U.S. military’s newest weapon against China and Russia: Hot air

The Pentagon is working on a new plan to rise above the competition from China and Russia: balloons.
Flying between 60,000 and 90,000 feet, the high-altitude inflatable boats would be added to the Pentagon's extensive surveillance network and could eventually be used to track hypersonic weapons.
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The idea may sound like science fiction, but Pentagon budget documents signal the technology is moving from the Defense Department's scientific community to military services.
"High or very high altitude platforms have many advantages for their station endurance, maneuverability, and also flexibility for multiple payloads," said Tom Karako, senior fellow for the International Security Program and director of the missile defense project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The Pentagon continues to invest in these projects because the military could use the balloons for various missions.
Over the past two years, the Pentagon has spent about $3.8 million on balloon projects and plans to spend $27.1 million in fiscal 2023 to continue work on several projects, budget records said.
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Meanwhile, despite the failure of the last test on Wednesday, the Pentagon is working on its own hypersonic weapons program.
One bright spot for the US is that the balloons could help detect and deter hypersonic weapons being developed by China and Russia.
China surprised the Pentagon in August by testing a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile that narrowly missed its target by about two dozen miles.
In response to the US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, Russia began pursuing the development of hypersonic weapons.
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In this way, the balloons could be useful - to help expensive satellites track the missiles. The drop-shaped balloons collect complex data and navigate using AI algorithms.
Hide in plain sight
For years, the DoD has been testing high-altitude balloons and solar-powered drones to collect data, provide communications to ground forces, and alleviate satellite problems. The Pentagon is quietly turning over the balloon projects to the military services to collect data and relay information to planes, POLITICO discovered in DoD budget justification documents.
The Covert Long-Dwell Stratospheric Architecture (COLD STAR), a project to locate drug traffickers, received much coverage in 2019. At that time, the Pentagon launched 25 surveillance balloons from South Dakota as part of a demonstration.
The Pentagon confirmed to POLITICO that the COLD STAR program has transitioned to the services. DoD would not disclose details about the effort as they are classified.
Another initiative aims to pool all the technology. The Pentagon is conducting demonstrations to evaluate how to involve high-altitude balloons and commercial satellites in an attack known as "kill chain."
"They can be trucks for any number of platforms, be they communications and data link nodes, ISR, air and missile threat tracking, or even various weapons -- and without the predictable orbits of satellites," Karako said.
The Department of Defense is also working to deploy drones equipped with "stratospheric payloads," along with balloons, to track moving ground targets, provide communications, and intercept electronic signals. According to budget documents, the technology is to be handed over to the Army and the US Special Operations Command.
Finding other ways to track ground targets is a priority for the Pentagon as the Air Force retires airborne surveillance aircraft.
Not your average balloon
Raven Aerostar, a division of Raven Industries, manufactures the balloons. Raven said they consist of a flight control unit powered by batteries charged using renewable solar panels. They also have a payload electronics package that controls flight safety, navigation and communications, Russell Van Der Werff, technical director at Raven Aerostar, said in an interview.
Wind currents allow the balloon to float along a desired trajectory, and the company uses different wind speeds and directions to move the balloon to the target area.
But that's not all. Raven Aerostar uses a proprietary machine learning algorithm that predicts wind directions and fuses incoming sensor data in real time, Van Der Werff said. The company also uses a software program to control and monitor its balloon fleet and has a mission operations center staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week by trained flight engineers, he added.
The balloons can complement the work of traditional airplanes and satellites, and stratospheric balloons can be built and launched at a fraction of the cost and time. For example, the cost of launching and operating balloons runs into hundreds of thousands of dollars for weeks or months compared to millions - or tens of millions - needed to launch and operate airplanes or satellites.
Not the first time
NASA has been flying helium-filled stratospheric balloons since the 1950s, and the Army has been experimenting with these systems at lower altitudes in recent years.
The private sector is also investing in the balloon market. Alphabet used balloons to provide mobile communications in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria in 2017.
In the mid-2010s, the Army invested in a spy-bimp program, which it eventually abandoned in 2017. The effort is known as the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Elevated Neted Sensor System, or JLENS.
The zeppelin, unlike the high-altitude balloon, was tethered and designed to track boats, ground vehicles, drones, and cruise missiles. The balloons that DoD now uses are smaller, lighter, and can fly significantly higher than the spy airship.
Beginning in 2015, the Army conducted a three-year exercise to determine whether to continue purchasing Raytheon JLENS airships. But the airship broke away from its mooring station near Baltimore, flew for three hours, and eventually landed near Moreland Township, Penn.
The army decided to discontinue the program. JLENS cost almost $2 billion to develop and was designed for use in the U.S. Developed Central Command.
"If we can just grow up and break our blocks about the JLENS event, the future can be bright for airships, balloons and aircraft," Karako said.

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