The Spy in the Sky: The Military’s Interest in Unidentified Floating Objects

17 Feb 23 3 Comments

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.

Chinese balloon was ‘clearly for intelligence surveillance’: US

“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.

Sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recover a high-altitude surveillance balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Feb. 5, 2023. Photo by [Petty Officer 1st Class Tyler Thompson]([🔗](

BBC news published some useful background on “spy balloons” and why China may have found it useful.

Why would China use a spy balloon when it has satellites?

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.

Downed balloon one of a ‘fleet’ of Chinese surveillance devices, US alleges

“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, Moldova both report strange objects in their skies

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.

The time a wayward Canadian balloon caused an international stir — and thwarted 3 air forces

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.

World: Americas Rogue balloon lost at sea

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.

Adversary Drones Are Spying On The U.S. And The Pentagon Acts Like They’re UFOs

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.

Dead birds made into drones could spy on animals or humans

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.

Hobby Club’s Missing Balloon Feared Shot Down By USAF

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.

Float Around And Find Out: Pop It 2023

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.

Romantic Valentines Day balloon ride successfully intercepted by US military

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

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

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!

Category: Crazy,


  • The Chinese balloon is quite different from your run-of-the-mill weather balloons that are launched hundreds of times each day around the world, rise up to ~100,000 ft, expanding as they go up, until they pop and come down again: weather balloons fairly light, obviously inexpensive, and the NTSB doesn’t have a single incident involving a collision with a weather balloon in their database. I was able to find one incident: on September 16th, 1970, an unlucky MiG-19PM hit a hydrogen-filled weather balloon over Hungary at 4000m altitude; the balloon exploded and damaged the jet, which crashed. Then in 1993, a bunch of party balloons crashed a Piper PA-30 Twin Comanche:


    NTSB Report Nbr LAX94FA047
    Event Id 20001211X13742
    Local Date11/15/1993


    Tethered blimps have caused more accidents than their free-floating siblings: their tether cables are quite sturdy and, much like a vertical powerline, make quick work of the wings of small aircraft or helicopters that come too close—which happens more often than you think, given that these balloons are typically stationary and marked on the aeronautical charts as restricted zones (e.g. R-2916).

    However, the Chinese balloon was designed to operate well above regular traffic at more than 60,000 feet altitude, intended to stay up indefinitely as a high-altitude platform. Google’s Project Loon pioneered a lot of technology for this type of craft. It has a fixed-size outer envelope, carries the lift gas (helium or hydrogen) in an expandable balloonet inside, and pumps air between the two as ballast. The Loon team found that this gave their balloons enough vertical mobility to pick a stratospheric wind that took them where they wanted to go; they were actually able to loiter above a region, which would’ve made them fairly efficient at providing Internet in undeveloped areas without requiring rocket launches.

    I’m still a bit skeptical as to how much surveillance the Chineee high-altitude platform was really designed to do, given that China has its own spy satellite program. Obviously a craft like that needs to be able to link with ground stations for data transfer and control, much more so than a cheap weather balloon with a simple radio beacon, so the fact that it had good antennas isn’t surprising. If I had a platform like that, I’d like to be able to fly it e.g. above a natural disaster (like a volcano eruption) and give me a live camera feed. However, ICAO regulations expect the operators of heavy balloons to report their location every 24 hours (every 2 hours if at lower altitudes) to air traffic services, a requirement that China apparently neglected. If this was truly a metereological platform, as China claims, then they should’ve given everyone a heads-up as soon as it was blown off course.

    And by the way, being metereological doesn’t preclude it being a military platform, as hypersonic missiles fly at these altitudes, so it’s useful to know the weather up there.

    I wonder what the 3 smaller objects will turn out to be. The Bottlecap Brigade’s amateur radio balloon that circumnavigated the Earth 7 times before it was declared missing in action is certainly a strong contender. The Lake Huron object is rumored to have been a tent, though that would’ve reached 20,000 ft altitude is anyone’s guess. However, it’s useful to remember that these rather light floating objects have historically been much less of a danger to aviation as powerlines or birds.

    • “I’m still a bit skeptical as to how much surveillance the Chineee high-altitude platform was really designed to do, given that China has its own spy satellite program.”
      See Sylvia’s BBC link discussing this.

      “Obviously a craft like that needs to be able to link with ground stations for data transfer and control”
      or satellites that download to ground stations.

      “However, ICAO regulations expect the operators of heavy balloons to report their location every 24 hours (every 2 hours if at lower altitudes) to air traffic services, a requirement that China apparently neglected.”
      “neglected” is a very charitable word. I doubt that US U-2’s ~65 years ago communicated with any civil authorities; any failure-to-communicate was probably deliberate.

      One interesting facet of this hoo-hah is the various discussions suggesting that Xi doesn’t have full control of the military, despite being a more absolute dictator than any PRC ruler since Mao and being nominally closer to the military than most of them. The prospect of a PRC General Jack D. Ripper is … unsettling.

  • I agree with Chip, how much can be detected by balloons that cannot be seen by satellites?
    My thoughts are that a satellite is moving at a very high speed when circumnavigating the earth. Okay, it will be back soon enough, but a (very) slow-moving balloon can probably capture objects on the earth’s surface in a sequence that leaves much less time space between shots, possibly seconds if not milliseconds. This can probably provide much more detailed information about what is going on. It is a different time frame that can be useful, and this method is probably also relatively cheap.
    Protests are more aimed at the general public. The outrage that it provides can be politically useful, in spite of the hypocrisy. All (major) powers are guilty. Remember Gary Powers and the U2? Different method, same intention…

    On a different note: I have brought down a few balloons myself.
    Well, a very different scenario.
    I was assigned a job, flying a banner with an advertisement over a large fairground. Of course, circling an exhibition ground in a Piper Super Cub, at about 1200 feet for several hours will become quite boring after the first half hour.
    Suddenly, a kiddies’ balloon flew by. It did not have a message attached, it had been accidentally released. So I gave chase. Not easy with the drag of an advertising banner behind the aircraft.
    But at the second or third attempt I go it. It seemed that, if the balloon was caught at the top of the propeller, it would not be entering the area where the prop would suck it into its orbit. Instead, they went harmlessly, and unharmed, over the top.
    Soon I learned that the trick was to get the balloon at the bottom half of the propeller. But that, getting the nose of the Piper high enough, also was the difficulty because of the high drag caused by the banner.
    But soon, more and more balloons went up. Children obviously had taken notice of my balloon-bursting efforts and let theirs go.
    What happened next was actually quite funny: I was aiming for another balloon that had gained enough altitude to pass over my Piper.
    I added full power and pulled up steeply. But to no avail, the balloon passed over me.
    My exercise caused the airplane to stall and it entered a spin. At about 1200 feet AGL. Ample height to recover but I still was trailing the banner, so it took more time to accelerate. It felt a bit as if I was trailing a drag chute.
    I never knew whether the banner helped, or obstructed the recovery from the spin.

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