The Chinese spy balloon incident might no longer be gracing newspaper front pages or leading newscasts to the extent it did in the initial days after the balloon was spotted high in the sky over Montana. But even as it becomes yesterday’s news, it should inform discussions about strategic innovation today. Before being shot down after crossing the entire North American landmass, the balloon had been transmitting information back to Beijing in real time, providing detailed information on strategic military installations across the United States. On the bright side, though, at least that was all it did. Balloon reconnaissance is the first and oldest military use of aerostatics. Today, it is not out of the question that a balloon just like that one could carry a different payload over the continental United States—for instance, one that could take out half the West Coast’s power grid before North American Aerospace Defense Command even registered it as a threat.

The notion of disruptive military innovation typically calls to mind a list of scientific developments bordering on fiction, like nth-generation fighter platforms with supporting autonomous drone swarms, quantum computing, or fully integrated sensor-shooter networks. This approach to disruptive innovation involves developing a weapon or system so advanced that an adversary cannot hope to defend against it. However, there is a cheaper approach to achieving that same effect, and balloons are a prime example. Aerostatics are an underappreciated form of disruptive innovation, but an especially noteworthy one because of their extremely high rate of return: major impact with a minimal price tag.

The US Strategy of Innovation

Pursuit of superior military technology has been a staple in US defense strategy since World War II. First came the atomic bomb, which became central to the first offset strategy, aimed at neutralizing the Warsaw Pact’s numerical advantages. Next were advances in intelligence technologies and precision weapons, on which the second offset strategy was based. These, in turn, resulted in the overmatch capabilities used to dominate in the Gulf War. Most recently, the third offset strategy aimed to overcome China’s antiaccess and area-denial capabilities by leveraging robotics, autonomy, data tools, and other technologies. This pattern of offset strategies indicates that the US military and its industrial complex do not draw distinctions between future capability and technological innovation, feeding the avid pursuit of next-generation weaponry.

Yet, fixating military innovation on revolutionary or high-tech weapons is problematic for generating options and anticipating threats. Yes, the Gulf War was a successful endeavor by most empirical metrics. US and coalition forces achieved decisive victory in just forty-three days, largely by leveraging information warfare, precision munitions, and dominant battlefield maneuver enabled by decades of investment in military technologies. However, such a quick and decisive victory is far from a guaranteed outcome, especially against a more evenly matched enemy, which makes it a poor basis on which to justify the logic of the American approach to strategy and innovation. While hypersonic weapons, autonomous platforms, and an integrated sensor-shooter network all hold incredible potential, they are expensive and do not guarantee success.

An opposing approach centers on improvisation, which is effectively innovation on a budget. Improvisation is how actors develop new strategic and tactical options despite lacking the resources to compete along the normal research and development route. As long as there has been asymmetric conflict, there has been improvisation—a creative use of limited resources and means to achieve a military advantage over an otherwise superior force. For instance, virtually every recorded asymmetric maritime conflict involving armadas of wooden vessels has seen ships converted into fireships. More recently, the extensive use and constant refinement of improvised explosive devices during the US wars in the Middle East and their subsequent global proliferation epitomize the potential of low-cost innovation.

The War Balloon Then . . .

Balloons and other aerostatics have a long history as both high-tech and improvised weapons platforms. Curtis Peebles provides a fantastic survey of aerostatics in military history in The Moby Dick Project, a book published by the Smithsonian Institute Press. Over 125 years before Billy Mitchell fought convention to weaponize airplanes as bombers, balloon proponents began pushing for the military applications of aerostatics and faced the same pushback. France used tethered balloons for reconnaissance at the end of the eighteenth century, until Napoleon discontinued their use, not seeing their value as worth the cost of maintaining a balloon corps. By the 1850s, countries were exploring other uses: long-distance signaling, disseminating propaganda, and even bombardment. During the US Civil War, combined with the telegraph for superior information sharing, Union forces benefitted immensely from their use of aerostatics. Not only did it give timely information that aided in operations, but Confederate forces were compelled to take time and effort to conceal their movements and battle positions as well as to build decoys in order to maintain some opacity in their maneuvers.

