The Spy in the Sky: The Military’s Interest in Unidentified Floating Objects
The past week has been dominated by the news that our skies are seemingly teaming with unidentified flying objects, most of which should not be referred to as balloons, even though even the US spokesman accidentally called them balloons during an interview, directly before correcting the journalist that they should be referred to as objects.
The furore started with a 60-metre high-altitude balloon which was floating over the US. The Chinese government admitted that it belonged to them but claimed it was a meteorological airship that had been blown off course. US reconnaissance confirmed that the balloon had multiple antennas and concluded that the balloon was a surveillance exercise.
“The high altitude balloon’s equipment was clearly for intelligence surveillance and inconsistent with the equipment onboard weather balloons,” the US official said in a written statement.
“It had multiple antennas to include an array likely capable of collecting and geo-locating communications. It was equipped with solar panels large enough to produce the requisite power to operate multiple active intelligence collection sensors.”
After the public spotted the balloon over Montana, there was significant pressure to take action and the balloon was shot down as it drifted over shallow water off the coast of South Carolina.
BBC news published some useful background on “spy balloons” and why China may have found it useful.
Balloons are one of the oldest forms of surveillance technology. The Japanese military used them to launch incendiary bombs in the US during World War Two. They were also widely used by the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
More recently, the US has reportedly been considering adding high-altitude inflatables into the Pentagon’s surveillance network. Modern balloons typically hover between 24km-37km above the earth’s surface (80,000ft-120,000ft).
The Guardian reports on latest allegations from the US is that there is a fleet of these balloons deployed for surveillance all over the world.
“We’re not alone in this,” said the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken. “We’ve already shared information with dozens of countries around the world both from Washington and through our embassies. We’re doing so because the United States was not the only target of this broader programme which has violated the sovereignty of countries across five continents.”
They pointed at sightings in South America and over Japan but Romania has also jumped in on the action.
Romania briefly scrambled military jets and neighboring Moldova temporarily closed its air space Tuesday after authorities in both countries reported mysterious weather balloon-like objects traversing their skies.
A number of other “high-altitude object events” took place over the following weeks, with three further shoot downs over North America between the 10th and the 14th. However, these “mystery objects” are believed to have been privately operated and not linked to China.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation took the chance to revisit the struggle to shoot down a weather balloon in 1998.
Undeterred, the balloon meandered into British airspace, forcing air traffic controllers to divert transatlantic flights and catching the attention of the British press.
“The top guns who couldn’t pop a balloon,” read one newspaper headline at the time, taking aim at the Canadian pilots.
But the snark was premature.
The BBC article published at the time is quick to point out that the US Air Force also failed to bring it down. Apparently the problem is that the balloon was just holding too still.
But Lieutenant Colonel Steve Wills of the Canadian Air Force said he was not embarrassed by their failure.
“With something like this, which is stationary in the air when the CF-18s are flying very, very fast, it is difficult to shoot it,” he said.
The Drive had written about active aerial surveillance over the US in an article published way back in 2021.
We may not know the identities of all the mysterious craft that American military personnel and others have been seeing in the skies as of late, but I have seen more than enough to tell you that it is clear that a very terrestrial adversary is toying with us in our own backyard using relatively simple technologies—drones and balloons—and making off with what could be the biggest intelligence haul of a generation. While that may disappoint some who hope the origins of all these events are far more exotic in nature, the strategic implications of these bold operations, which have been happening for years, undeterred, are absolutely massive.
Related, New Scientist released a short video on the future of surveillance tech.
Drones combining the bodies of taxidermy pheasants and pigeons, with flapping wing mechanisms closely mimic living birds.
Meanwhile, one of the mystery objects may have belonged to the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade.
But the circumstantial evidence is at least intriguing. The club’s silver-coated, party-style, “pico balloon” reported its last position on Feb. 10 at 38,910 ft. off the west coast of Alaska, and a popular forecasting tool—the HYSPLIT model provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)—projected the cylindrically shaped object would be floating high over the central part of the Yukon Territory on Feb. 11. That is the same day a Lockheed Martin F-22 shot down an unidentified object of a similar description and altitude in the same general area.
One US company is making a killing with their quasi-military patch to celebrate the air-to-air kills.
High demand has activated two other American facilities to produce these fast enough to help keep up with the production time line. Winnie the Pooh is public domain as of 2022 and the rest of the artwork is the intellectual property of Reaper Patches. We’re not savages, contact us for permission to use. We started approving request this morning.
Australian parody news site “The Chaser” immediately spotted the romance angle.
In a bold move to protect the American people, the US military has today successfully intercepted a romantic Valentine’s Day balloon ride that was flying over Montana. The doe-eyed couple on board were successfully terminated after intelligence officials observed that they were taking numerous photos.
“There was no military intel in the photos,” explained one government representative. “It’s just we’re pretty sure they were planning a sappy Valentines Day photo dump on Instagram, and we didn’t want to take any chances.”
And the aviation group on Reddit responded with a poetry contest.
Roses are red ❤️ Violets are blue ❤️ You’re about to get shot down ❤️ By an F-22
Finally, one of my favourite twitter accounts, RAF Luton, marked the occasion with a wonderful mislabeled photograph
Photo of the Day: F35 with The RAF Regiment Band service playing "99 Red Balloons" at a ceremony to celebrate the worlds most advanced fighter jet shooting down 4 balloons in combat missions over the USA in the last week
— RAF_Luton (@RAF_Luton) February 13, 2023
I hope you enjoyed my collection of articles about the Spy in the Sky as much as I enjoyed putting it together.
Please, feel free to add more serious news and fun links in the comments!