Businessweek: Spy Balloons Are the Slow and Silent Future of Surveillance

When Russ Van Der Werff heard about the Chinese surveillance balloon detected drifting over the US, potentially spying on sensitive installations, he was concerned, naturally. But as vice president for stratospheric solutions at Aerostar, a company that makes high-altitude balloons, he was also kind of psyched. For years Van Der Werff has been working to convince government and commercial customers that Aerostar’s products offer serious advantages as surveillance platforms. It isn’t always easy. “There’s always someone saying, ‘Oh, now the balloon kooks are here,’” he says. “Well, now it looks like other people think it’s a good idea, too.”

For all the furor caused by China’s ill-fated balloon, its turn in the spotlight has been something of a coming-out party for a technology that’s spent the past decade quietly polishing its abilities. “We don’t believe a stratospheric balloon is the be-all and end-all,” Van Der Werff says, “but there are times when it’s a better fit.”

Balloons have been used for military surveillance since 1794, when France deployed one during its war with Austria. Both sides used them during the American Civil War, and the US Navy used blimps to hunt Nazi submarines during World War II. But the development of airplanes and high-altitude spy planes made lighter-than-air craft seem quaint, and the US Navy retired its last airship in 1962.

In time new technology would bring balloons back around. In the late 1990s, NASA started testing superpressure or ultra long duration balloons (ULDBs) that could stay aloft in the stratosphere for months at a time. Thanks to new high-strength polymers, the craft could carry payloads weighing thousands of pounds to heights above 100,000 feet.

In 2012, Google hired Aerostar to build ULDBs for Project Loon, a fleet of dozens of stratospheric balloons that provide internet connectivity to remote areas. By pumping air into or out of a smaller balloon within the outer envelope, the Loon ULDBs could rise or sink as needed to catch winds moving in a desired direction. That meant they could go (more or less) where they wanted to and remain (more or less) over a given target area.

Aerostar’s current model, called Thunderhead, brings the same technology to reconnaissance and surveillance missions. “I can keep it in an area for weeks at a time without interruption,” says Van Der Werff. From their launchpad in South Dakota, Aerostar’s solar-powered balloons can find their way to anywhere in the world; the longest flight to date lasted 150 days.

To understand how useful performance like this can be, consider the alternatives. Low-Earth-orbit satellites whiz along at 17,500 mph about 150 miles above the ground, meaning that they can cover the whole surface of the Earth but only stay over a particular target for a matter of minutes. “The value of the intelligence you collect goes up exponentially with the loiter time,” says Arthur Holland Michel, author of the book Eyes in the Sky, about high-altitude surveillance. “If you can hang out over an adversary’s sensitive facility for days, you’re able to see temporal patterns—where people go, how they move, what sort of schedules they have.”

Geosynchronous satellites are good at maintaining a steady gaze, as they’re permanently fixed above a certain spot on the globe. The problem is that they’re 22,000 miles up—too far to get a detailed look at things.

Then there are airplanes. These can get to an area of interest quickly and remain on station over a specific spot. But their endurance is limited and you can’t fly them through hostile airspace. “The US has quite a lot of experience in flying not over a country, but sort of along its borders and looking diagonally to the territory,” Michel says. But that approach is pretty useless when it comes to a big country like China, Russia or the US.

Stratospheric balloons can overcome many of these problems. Because they fly higher than planes and are mostly made of material that’s transparent to radar, they’re much harder to spot when they slip over the borders of unfriendly countries. “The radar cross-sectional area of the balloon is very low,” says David Stupples, a professor of electronic engineering at the University of London who specializes in space-based surveillance. What Stupples is saying essentially is that from the perspective of a radar antenna, the balloon is very small and hence difficult to detect.

And balloons move more slowly, on the order of 40 to 50 mph, which is actually an advantage when it comes to avoiding detection. “Air defense radars are looking for fast-moving metal aircraft,” Stupples explains. Because the velocity of a target changes the frequency of the returned signal, radar operators can filter out slow-moving targets like rainstorms and flocks of birds by ignoring everything with a small frequency change. But doing so also filters out balloons. “Something slow is going to get lost in the clutter,” he says.

If a country suddenly decides it wants to detect high-altitude balloon systems—as the US apparently has—then it needs to look at everything with a small frequency change and try to pick out potential targets from amid a great deal of noise. That means a lot of false positives. “We don’t have any evidence that there has been a sudden increase in the number of objects in the sky,” said President Joe Biden in a speech about the balloon shoot-downs on Feb. 16. “We’re now just seeing more of them, partially because the steps we’ve taken to increase our radars—to narrow our radars.”

Because they’re unmanned, high-altitude balloons are more or less expendable. Even if one is detected and shot down, there isn’t going to be an international incident on the scale of earlier ones involving spy planes, such as when the Soviets captured U-2 pilot Gary Powers in 1960, or when the Chinese seized a US surveillance plane in 2001. “Yes, China’s balloon sparked an international incident,” Michel says, “but it does not even come close to what would have happened if China flew a human-crewed jet over the US.”

