BLUF

High-tech high-altitude balloons could enhance military capability and provide a force multiplier for existing weapon systems.

Summary

Long-range weapons need accurate targeting to be effective. Therefore, developments in experimental stratospheric balloons could be a force multiplier. Key points:
  • Low cost and cheaper to replace than aircraft.
  • Can go undetected by enemy air defences.
  • Particularly useful for regions that need persistent observation.
  • It can be used to seed areas behind enemy lines with thousands of tiny radio-frequency sensors to map enemy positions through electronic signals, including radio waves and wi-fi.
  • Allows precision strikes.
  • Difficult to destroy.
  • Could be used to release swarms of drones or flying circuit boards
  • Undertakes missions aircraft can’t.
  • Operates at 60,000 - 80,000 feet, far above typical aircraft flight paths.
  • Integrated sensors threaten the drug trade and smuggling.
  • Able to stay on station for days, instead of about 20 hours with a Global Hawk.
  • Compliments Low Earth orbit satellites (100-1,200 miles height) offer limited coverage.
  • Stratollites are being developed for the Pentagon and NASA.
  • Gondolas carry daylight and thermal cameras, radar, radio frequency sensors, and solar panels.
  • Able to change altitude, catch winds, and maintain position for up to four days.
  • Needs rugged electronics to withstand extreme temperatures in space-like conditions.
  • Gondolas that eliminate straight lines and sharp corners can evade radar.
  • Following Hurricane Maria in 2017, Google used balloons for internet access for around 100,000 people.
  • COvert Long Dwell STratospheric ARchitecture balloons use autonomous navigation, high fidelity sensors, and onboard AI.
Historical wartime use of balloons
  • Spotted for the artillery in the US Civil War.
  • WW 2 Japanese ‘Fu-go’ balloons carrying incendiary bombs unsuccessful tried to start forest fires in America.
  • In the Cold War (before satellites), the USAF used spy balloons disguised as weather balloons over the Soviet Union.