Lighter than Air: Balloons and Dirigibles in Warfare

It may seem weird, at our present level of technology, to think of a balloon as an international issue and a possible security threat.  Balloons and dirigibles, though, have a long history in warfare and national security.

The first military use of balloons was by the French revolutionary army, which used tethered balloons for observation purposes, notably at the Battle of Fleurus (1794), where a hydrogen-filled balloon was employed. Balloons were used by both sides in the American Civil War; by this time, telegraph equipment was available to facilitate the transmission of messages back to officers on the ground.

In the First World War, balloons were used for observation, and were important in accurate targeting of the longer-range artillery that had become available, but the war also saw the first military use of lighter-than-air craft that could maneuver under their own power–dirigibles.  Prior to the war, the German Zeppelin company had conducted extensive development of dirigibles and had even employed them for scheduled passenger trips within Germany. The LZ 10 Schwaben, built in 1911, was 460 feet long and could carry 20 passengers. Powered by three engines of 145hp each, it could reach a maximum speed of 47mph.

When war broke out, it was inevitable that Zeppelins would be use for military purposes. In the first raid on London, a Zeppelin dropped 3000 pounds of bombs, including incendiaries which started 40 fires.  Seven people were killed.  Airships became larger with heavier bomb loads, and fleets of up to 11 ships attacked the British capital city. The Zeppelins were vulnerable, though, to incendiary bullets and rockets.  Climbing to higher altitudes offered some protection, as did a clever tactic in which the ship would cruise in or above the clouds, with observers situated in a basket lowered as much as a mile below its Zeppelin.  But losses among the attackers were high and growing.  More of these bombing missions here.

A pioneering airborne logistics mission was also attempted, with a resupply mission to the German force in East Africa which was commanded by General von Lettow-Vorbeck.  The airship L-59, seven hundred and fifty feet long, was loaded with fifty tons of equipment and departed on a journey of over 3000 miles.  The intent was that the airship would be cannibalized when it reached its destination with the envelope used for tents and the engines employed to power generators. Just a few hundred miles from its destination, though, the airship received a message stating that General Lettow-Vorbeck had been decisively defeated, there was no longer any point in the mission, and they should return to Germany.  Which they did.  It turned out that the message had been based on a British deception operation.

In the run-up to WWII, the Graf Zeppelin was used to gather signals intelligence on British radio and radar systems. Large rigid airships were not used in the war itself, the US Navy’s ships having all come to bad ends…but blimps were used extensively for antisubmarine work:  168 of them were built for this purpose. They were primarily intended as observation platforms, being eventually equipped with radar and with magnetic anomaly detectors, as well as being great visual platforms, but were also armed with depth charge bombs and machine guns. They were apparently quite effective in helping to combat the submarine menace, and only one of them was lost to enemy action.

Since 1980, tethered aerostats have been used for border surveillance and have also been employed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Stratospheric balloons, such as the Chinese balloon that was just shot down, are used for aerial imagery, telecommunications, and weather forecasting.  They have been improved in recent years, and some of them have at least some ability to navigate in desired directions by changing altitude to find winds going the right way.  More here

39 thoughts on “Lighter than Air: Balloons and Dirigibles in Warfare”

  1. I loved the movie Flyboys, made a few decades ago. It is about Americans in the French Squadron – the Lafayette? – in WW1. A few of the characters were historical composites but they did have a pet lion as a mascot among other things. The end of the movie showed a battle between the allied biplanes trying to shoot down a German Zeppelin and fighting off the German planes.

    Seeing this movie I was reminded of how extensively airships were used in WW1.

    I was driving down West Texas a couple of years ago and you see them in the air trying to combat border intrusions.

    As for the Chinese baloon, the mystery to me is why they allowed it to go across a good part of the country and then shot it down off the coast of Myrtle Beach SC. Surly if shot down in Montana it would have disturbed some cattle.

  2. Puzzling feature about the CovidScam — sorry, I mean the BalloonScam: Why has there been so little coverage in the US about whatever has been China’s reaction to the “crisis”?

  3. Navigate is probably an exaggeration, The balloon can only rise by dropping ballast and descend by venting gas. Eventually one or the other runs out, the balloon will also rise as it warms in the sunlight and descend at night. North America is a realistic target, any particular state, not so much.