Once the airplane became a viable military reconnaissance platform during World War I it seemed as though balloons would become obsolete, relegated to the limited role of a tethered surveillance. Surprisingly, though, their role expands again in World War II, no doubt owing to how economical their mass production became with advances in plastics and rubber manufacturing. On the defense, balloons were used for airspace denial; London’s barrage balloon flotilla was an integral piece of a British air defense system aimed at keeping German fighters and bombers away from strategic locations during the Blitz.

Balloons offered even more applications as unmanned autonomous platforms. The Japanese FuGo fire balloons enjoy a certain amount of notoriety, especially Americans whose families lived on the West Coast during World War II. Mass-produced with ingenious self-ballasting mechanisms and bomb fuses, these platforms aimed to set rampant forest fires across California, Oregon, and Washington for a negligible cost in resources and manpower. Less well known, is the successful British Operation Outward. According to Peebles, for what amounts to around $127 apiece in today’s currency, the British equipped barrage balloons with either a tow cable (to short out power lines) or a bomb payload and floated them across continental Europe, seeking to wreak havoc on strategic centers of gravity with little expenditure of time or effort and with little risk. While the exact impact of Operation Outward is unknown, the cost of the operation almost certainly paled in comparison to the amount of damage to German power grid infrastructure.

. . . The War Balloon Now

Military aerostatics never went away, but a disproportionate—or worse, exclusive—fixation on high-tech innovation leaves little room to acknowledge them as a durable strategic capability. Today’s balloons are capable of carrying significant payloads at stratospheric altitudes, with a negligible radar signature and concealed from visual observation. Advances since World War II have made them far more effective at their historic roles and even opened the door to other applications. For a relatively low cost, a strategic actor could produce a multifunctional aerostatic flotilla capable of executing an array of missions in support of multi-domain operations:

  • Balloons could form a superior, discrete reconnaissance network that provides better information than satellites because of their ability to sustain observation by hovering over a target. Optics and communications systems have evolved well beyond the crude binoculars and telegraph employed during the Civil War. These advances have only made aerostatic reconnaissance platforms that much more economical to deploy and sustain compared to satellites.
  • A constellation of balloons enabling internet access and communications could be deployed to augment ongoing multi-domain operations temporarily and provide redundancies for nodes that enable command and control. This application has some potential benefits for the ongoing development of a Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) network.
  • Employed as decoys and radar-spoofing platforms, aerostatics can confuse enemy automated and manned platforms and be used to conceal higher-priority assets. Being able to confuse enemy systems dilutes antiaccess and area-denial capabilities and disrupts the enemy’s decision-making cycle, giving friendly forces an advantage in tempo and initiative.
  • At the extreme end of the application spectrum, balloons could be used to deploy nuclear warheads that, when discharged at flight altitude, would generate an electromagnetic pulse capable of neutralizing power grids in a five-hundred-mile radius, softening defensive lines prior to a large-scale combat operation and crippling infrastructure.
  • Lastly, balloons could be nested into future drone swarms for command and control or resupply purposes or used to launch hypersonic weapons. Because of their ability to sustain flight, balloons are incredible forward-staging assets for strategic weapons and communications.

Rethinking Aerostatics—and Disruptive Innovation

Returning to the Chinese balloon that traversed an entire continent before finally being shot down, officials have confirmed that it was difficult to spot on radar and verified that reconnaissance was one of its primary functions. Given the versatility in payloads that modern aerostatics can manage, a surveillance platform was the least threatening option to detect in US airspace.

Aerostatic platforms are not flashy or particularly sophisticated, but that is what makes them so valuable as a strategic asset. They were once a cutting-edge innovation that was soon outpaced by dynamic air assets. Then, their low cost and rapid production at scale saw them return to large-scale conflict as an extremely productive improvised weapon. Today, with even greater capabilities than ever before, balloons represent a disruptive branch of implements at a fraction of the cost of apex platforms designed for similar results. When forecasting future threats and anticipating the shape of the next conflict, it is easy to overlook the simple and proven approaches. Even if US military innovation efforts continue to revolve around seeking advantages in technology, it is imperative to avoid expecting others to do the same.

Captain Joe McGiffin serves as the plans officer at the Modern War Institute.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: US Air Force Public Affairs