Having an aircraft that can get closer to its target than a satellite may have been especially important to China, if it was trying to sniff out America’s newest secure communications technology. This technology, called LPI/LPD, or “low probability of intercept/detection,” works by transmitting at very low power so that a signal is deliberately lost against background noise.

Ultimately, the one advantage of stratospheric balloons that could really change the game is cost. “We have to brace ourselves for the fact that this is going to become an increasingly available technology available to friends and foes alike,” says Michel, adding: “States and nonstate actors alike.”

“What you’ve done is, you’ve brought signals intelligence to the midrank countries of the world,” Stupples says.

Between that and all the recent free publicity, the odds just got a lot better that a high-altitude spy balloon could be coming your way soon. You probably won’t realize it, though.

This article originally ran in Bloomberg Businessweek on February 21, 2023.

8 thoughts on “Businessweek: Spy Balloons Are the Slow and Silent Future of Surveillance”

  1. Amazing show Jeff. Another theory I read on a website just weeks after MH370 went missing was the involvement of the States. Whereby, there was a sudden visit by Obama to meet the Pope ( March 27th 2014). The previous visit was only in 2009. Why suddenly? Did he go there to repent off something?

  2. Hi Jeff

    Have u seen my comment about some gaps in your theory? It does fit a lot when thinking about this new geopolitical scenario.

    1) Who were the 3 russians? What are their names?

    2) Is it really possible to hardware hacking the avionics system? And if so, is it really possible to take complete control of the aircraft? Have u spoken to people that have a deep understanding of cyber intelligence, someone that has software engineering background?

  3. I have an engineering background. And I have forensics computer knowledge. I want to have a look at inmarsat data and the oficial authorities report.

    1) the idea of hijacking the plane is not strange. And nowadays , data can be manipulated easily. What I really like about your insight is the timing , because entering into the radars dark zone is the perfect moment. Is there a repository of files in your website , technical details released by authorities?

    2) The point here is not discussing who is right or wrong. It doesn’t matter. I want to search for the truth. If american intelligence knows what really happenned to the plane, why is there such a pact of silence? Have u investigated the cargo as well?

    3) Is malaysia an allie of otan? At that time Russia was already invading crimea, do you think the second plane had military equipment? I mean , in order to avoid counter intelligence , otan members were transporting weapons trough civilian aircrafts to Ukraine? Have u investigated more the second aircraft?

  4. Felipe, If you’re interested I strongly suggest that you read my book as it lays a foundation for understanding the case and answers many of your questions in particular.

  5. Hi Jeff,

    I’ve just bought it. And Abdul Rahmanh’s book as well (both kindle’s version). I’ve forgotten the moment right after you mentioned 3 russians, there were blurred images, yes I know, you have bills to pay too, there is nothing wrong about monetizing the story. It’s honest job. I think your website has been monitored since there is an alert sign indicating an unsafe domain. I have a post mortem and osint computational background. Wish I had sigint deep knowledge and hardware hacking. Not a native english speaker, I’m from Brazil so you might read weird stuff sometimes. You know, the technology required to execute such an action like what u have been suggesting is beyond the most powerful imagination ever. But at the same time the coincidences are so strong that is very hard to ignore. The russian Hijackers might be so highly qualified in cybernetics field and in all kinds of special military knowledge that it makes sense accepting your clever insight about the north pathway. It takes huge number of years and huge amount of investment to create spying agents like that. Death is not an option here. I know that usa has stealthy military airplanes and drones, cant figure it out how is it possible to put a 777 boeing in stealthy mode. But as an investor I record that boeing provides many military technology for us army, I have bonds of this company. That’s why butterworth air base didnt get any data, and neither Thailand or India or China. Maybe the debries images seen by the first lady were planted there on purpose. It also explains the absence of the metal sign in the wing. And the existence of those boeings with that ‘radar’ (stealth technology for sure). The only thing alive in this mistery is math. It looks like numbers behind numbers episode. And now balloons, Trump’s businesses in Russia, the world cup, fake diplomacy, lots of usa money flowing to Russia, probably trough hsbc, who knows, and time to plan the war. Putin is really a though player. The thing you and Florence have in common is the suspicious stealth technology. Maybe the cargo had not only something related to special technology but the whole plane was the technology they wanted. Reverse engineering explains the north pathway.

  6. And the best way to test an intelligent system built to detect a stealthy aircraft is using anti stealthy missile to explode it. And doing it in Ukraine soil is almost like giving America a finger and sending a straight message “yes, we can”. Scary. The pilot’s theory can be dismissed. No one comitts suicide in complete silence. I have read some news about passengers personal itens found in beaches near the places where other debries were found. Is this true? Have u hired dna or geology forensics experts to search for signs of “Casakistan fingerprints” on some debries?

  7. Felipe, For a while, as I recall, there was some interest in personal effects that were found washed up on the shore near pieces of debris, but there was never a way (since none had name tags or other such identifying information) to link them to MH370. A lot of junk gets washed into the ocean!

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