US to use ‘century-old’ technology against Chinese hypersonic missiles; Can also help satellites monitor Mach 5+ weapons

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The US military is keen to expand its communications and surveillance network to meet the challenge of an aggressive enemy and its growing military power. The Pentagon is therefore ready to use high-altitude hot air balloons to deter its main adversary, China.

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The high-altitude inflatables, added to the Pentagon’s massive surveillance network, will fly between 60,000 and 90,000 feet in the air. The Pentagon intends to spend more than ten times more on balloon projects in the coming fiscal year than in the previous two years combined, according to budget records reviewed by Politico.

According to budget documents, the Pentagon has spent about $3.8 million on balloon projects over the past two years. It intends to spend up to $27.1 million in fiscal year 2023 to continue work on several initiatives.

In 2020, the US military began to seriously consider the idea as an effective and relatively inexpensive mode of surveillance. The Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command was impressed with the high-altitude balloon tests and experiments conducted at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

A high-altitude balloon made by Raven Aerostar – US Army

“It’s just phenomenal what we’re able to do with high-altitude balloons,” Lt. Gen. Daniel Karbler told Defense News in an interview. “I don’t have the cost analysis but, in my mind, pennies on every dollar to do it.

Suppose I had to do it via a [low-Earth orbit] or a constellation of satellites, which we can provide with high-altitude balloons. In this case, it is tactically reactive support to the combatant,” he added.

If integrated into the military, balloons have the potential to augment the current network of US military aerospace assets that support multi-domain operations. Although previously only able to drift with the wind, these balloons are inexpensive and can stay in the air for a long time.

The difficulty has traditionally been creating sensors, algorithms and software that can consistently and accurately navigate the winds.

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A swarm of drones (via Twitter)

Earlier media reports had also indicated that the U.S. military planned to build a network of high-altitude balloons that could deliver swarms of unmanned aircraft over enemy-controlled territory, including aircraft equipped with vagrancy weapons or “suicide drones”. However, these high-altitude balloons can serve even more critical purposes.

Currently, high altitude balloons are manufactured by Raven Aerostar. They include a flight control unit powered by batteries recharged by renewable solar panels. In addition, they contain payload electronics that regulate communications, navigation and flight safety, according to Russell Van Der Werff, director of engineering at Raven Aerostar.

The organization uses the speed and direction of the wind to send the ball to the intended place. Wind currents allow the balloon to float along the specified flight path. According to Werff, the company uses a custom machine learning system to predict wind directions and combine data from incoming sensors in real time.

Balloons can supplement the work done by conventional aircraft and satellites, and stratospheric balloons can be produced and launched quickly and inexpensively. This is potentially the technology the US military intends to adopt – in a similar way, if not the same way.

Interception of hypersonic missiles?

According to the Politico report, these high-altitude inflatables can aid in the interception of hypersonic weapons and could help augment expensive satellites in tracking hypersonic missiles.

These teardrop-shaped balloons collect complex data and navigate using AI algorithms.

Even if the United States funds research and development for an anti-hypersonic missile defense system, it could be a few years before the military has a working system. Unlike its adversaries, China and Russia, the United States does not have an operational hypersonic weapon either.

UK-hypersonic

In March 2023, two prototype interoperable satellites will be launched by the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) in conjunction with the US Space Force and the Space Development Agency, as previously briefed by Vice Admiral Jon A. Hill, director of MDA.

Hill said it would be a new and important capability in hypersonic defense if effective. These satellites would collect sensor tracking data to ensure that weak targets, such as cruise missiles, could be located from space.

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Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor satellites will provide continuous tracking and transfer to enable targeting of enemy missiles launched from land, sea or air.

The satellites would collect surveillance data from sensors to ensure that dark targets like hypersonic cruise missiles could be located from space. If successful, this would be a new and important capability in hypersonic defense. Perhaps this is what the high-altitude balloon would help collect sensor data.

Space defenses could target satellites that are essential components of the so-called hypersonic weapons “kill chain”, including all elements, individuals and procedures involved in launching missiles and guiding them to their targets.

Balloons are a work in progress

For years, the DoD has been testing the use of solar-powered drones and high-altitude balloons to gather information, provide communications to ground forces, and troubleshoot satellite problems. The Pentagon quietly entrusts the balloon projects to the military services to collect data and send information to the planes.

In 2019, there was a lot of coverage on the Covert Long-Dwell Stratospheric Architecture (COLD STAR), a project to find drug dealers. The Pentagon then performed a demonstration by launching 25 surveillance balloons from South Dakota.

The Pentagon has confirmed the handover of the COLD STAR program to Politico services. However, the DoD reportedly declined to provide information on the program as it is classified.

The Pentagon is also conducting tests to assess how to incorporate high-altitude balloons and commercial satellites into an attack, known as the “kill chain.”

When the ball goes up
When the balloon rises – US Army

“They can be trucks for any number of platforms, whether it’s communications and datalink nodes, ISR, aerial threat tracking and missiles, or even various weapons – and without the predictable orbits of satellites,” said Tom Karako, senior fellow at the International Director of the Security Program and Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Additionally, the DoD is also considering using balloons and drones with “stratospheric payloads” to track moving ground targets, conduct communications, and intercept electronic signals. According to budget records, the plan is to transfer the technology to the Army and United States Special Operations Command.

The Pentagon is focused on finding alternative methods of tracking ground targets as the Air Force withdraws its airborne surveillance planes. It is believed that the use of high-altitude balloons would be a much cheaper method than expensive high-end surveillance aircraft which also remain susceptible to enemy attack.

The US military has been aware of the need for more aerial communication systems. Yet satellites are expensive and either require multiple satellites in low or medium Earth orbit or expensive geosynchronous satellites.

This first drew attention to the need for a cheaper, mass-deployable form of communication and surveillance and increased interest in high-altitude balloons. If the technology is smoothly transferred to the US military and successfully demonstrated, it could prove revolutionary.

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