U.S. military develops use of high-altitude balloons against hypersonic missiles
The U.S. military has a new weapon against China and Russia: hot air. The Pentagon is slowly transferring high-altitude balloon projects to military service.
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High-altitude inflatable aircraft flying between 60,000 and 90,000 feet will be added to the Pentagon's extensive surveillance network and could eventually be used to track hypersonic weapons.
As POLITICO says, this idea might sound like science fiction, but Pentagon budget documents show the technology is moving from the Department of Defense science community to the military.
“High-altitude and very-high-altitude platforms have a great advantage due to their on-station endurance, maneuverability, and flexibility for multiple payloads,” says Tom Caraco, senior fellow at the International Security Program and director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Training.
The Pentagon continues to invest in these projects because the military can use balloons for various missions.
The Pentagon has spent about $3.8 million on ballooning projects over the past two years, and plans to spend $27.1 million in fiscal 2023 to continue work on numerous projects, according to budget documents.
Meanwhile The Pentagon is working on its own hypersonic weapons program despite the failure of Wednesday's latest test.
The highlight for the US is that balloons can help track and deter hypersonic weapons being developed by China and Russia, POLITICO notes.
In August, China surprised the Pentagon by testing a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile. 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 had fired a hypersonic missile during the conflict in Ukraine in March, marking its first combat use, POLITICO claims.
One way the US military uses balloons is to supplement expensive satellites to track missiles. Teardrop balloons collect complex data and move using artificial intelligence algorithms.
For years, the US Department of Defense has been conducting tests using high-altitude balloons and solar-powered drones to collect data, provide ground troops with communications, and troubleshoot satellites. The Pentagon is discreetly transferring balloon designs to the military to collect data and relay information to aircraft, POLITICO found in DoD 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 capability demonstration.
The Pentagon confirmed to POLITICO that the COLD STAR program had transitioned to services. The Department of Defense does not release details about these efforts because they are 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 what is known as a “kill chain” attack.
“They can be trucks for any number of platforms, whether they be communications and data hubs, reconnaissance, tracking air and missile threats or even various weapons – and without predictable satellite orbits, ”says Tom Karako.
The Pentagon 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 for the technology to be transferred to the US Army and 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.
Raven Aerostar, a division of Raven Industries, manufactures hot air balloons. They reportedly 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, Raven Aerostar's CTO, said in an interview.
Wind currents keep the balloon on the desired flight path, and the company takes advantage of different wind speeds and directions to move the balloon to a given area.
But that's not all, POLITICO continues. 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 balloons, and has a flight control center staffed by trained flight engineers 24 hours a day, seven days a week, he added.
Balloons can complement the work done by traditional aircraft and satellites, and stratospheric balloons can be built and launched at less cost and time. For example, the cost of launching and operating balloons over weeks or months is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, compared to the millions or tens of millions required to launch and operate airplanes or satellites.
NASA launched helium-filled stratospheric balloons as early 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 balloons in 2017 to provide mobile connectivity to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria.
In the mid-2010s, the US Army invested in a spy airship program, which it eventually canceled in 2017. This work is known as the Joint Surface Attack Cruise Missile Elevated Network 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.
Starting in 2015, the Army conducted a three-year exercise to determine whether to continue buying JLENS airships from Raytheon company. But the airship blew off a dock near Baltimore, flew for three hours, and eventually landed near Moreland, Pennsylvania.
The Army decided to abandon the program. The development of JLENS cost almost $2 billion and was intended to be deployed in a region administered by the US Central Command.
“If we just grow up and overcome our doubts about the JLENS event, airships, balloons and balloons could have a bright future,” says Tom Karako.