#31 - Why the Balloon is Important
飞艇 (Fei1 Ting3) - Airship
The Balloon Concept
There is a long history of utilizing balloons for military intelligence stretching back to the French Revolutionary Wars, American Civil War, and WWI. In the past, humans accompanied balloons in order to identify friend and foe, spot for artillery, draw maps, facilitate communication, and numerous other tasks. For the sake of brevity, the reasons balloons are valuable boil down to the following points:
The high altitude of a balloon allows for a superior field of view to collect information.
Balloons are more cost effective and much less complex than aircraft.
Unlike an aircraft, a balloon is either tethered or floating slowly, meaning the balloon can loiter and stay on station for far longer. This gives it a “staring” capability hard to achieve with other platforms.
The US has employed balloons for these reasons even up to the modern day. The US military termed these modern balloons aerostats. Throughout the Global War on Terror, over 60 aerostats deployed to Afghanistan alone. In modern military usage, the critical capability an aerostat brings to the table is its payload. These payloads are electronic sensors designed to collect information.
Why is China Fielding Aerostats/Airships?
The People’s Republic of China Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) has claimed the craft is China’s, using the term 飞艇 (Fei1 Ting3 / Airship) to identity the type of craft.
From the photos of the airship still currently floating over the US, a satellite-like structure can be identified hanging off the bottom. What appears to be solar panels likely power the payload sensors. The real question is what sensors are onboard this airship? To make an educated guess of the possibilities, we can review what sensors are already fielded in satellite payloads.
There are a number of sensors used to take images of the earth. These sensors are able to take imagery (like google earth) or see into the infrared band, which helps to identify heat. Some sensors are also able to mount a radar or LIDAR (laser imaging, detection, and ranging) to map the geography below as well as detect movements.
China has already deployed the Huanjing series of satellites that incorporate all of these capabilities, so it is a small leap to assess that some of this sensor technology is currently suspended by the airship hovering over the continental US.
US officials have stated that this type of airship activity has previously been identified. Clearly, this is not a one-off incident but part of a larger pattern. Additionally, the Pentagon is actively investing in its own airship program.
The US and China are likely investing in these programs to increase information collection. Operating airships is almost certainly orders of magnitude cheaper than shooting satellites into orbit. Running airborne collection platforms requires airfields, logistics, trained pilots and aircrews, which are all vulnerable to attack, relatively expensive, and sometimes need to be forward deployed to conduct operations within range of targets.
Airborne drones can mitigate some of these weaknesses, but modern airships are also unmanned. Similarly, airships do not need to be defended or equipped with life-support facilities, making them expendable. Additionally, since airships have such a long range, they can be launched from well within the defended homeland of a given nation.
Finally, both the US and China have demonstrated anti-satellite and anti-air capabilities. Unmanned airships floating around the earth can’t avoid detection forever and are still subject to being easily shot down once identified. Still, airships will likely provide both sides another layer of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capability sandwiched between satellite constellations above and aircraft below.
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