The Pentagon is investing tens of millions of dollars into high-altitude balloons that it intends to use for surveillance. The balloons are hoped to fly twice as high as most commercial aircraft and may be used one day soon to locate and track China’s hypersonic weapons.
Though the move may sound like the plot of a retro science fiction flick, the high-altitude assets are likely to be quite high-tech. Indeed, while the altitude ceiling for commercial aircraft is around 43,000 feet, and that of the U.S. Reaper drone around 50,000 feet, the DoD’s new inflatable eyes in the sky are anticipated to reach heights of as great as 90,000 feet, according to a new report by Politico.
Pentagon budget documents show that the technology is moving from DoD’s scientific community to military service, the report said. The DoD only spent $3.8 million on the projects over the last two years but was ratcheting up funding for 2023 up to $27.1 million.
The report said 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, according to the report and will supplement work that has up until now been performed by aircraft or satellites. 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 to navigate the skies while compiling complex data and are 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.
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, 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.