US Military Swears It's Not Spying on China With Balloons It Spent Millions Developing

The U.S. said it has no high altitude balloons above China, but that doesn't mean the technology doesn't exist.
US Military Swears It's Not Spying on China With Balloons It Spent Millions Developing
Screengrab: U.S. SMDC document

Over the weekend, U.S. fighter jets downed three unidentified objects over Alaska, Canada’s Yukon, and Lake Huron. Last week, jets fired a Sidewinder missile at what officials said was a Chinese surveillance balloon floating above Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. As the drama played out, China said it spotted more than 10 U.S. balloons in its airspace but never shot any of them down. The U.S. government denied that it sent spy balloons to China. 


“It is China that has a high-altitude surveillance balloon program for intelligence collection, that it has used to violate the sovereignty of the US and over 40 countries across 5 continents,” Adrienne Watson, the White House National Security Council Spokesperson, said in a tweet on Monday.

We don’t know if America has floated spy balloons over mainland China, but portraying China as being unique in its interest in surveillance balloons is misleading. It’s not absurd to suggest that the U.S. is using high-altitude surveillance balloons, or sees opportunity in them. In fact, the Pentagon has a long history of investigating balloon technology—not just as surveillance platforms but even to deliver “biological bombs”—and that interest continues today. These tests have even been confused for UFOs. 

In 2019, the National Weather Service reported it was seeing something strange in the skies above Kansas City. People thought they’d witnessed UFOs, but it was actually a DARPA balloon project. The Pentagon’s advanced research department was testing its Adaptable Lighter Than Air (ALTA) program. The goal of ALTA is to develop high-altitude balloons capable of traveling great distances and even stay in one spot. The surveillance possibilities of such balloons are obvious, although ALTA’s project manager told the MIT Technology Review in 2018 that they could not discuss the military applications. 


Indeed, the U.S. military has even discussed sending high-altitude surveillance balloons floating over other nations. As Futurism pointed out in an article on spy balloons, in 2017 U.S. Navy Admiral Kurt Tidd—then leader of U.S. Southern Command, which operates in Latin America—said that balloons “[have] the potential to be a game changer for us, a great, long-duration, long-dwell surveillance platform.” In particular, Southern Command was interested in using balloons to surveil narcotics and arms dealing operations. 

In the summer of 2019, the Pentagon filed paperwork with the FCC indicating it would be releasing 25 solar-powered balloons into the stratosphere over the US. According to the paperwork, the balloons would “provide a persistent surveillance system to locate and deter narcotic trafficking and homeland security threats.”

Those tests were part of an operation called COLD STAR, or Covert Long-Dwell Stratospheric Architecture, and it never really ended. In July 2022, Politico reported that the Pentagon confirmed that it “is quietly transitioning the [COLD STAR] balloon projects to the military services to collect data and transmit information to aircraft,” and that the Pentagon planned to spend $27.1 million on high-altitude balloons this fiscal year. According to Politico, the military is looking to integrate high-altitude surveillance balloons into the technology stack behind an attack, known as the “kill chain.”

“They can be trucks for any number of platforms, whether it be communication and datalink nodes, ISR, tracking air and missile threats, or even various weapons—and without the predictable orbits of satellites,” Tom Karako, senior fellow for the International Security Program and Missile Defense Project director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the outlet. 


The Army openly stated its excitement over high-altitude balloons for surveillance purposes for years. “[Balloons would] be able to provide some beyond-line-of-sight capability, whether it’s communications, extended distances, to be able to provide the ability to enable sensing of targets deep in the adversary’s areas, to be able to reinforce and complement existing sensing systems other than the aerial layer as well as the space layer,” Brent Fraser, concept development division chief at the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Center of Excellence, told Defense News in 2020. 

As ominous a plot twist for 2023 as “spy balloons” feels, it shouldn’t be surprising given their long history, which goes back nearly 200 years. The use of spy balloons in the United States dates all the way back to the Civil War, in fact.

The Union Balloon Corps sent up soldiers to sketch enemy lines before being disbanded in 1863. Founder Thaddeus S. C. Lowe started the Corps after giving President Abraham Lincoln a personal demonstration of the balloon’s spying capabilities. The generals, however, never quite warmed up to the idea of using balloons to spy on enemy lines.

America dusted the idea off again during World War I when it used balloons to help direct artillery fire. During World War II, the U.S. used balloons called K-Ships to spy on enemy submarines at the same time as Japan used balloons to drop incendiary munitions on U.S. soil. During D-Day, the U.S. launched what it called “barrage balloons” into the skies above France to keep enemy planes from getting close to their targets. 


The Pentagon kept studying balloons, for both surveillance and as a delivery system for weapons, throughout the 1950s and ‘60s. Disturbingly, a declassified DoD document from 1953 even describes tests for a “biological bomb for balloon delivery.” The E77 bomb was an “80-pound biological bomb” that was “intended primarily for the dissemination of anti-crop pathogens,” the document states. It would have dropped the pathogens from a fiberboard clamshell “hatbox” that could be remotely triggered, and the documents describe tests as “entirely satisfactory and proved the feasibility of the munition.”

After the Gulf War, U.S. Army Major Kurt Reitigner conducted a study on the possibility of using high altitude balloons as a surveillance system. Reitigner wanted to solve a problem: mobile missile batteries wreaked havoc on the U.S. during the war. Could a series of spy balloons close the gap? Possibly, the Major concluded, but the subject would have to be studied and tested.

But in the years after Reitigner’s study, cameras got a lot better, satellites became cheaper, and the U.S. began to field a bevy of drones that could both spy and kill. The effectiveness of weapon systems like the Predator and Reaper drones, as well as the ubiquity of cheap off-the-shelf quadcopters put spy balloons on the back burner. But balloons were also cheap and easy to maintain, and the Pentagon never stopped deploying them or experimenting with them.

In Afghanistan, dirigible-style low altitude surveillance balloons were so ubiquitous that they faded into the background of everyday life in coalition held territories. “It watches us day and night,” an Afghan told The New York Times about the balloons in 2012. (These surveillance balloons are different from those supposedly used by China to spy on the U.S. First, they operate at lower altitudes. Second, they’re tethered in place so they don’t drift away.)

That same year, U.S. Army sniper Robert Bales killed Afghan civilians in Kandahar. During the massacre, Green Berets deployed a spy balloon to help hunt Bales. During the trial, footage from these same spy balloons was used as evidence against him. It wasn’t just Afghanistan either; the Army spent tens of millions of dollars on similar systems in Iraq. Last January, the Pentagon announced it was going to spend $52 million to operate and maintain this same style of surveillance balloon at the U.S. border with Mexico. 

Of course, high-altitude balloons are used for a lot more than spying. Such balloons are frequently used for meteorology, astronomy, climate research, and many more purposes. There are indications that the alleged spy balloon shot down by the U.S. was at least tangentially linked to civilian research efforts, highlighting how blurry the lines can be. Six Chinese entities sanctioned by the U.S. after the balloon was shot down are connected to Wu Zhe, a prominent civilian scientist focused on high-altitude airships. In 2019, Zhe’s team even sent an airship floating across most of the globe—including North America—60,000 feet in the air, the New York Times reported

The centuries-old interest in surveillance balloons hasn’t come down to Earth yet—there’s bound to be more objects floating overhead in the coming years.