There is nothing new about spying balloons. It’s been going on since the late 1700s, with more than a few interesting twists and turns. More recently, China sent one of its spying balloons across the United States. This event might be the least secret operation China ever mounted against its American opponent. Still, it has everyone on Twitter in a Tizzy and everyone in the Air Force and Space Force scratching their collective derrieres trying to figure out what to do about it. Apparently, shooting it down never occurred to anyone. Space Force — dwell on that for a while.
The first balloon used for military purposes occurred in 1794 (we think), during the French Revolution. Historians claim that the French Committee on Public Safety (a euphemism for state security) used this balloon to observe “the enemy.” The result of the Battle of Fleurus (26 June 1794) was not inconsequential because the French handed the First Coalition (Britain, Hanover, Dutch Republic, and Habsburg monarchy) suffered the loss of the Austrian Netherlands and the destruction of the Dutch Republic. Thanks to its balloon, the French could see where to best deploy their troops.
First public demonstration in Annonay, 4 June 1783
Union forces used aerial balloons during the American Civil War, which made balloon-maker Thaddeus Lowe a wealthy man. Despite becoming a primary target of the Confederate Army, none of Lowe’s balloons were ever shot out of the air. Civil War balloons weren’t perfect, but it was a start. The military eventually learned how to communicate from gondolas at 1,000 or more feet with ground commanders, who had to make use of that information.
We next hear of observation balloons in the so-called Great War. During this war, to end all wars, observation balloons and motorized dirigibles became primary targets for those new-fangled machines called airplanes. Suddenly, being in a gondola wasn’t all the Army recruiter promised; no one was drawing “flight pay” back then.
The major shift occurred during World War II. Military forces began to deploy balloons as defense mechanisms against enemy bombers and fighters. Barrage balloons were much smaller than the earlier observation balloons and were tethered to the ground using thick cable wire. They didn’t stop bombing campaigns but forced enemy aircraft to drop their bombs from higher elevations (making them less accurate).
Barrage balloons could reach an altitude above 14,000 feet. By attaching explosives to these balloons, they became lethal to bomber crews. World War II also saw the beginning of the so-called “Good Idea Office,” which had a “dirty tricks department.” One of their ideas was the so-called Bat Bomb. In this scheme, high-altitude bombers would release casings containing Mexican Hibernating Bats with incendiary devices attached that ignited on a timer. It didn’t do much for the bats, but it did play havoc with Japanese houses that were mainly constructed of wood and paper.
The Japanese returned the favor by launching balloons carrying bombs over the U.S. mainland. Of the 10,000 or so balloons the Japanese sent into the Pacific jet stream, 300 “Fu-Go” balloons landed in the U.S. between 1944 – 1945. They carried a 26-pound bomb intended to start forest fires over the Pacific Northwest. The only damage these balloons caused to American citizens happened in May 1945 when one of the balloons fell on an unsuspecting picnic of five or six. One wonders, what were the odds?
Before the beginning of the Cold War, the United States initiated a series of balloon programs focused on what was going on inside the Soviet Union and what became known as Communist China. The Americans called these efforts “projects,” such as MOBY DICK, GENETRIX, and MOGUL. None were resounding successes, but they were good enough to keep the effort going.
To facilitate this technology, the U.S. military turned to private industries for a hand. The company selected was General Mills Corporation of Minneapolis, Minnesota — known for manufacturing breakfast cereals — was a significant innovator in aerospace technology, particularly in scientific balloons. The Aeronautical Research Division of General Mills started in 1946, overseen by German scientist Otto Winzen. Dr. Winzen determined that latex balloons were inadequate for high-altitude missions, so he introduced polyethylene materials. At the time, General Mills worked closely with the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research (O.N.R.).
The Navy’s project was called SKYHOOK, first launched in 1947 — the first real success of balloons carrying a wide range of scientific instruments to collect data — and this was precisely what the newly created U.S. Air Force was looking for in conducting reconnaissance overflights. Working with the Rand Corporation, the Air Force called this effort Project MOGUL. MOGUL allowed the Americans to “listen” for such things as nuclear tests and missile launches. Later, the Air Force added cameras that were (in time) so powerful that analysts in Washington could read automobile license plate numbers.
Was this always successful? No. To disguise the project’s true nature, the Air Force employed unclassified weather balloons, which nevertheless contained sensitive military equipment designed and launched by a research team from the University of New York. MOGUL Flight No.4 became famous. Launched in June 1947, this balloon fell out of the sky over a ranch near Roswell, New Mexico.
To allow Air Force monitoring teams to track these balloons, technicians fitted them with a chain of kite-shaped radar reflectors consisting of lightweight balsa wood frames covered in metal foil. According to Charles Moore, who then worked as an engineer at General Mills, the foil was fixed to the balloon’s brackets using metallic tape. General Mills purchased this tape from a New York City toy factory.
The packing tape was stamped with a decorative pattern, which included the kinds of designs that appealed most to children — hearts, flowers, sea shells, and so forth. During the Air Force’s investigation of the material collected from Roswell, U.F.O. “experts” identified these designs as extraterrestrial hieroglyphics. Of course, there was no other possible explanation. This incident ignited a project the Air Force called Project BLUE BOOK lasting 75 years.
Near space reconnaissance has been going on for a very long time, as evidenced by the U.S. Air Force’s earliest experiments with high-altitude balloons and the fact that the Soviet Union shot down “Wrong Way” Powers in 1960. This success was undoubtedly a result of spies having infiltrated the Air Force and/or C.I.A., knowing how high their missiles would need to travel before reaching the U-2 altitude threshold. Such is life in the fast lane.
But now the chickens have come home to roost. Despite the Air Force’s unwillingness to speak about the recent Chinese reconnaissance balloon, there are some interesting questions we should demand answers to. Could China deliver into our atmosphere their latest virus product from the U.S.-financed Wu Han Labs? Are the Chinese keeping an eye on our agricultural production? Or could foreign agents introduce bacteria affecting our food supplies, milk obtained from America’s dairy operations?
We started it — and I find it interesting that the Air Force/Space Force seems not to know what to do about it. Maybe we should ask the Russians or Chinese how they responded to our high-altitude balloons.
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