The United States has a defence budget of $1.90 trillion, China spent more than $200 billion on its military in 2021, and Russia, which is engaged in a deadly war with Ukraine, has a defence budget of $84 billion.
The three countries have cutting-edge armament, defence technology, and unmatched tactical agility. Nevertheless, for the past three weeks, these countries have been at odds over balloons.
After downing a Chinese surveillance balloon in the first week of February, the United States has suddenly noticed an increase in sightings of purported spy balloons above its mainland.
In the meantime, Russia has been waging war against Ukraine using a similar tactic, and there have been reports of nearly a dozen such surveillance balloons over Kyiv. Initial research suggested that the objects were wind-blown balloons that may have contained intelligence technology or reflectors. But why do these technologically sophisticated militaries still rely on balloons in the twenty-first century?
A TESTED AND PROVEN TECHNOLOGY
Since World War II, balloons have been used in combat, and what makes them unique is their ability to fly between 24,000 and 37,000 metres above the earth.
These massive structures existed even before the Wright brothers took their first flight in 1903. Since the first hydrogen gas-filled balloon sailed above Paris in 1783, these vehicles have evolved and been repurposed to meet a variety of needs.
Just after World war II ended, the US military began investigating the use of high-altitude spy balloons, which led to a large-scale series of missions known as Project Genetrix. In the 1950s, the initiative launched balloons above Soviet bloc territory for photography.
EFFECTIVE AND QUIET
The altitude at which these balloons fly is far above that of commercial air traffic.
In 2022, the Sanriku Balloon Centre (SBC) in northern Japan made history when it silently launched a balloon nearly 53 kilometres into space. The balloon would have crossed the Karmen line, which separates Earth and space, in 47 more kilometres.
The system of balloons that may be used for multiple purposes, including scientific research, analysing atmospheric composition, conducting aerial reconnaissance, and gathering intelligence, has been refined through time by a number of companies. The balloons have been upgraded for extended missions powered by solar energy as a result of technological advancements.
BELOW THE COST OF SURVEILLANCE SATELLITES
Despite its effectiveness, a surveillance satellite is difficult to launch. Satellites demand constant manpower as well as a continuous flow of financial resources from development to integration, to launch, to operations.
On the other hand, balloons are less expensive to create and maintain. Additionally, the turnaround time is substantially shortened. To prepare a launchpad for two consecutive missions, SpaceX needs around five days. In contrast, balloons can be launched with a smaller window, which makes them more affordable and practical.
ARE THEY BETTER THAN DRONES?
When it comes to military aerial surveillance, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have been one of the most successful breakthroughs. Yet, they have their own drawbacks when compared to these balloons. UAVs can fly at just 5,500 metres above the ground, whereas balloons may reach 37,000 metres.
Another advantage of these balloons is their peaceful approach in the air, as opposed to the drones’ humming. Drones, on the other hand, have a major edge in terms of firepower and the ability to drop heavy ammunition when needed.
As the art of warfare improves, balloons could provide a significant threat to countries as they sneak in from above, perform their business, and then silently vanish.
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