Pentagon Spending Millions on High-Altitude Spy Balloons

A U.S. Border Patrol Aerostat hot-air surveillance balloon flies near the Rio Grande at the U.S.–Mexico border in La Joya, Texas, on Aug. 18, 2016. (John Moore/Getty Images)

The Pentagon is investing tens of millions of dollars into high-altitude balloons that it intends to use for surveillance. It’s anticipated that the balloons will fly twice as high as most commercial aircraft and may be used one day soon to locate and track China’s hypersonic weapons.

The high-altitude assets are likely to be quite high-tech. While the altitude ceiling for commercial aircraft is about 43,000 feet and that of the U.S. Reaper drone is roughly 50,000 feet, the Department of Defense’s (DOD) new inflatable surveillance balloons are expected to reach heights as great as 90,000 feet, according to a  new report by Politico.

Pentagon budget documents show that the technology is moving from the DOD’s scientific community to military service, according to the report. The DOD only spent $3.8 million on the projects over the past two years but is increasing funding for 2023 by up to $27.1 million.

The report states that investment in the projects reflected the adaptability of such aircraft to various military missions and that the balloons would be integrated within the military’s extensive surveillance network. One key way that the balloons could be useful is in providing a cost-effective means of augmenting otherwise expensive satellites that track missiles the world over, particularly the growing hypersonic arsenals of China and Russia.

Cost-Effective But State-of-the-Art

The high-altitude surveillance balloons are to be produced by Raven Aerostar and will supplement work that has up until now been performed by aircraft or satellites, according to the report. The move is well aligned with an overall shift in U.S. spending strategy concerning airborne and spaceborne technologies, which the nation’s military is currently trying to augment with more cost-effective commercial-first technologies.

The state-of-the-art balloons are solar-powered and use artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI-ML) to navigate the skies while compiling complex data, and they’re likely to be piloted remotely by full-time flight engineers at a missions operation center. The AI-ML package allows the balloon to adequately navigate along its desired flight path by adjusting to wind in real-time.

The DOD has conducted tests using high-altitude balloons and solar-powered drones to collect data for many years, and such technologies provide ground forces with communication services when satellite services are otherwise unavailable. Notably, the DOD previously deployed 25 surveillance balloons in 2019 as part of a covert mission to uncover drug trafficking. Now the technology will be transitioned across the various services of the military.


Andrew Thornebrooke is a reporter for The Epoch Times covering China-related issues with a focus on defense, military affairs, and national security. He holds a master’s in military history from Norwich University.

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