Pentagon Betting Big on Balloons for National Defense

July 6, 2022Eric Miller

A Persistence Threat Detection System docked for maintenance in Kandahar, Afghanistan. US Army Photo by Sgt. Ruth Pagan.

Way back in the day, when I was significantly less hairy and still capable of running a mile at a semi-respectable pace, the United States Army sent me overseas to a lovely place known as Forward Operating Base Shank — aka Rocket City. Almost immediately after stepping off the bird, I couldn’t help but notice two things: The first being that this place got more indirect fire than BRCC gets hate tweets; the second was a big-ass balloon floating above the FOB. 

I thought, What the fuck is a balloon doing up there? 

What looked like a giant, military-grade Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Award hovering over FOB Shank was actually something called a Persistent Threat Detection System, or PTDS. It was primarily used for long-range surveillance and to monitor the surrounding area for potential ground attacks and enemy mortar teams. I have no idea whether the PTDS had the ability to slime people, but I would like to imagine that it did. 

US Army and Dutch paratroopers prepare to jump from a ball0on. We’re super jealous. US Army photo by Sgt. Sergio Villafane.

I was surprised at the time to see the United States military using something as whacky and antiquated as balloons on the battlefield. I was even more surprised to learn that the Pentagon still does and now plans to shell out big bucks to use them for homeland defense in the not-too-distant future. 

That’s right. According to a Politico review of Pentagon budget documents, Uncle Sam plans to spend approximately $27.1 million in fiscal year 2023 on balloons. This spending marks the most money anyone has spent on balloons since that time your dad forgot to get them for your birthday and made up for it by buying a 10-pack at the CVS down the road. It is a significant increase in balloon expenditures by the US government, with a measly $3.8 million going to balloonery over the past two years. 

The primary task of these balloons will be surveillance, with the eventual goal of tracking nuclear-capable hypersonic weapons, much like the ones China has been testing recently. 

Although the price point may seem staggering, keep in mind that these aren’t your average balloons. Developed by Raven Aerostar, these balloons are capable of remaining suspended at heights above 60,000 feet for extended periods of time — or until someone pulls off the best BB gun shot of all time. Furthermore, they are equipped with a proprietary machine-learning algorithm, rechargeable batteries, and navigation and communication systems, and they come with a 24-hour support team of trained flight engineers who will inevitably get fired when one of these things inexplicably floats down to earth and wreaks havoc and destruction across Pennsylvania

No word yet on whether you can shape them into funny hats or giraffes, but we’ll keep you posted. 

Read Next: Near Death in the Middle of the Atlantic: Pararescuemen Awarded Air Force Commendation Medal for High-Stakes Tamar Rescue

Eric Miller
Eric Miller

Eric Miller is a former Army Combat Medic from Parkersburg, West Virginia. He holds a bachelor’s degree in history and has worked with homeless populations and veteran services throughout the state. He is an avid outdoorsman and has recently become interested in woodworking.

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