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China Sees Balloon Launched Drone Swarms in Its Future

Chinese hypersonic boost-glide vehicle bodies being tested aboard a high-altitude balloon. Chinese media screencap
Chinese hypersonic boost-glide vehicle bodies being tested aboard a high-altitude balloon. Chinese media screencap

Astring of shootdowns of high-flying aerial objects over the United States and Canada last month has called new attention to the value of balloons for intelligence-gathering and other military purposes. This also includes acting as launch platforms for drones, potentially in large numbers, that could be then operated as networked swarms. The ability to deploy uncrewed aircraft from high-altitude balloons is real and is something that researchers around the world, including in China, have been publicly experimenting with for years now.

The idea of balloons as tools for intelligence agencies and military forces was thrust back into the public eye at the beginning of February after the U.S. government announced that it had been tracking what it assessed to be a Chinese spy balloon inside U.S. and Canadian airspace. That balloon was subsequently shot down on February 4 and efforts to retrieve the wreckage for further analysis have wrapped up.

This was followed by shootdowns of three more still-unidentified objects over U.S. territorial waters off the northeastern coast of Alaska, Canada's Yukon territory, and Lake Huron, on February 10, 11, and 12, respectively. American officials say they increasingly believe those objects, significant remains of which have not been recovered and may never be, were benign, although they have presented no evidence to support these claims. However, this underscores the complex nature of the potential threat that high-altitude balloons, as well as other uncrewed platforms, present. Last month, President Joe Biden pledged significant changes to how the U.S. government responds to these sorts of incidents and to how these objects will be allowed to operate in U.S. airspace.

For years, The War Zone has been calling attention to the utility of balloons, airships, and other lighter-than-air craft to modern military forces for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions – something that is really not new – among other things. The Chinese government's interest in these kinds of capabilities is well established, as you can read about more in this past feature of ours.

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