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The Inner Workings of Spy Balloons

by George Mensah

The use of spy balloons has recently sparked widespread concern, particularly following President Biden’s address to reporters on the South Lawn on February 6. The President’s comments on Chinese intrusions via spy balloons have left many bewildered, with his stance on the issue leaving no room for doubt. When questioned about the timeline of events, he responded that he had instructed the Defense Department to take appropriate action and shoot down the balloons.

Since the beginning of January 2023, the United States military has successfully taken down four high-altitude objects, which have been spotted drifting through the skies over Alaska, Canada, and the Lower 48 states. The operational capabilities of these objects, which have been causing ripples of intrigue and bewilderment, remain shrouded in mystery, creating a sense of perplexity that is only intensifying. Understanding the nature of these objects and how they function is vital in addressing the risks they pose, and the United States government’s action in this matter is of the utmost importance.

As PBS contributor Iain Boyd points out, the internationally recognized boundary for a nation’s upper limit is 62 miles, which unequivocally places any balloon flying over the ground within the territorial jurisdiction. The spy balloons that have been sighted over North America and other locations are undoubtedly violating national territorial sovereignty as they float across the skies, be it over the United States or other countries. The burstiness of this situation cannot be overstated, and the public is eagerly awaiting any updates on the matter.

The recent talk about spy balloons has caused a wave of concern across the United States. President Biden’s recent address on the issue has brought this matter to the forefront of people’s minds. In response, the United States military has taken decisive action to bring down these high-altitude objects, which have been spotted drifting through the skies over Alaska, Canada, and the Lower 48 states.

Although the government has taken swift action, questions remain about the capabilities and mechanisms of these balloons. The public needs to know the extent of the risks these espionage tools pose and how to plan appropriate responses. To make matters worse, these balloons are violating national territorial sovereignty as they float across the skies.

PBS contributor Iain Boyd has suggested that these balloons may be a tool for China to test the waters of what they can get away with. He also assures Americans that the balloons do not pose a significant threat. Nevertheless, officials and the public need to understand the capabilities and possible applications of these espionage tools in a range of mission contexts. Understanding these details can help in crafting an appropriate response.

Balloons have been around for centuries and were initially created for ornamental purposes. However, they later became an essential tool in warfare. Scouts would ascend in balloons to gather information on troop movements and relay it to commanders on the ground. Balloons were also used to direct accurate artillery fire and to support mapmaking operations.

While modern aircraft have replaced balloons in military and civilian use, they still have some applications in warfare. During World War I, German Zeppelins were still used as bombers, and in World War II, the U.S. Navy and British Air Force used balloons to locate submarines and counter missile attacks.

The use of balloons in military and intelligence-gathering efforts has gained renewed attention due to recent reports of spy balloons in the skies over the United States and Canada. Balloons can provide a strategic advantage in surveillance and reconnaissance, but their limitations must also be considered.

Balloons are primarily carried by wind currents, limiting their navigational ability. However, they can rise to high altitudes and remain in the sky for extended periods, making them a cost-effective option for intelligence-gathering. They can be outfitted with solar-powered equipment for overhead imagery, radar detection, and communication, improving their capabilities in weapons systems and surveillance operations.

While balloons may not have the same navigational capabilities as airplanes, they have historically played an important role in military and intelligence-gathering efforts. They were the first devices to implement aerial combat, providing armies with a bird’s-eye view of the battlefield. Balloons were used in the U.S. Civil War to support mapmaking operations and gather intelligence on Confederate movements. Balloons were also used during World War II to locate submarines and counter missile attacks.

The recent reports of spy balloons have raised concerns about their capabilities and potential uses. While balloons do not pose a significant threat in themselves, understanding their capabilities and possible applications is crucial for addressing the risks they pose. The United States government’s action in this matter is of utmost importance, and any updates on the situation will be eagerly awaited by the public.

Balloons, a technological tool dating back centuries, have always been severely limited in their navigational ability. In fact, airplanes offer superior capabilities in most applications. Although balloons are often carried by wind currents, some can incorporate limited navigational ability to redirect and coast along favorable wind currents. However, the typical stratospheric balloon is launched with prevailing weather patterns in mind to direct it toward a target location, and it cannot be redirected if patterns shift.

Despite this limitation, balloons have a significant advantage in their payload capabilities. They can remain in the sky for months without refueling or maintenance, and when equipped with solar power, they can be used for overhead imagery, radar detection, or communications equipment that dramatically improves intelligence-gathering capability.

While direct overhead imagery is typically associated with satellite operations, bringing the equipment closer to the Earth can improve resolution with the same technology. Balloons can be used in weapons systems, where they become particularly useful. Defensive systems rely on trajectory to intercept or destroy an incoming projectile. Dropping a projectile from directly overhead makes it more difficult to defend against. However, there is no evidence to support recent balloon activity being intended for such use.

Over the past few decades, balloons have become essential tools for gathering data for weather forecasting. Although the military has explored potential uses of balloons for intelligence gathering in the past, today their primary role is to provide crucial information to meteorologists and weather forecasters.

Each day, hundreds of weather balloons are launched globally, with the National Weather Service alone releasing 92 balloons daily across the United States and its territories. These latex or neoprene balloons are equipped with radiosonde instruments that provide crucial data on atmospheric pressure, temperature, humidity, wind speed, and direction, which helps create more accurate weather forecasts.


These balloons can travel as high as 100,000 feet, and can cover distances of up to 125 miles in their two-hour journey. Although they lack the advanced features of modern spy technology, they remain essential in providing accurate weather forecasts to individuals, businesses, and government agencies. The information they provide is critical for planning daily activities and responding to natural disasters such as hurricanes, wildfires, and blizzards.

In conclusion, while the military may have explored the use of balloons for intelligence gathering and weapons systems, their primary use today is in providing vital information for weather forecasting, making them an essential tool for keeping people safe and informed. Whether it is for surveillance, military, or weather forecasting purposes, balloons will continue to play a crucial role in scientific and military advances.

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