Pentagon Pumping Millions Into High-Altitude Balloon Research

Pentagon Pumping Millions Into High-Altitude Balloon Research

The U.S. military is researching the possibility of using high-altitude balloons to enhance its efforts to gather data on Russia and China as tensions with the two nations continue to strain.

The Pentagon is investing tens of millions of dollars into researching high-altitude inflatables to help collect intelligence on China and Russia, especially on the rival countries’ hypersonic weapons programs, according to Politico. The Department of Defense plans to commit tens of millions of dollars to the research effort next fiscal year.

“High or very high-altitude platforms have a lot of benefit for their endurance on station, maneuverability and also flexibility for multiple payloads,” Tom Karako, head of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Politico.

The Pentagon has spent about $3.8 million on balloon-related military projects in the past two years, but plans to increase that to about $27.1 million in fiscal year 2023, according to budget documents reviewed by Politico.

One of the main benefits of using balloons to gather intelligence instead of other aircraft is cost. For balloons to operate for several weeks or months is a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars versus millions of dollars to operate an aircraft or satellites.

The Department of Defense has already been researching the benefit of using balloons for data collection and surveillance as part of a program known as Covert Long-Dwell Stratospheric Architecture (COLD STAR). The program began as a way to research how balloons might be used to gather intelligence on drug smuggling operations and to locate traffickers.

The program has since transitioned to the military to use to monitor weapons programs and other proceedings by the United States’ chief rivals.

The U.S. Army has been researching the potential for balloons and inflatables for several years in a program called High-Altitude Extended-Range Long Endurance Intelligence Observation System (HELEIOS). The program’s goal was to use balloons to gather intelligence and engage in jamming or other disruptive capacities. Such a tool would be important for the Army taking control of any area in which it is expected to operate in the future.