Why a balloon is better than a drone for spying

“Balloons offer a few advantages over the use of satellites or drones,” James Rogers, an academic at Cornell and the University of Southern Denmark, who advises the UN Security Council on the transnational threat of drones, said in an email.

“Not only are they cheaper than launching satellites into space, but by operating within the bounds of the Earth’s atmosphere, closer to the surface, they can obtain better quality images.”

The latest generation of balloons are high-tech in their own right, “envisaged as systems that can fly up to 90,000 feet” high, “deploy their own drone systems” and detect incoming missiles.

Balloons could soar above the range of most planes, Professor Clarke said, and their slow speed meant they were not always picked up by radar. Additional technology or paint could help to conceal them further.

Balloons also have an advantage over satellites because they are more manoeuvrable, according to Malcolm Macdonald, a professor and space technology engineer from the University of Strathclyde in Scotland.

“The motion of a satellite is very predictable, a balloon (or other aircraft) offers the chance for an unexpected overflight, to catch those you are observing by surprise,” Professor Macdonald said. “You might hope to get something you might not see, or hear, from space.”

Satellites could provide high-resolution imagery, Professor Clarke said, but balloons could stay over one area for longer periods than satellites, if the weather permitted.

There is also the cost benefit: a satellite may cost up to $US300 million ($433 million) over its lifetime, according to an estimate from 2020; even the most high-tech balloon would be cheaper.

Professor Macdonald said “a balloon is very difficult to see on radar, although the sensor bay underneath will be more visible”.

US officials on Thursday announced they had been tracking the balloon for a couple of days, but waited to shoot it down until Saturday (Sunday AEDT), citing concerns about the potential for debris to hit people or property on the ground.

Concern about revealing defence capabilities might also have factored into the delay, Professor Macdonald said.

“Had they reacted sooner it would have confirmed to the Chinese that US air defences had seen it,” he said of US authorities. “If you know where it is, you can mitigate any risk it poses. But, if you shoot it down you might expose an offensive capability you would rather keep secret.”

Shooting down balloons has proved difficult in the past. In 1998, Canadian, British and US fighter jets unsuccessfully attempted to shoot down a rogue weather balloon that had forced passenger flights to divert.

The US military had better luck this time: Fighter aircraft, acting on an order from President Joe Biden, downed the Chinesesurveillance balloon off the South Carolina coast on Saturday afternoon.

The repercussions of shooting down the balloon remain to be seen. But shooting down another nation’s satellite would be more challenging and possibly herald an arms race in space or worse.

The presence of another suspected balloon over Latin America only strengthened Washington’s case that the balloons were dispatched deliberately, Professor Clarke said.

Steve Tsang, the director of the China Institute at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, argued that any spy balloon would probably be of “symbolic value, showing that the Chinese are able to send something in the air to survey US military installations”.

“They’re doing it because for decades the US [has] been sending spy planes along the Chinese coast and sometimes over Chinese airspace to monitor the Chinese in ways that they couldn’t do very much about,” he said. “And now they can, so they are.”

The Washington Post’s Claire Parker contributed to this report.

Washington Post

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