,000 feet, although spy planes such as the U-2 have a service ceiling of 80,000 feet or more.

The advantages of balloons over satellites include the ability to scan wide swathes of territory from closer in, and to be able to spend more time over a target area, according to a 2009 report to the US Air Force's Air Command and Staff College.

Unlike satellites, which require space launchers that cost hundreds of millions of dollars, balloons can be launched cheaply.

The balloons are not directly steered, but can be roughly guided to a target area by changing altitudes to catch different wind currents, according to a 2005 study for the Air Force's Airpower Research Institute.

The US military has tracked other spy balloons in recent years, including before US president Joe Biden's administration, according to a senior US defence official. -Reporting by Reuters

Read More

Want us to email you top stories each lunch time?

Download our Apps
© BreakingNews.ie 2023, developed by Square1 and powered by PublisherPlus.com