In an age of drones and UAVs, why balloons are having a moment
February 13, 2023
Several unidentified flying objects were shot down over the U.S. and Canada over the weekend. Countries have long used balloons to extend intelligence collection though more sophisticated technologies have replaced them in recent years.
Paul Lushenko is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and senior policy fellow at Cornell University’s Tech Policy Lab. He discusses several potential reasons as to why balloons have thrust back into the spotlight.
“Precisely because balloons are so anachronistic, the public does not know how to make sense of them when considered alongside newer technologies, like spy planes and drones.
“Though the U.S. military has used tactical – ground-tethered – balloons to target insurgents and terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq, it does not use strategic, high-altitude balloons to collect intelligence abroad, despite what China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims. That China apparently does use high-altitude balloons to spy on countries may conjure considerations of a ‘capability gap’ among the public, like the now debunked nuclear ‘missile gap’ between the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War.
“This uncertainty is compounded by little official reporting from the Biden administration, especially in terms of several recent aerial engagements with objects that may not, in fact, be balloons but rather are better classified as ‘unidentified flying objects’.
“These considerations may exacerbate the public’s anxiety about the durability of global order given seemingly existential developments. Such developments range from the resurgence of COVID to the renewal of great power competition, as reflected by China’s militarization of the South China Sea and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”