    About the only thing a balloon could sense that you couldn’t from a satellite is the atmosphere. The problem is that the atmosphere in the stratosphere is much different than at ground level. There is interchange between the stratosphere and troposphere but determining the location of the source of a particular gas trace is problematic. This usually comes into play for nuclear test ban compliance in places like North Korea. It’s hard to see what China could learn since they already have consulates scattered around where they could install atmospheric monitoring instruments if they wished.

    I wonder if they’ll try to recover this from the water.

  4. A suggestion that I saw in comments to another thread – maybe the Chinese balloons have been frequent fliers of late – and that is why the sudden burst of news/social media posts about UFOS. To give cover to sightings of Chinese balloons, on the part of the tame and attentive media.

  5. This just gets funnier. This has happened before. All advanced societies have meteorologic tools like that balloon. A couple of these went by last year and its not uncommon, as these things are fairly easy to lose.

    Its become obvious that the American reaction is just part of a stupid game. As stupid is defining American foreign policy lately, not surprising.

    A prediction. We will have a major crash in less than 6 months. A big part of this is what has happened in Ukraine. Russia, just now unleashing the winter offensive, after screwing up royally, is the catalyst. America demonstrated conclusively that they will just take your money if they can. This has been noticed worldwide and very many countries are taking their resources to places America does not control. Why do you think the Saudis turned so hard? I expect America’s dollars to lose about half of their value, for starters and we are all in for a world of hurt as that procs, across the world.

    Well not me, I saw this coming. ;) Almost everything that will happen will benefit me.

  6. I followed your link. They call their design semi-rigid. They seem to have replaced duralumin and piano wire with carbon fiber and aramid (Kevlar). Of course, the originals were only semi-rigid as well. That was one of the problems, they were so big the weather at one end could be completely different from the other end.

    I was also amused to see that the first comment was from somebody that claimed to be running his lawn mower on water, he called it hho. Pengun may have missed a bet.

  7. I have never mowed a lawn I owned, and never mowed a lawn at all since I was about 14.

    What I do is cut, well use really, trails that go where I want and leave the rest alone. I like it wild, and anyway, I could probably find my scythe if I needed to. ;)

    Then the rabbits etc can run around and have a place to hide. My cat keeps their gene pool healthy and I like them better than most humans.

    Been doing regen tests on my Solterra for our forum, very interesting how much is possible.

  8. David: thanks for the link… I think. I just may spend all day reading this site instead of working on Chapter 5.

  9. My thought when I first heard of this balloon is that it is potentially a great way to keep an EMP producing nuclear weapon on station whenever you want.

    You condition the US to tolerate these balloons all the time and then- presto- you send one with that nuke, prior to your attack.

    But I admit no one else I’ve read seems to have thought of this angle.

    So I’m surprised to see how much angst this balloon event has generated.

    My guess- the veneer of invulnerability that so many Americans imagine protects the United States has finally been punctured.

    Ha ha.

  10. A dress rehearsal for a surprise attack seems rather counter productive. It’s probably guaranteed that the next one will be shot down before it overflys the Aleutian Islands.

  11. This past weekend an old friend of mine was in town and we were discussing conspiracy theories, specifically their weaponiztion (1619 Project…) when he mentioned we were witnessing the formation of one right now with the Chinese balloon. When you have an event like this with an untrustworthy administration spinning like a top a conspiracy theory is not a bad place to start

    What do we know for sure? First a Chinese balloon with a sensor array entered US airspace in the Aleutians and translated the US for the better part of the week passing by sensitive military sites. We know that, only after transiting the US it was shot down. We know from the Biden Administration that they were deciding what to do with it last Tuesday, Biden ordered it to shoot it down on Wednesday, but was convinced (overruled!?) so that any debris won’t harm anyone on the ground. That’s it….. everything is speculation and I guess maybe even what the Biden Admin said about it’s decision making should be considered unverified though it’s hardly flattering

    Balloons have one very important,advantage and that is persistence over a given spot of earth. They are not hurtling along a fixed orbit or need to keep air moving across the wing with a limited hydrocarbon fuel supply. Therefore they are great for persistent observation of fixed points. However they have 2 big disadvantages in that they have a big radar profile and they are slow which means they cannot operate for very long in airspace that you don’t have superiority

    So given their deficiency as a penetrating vehicle that balloons make poor offensive weapons especially as a first strike weapon over thousands of miles where coordination and timing is key. Also as MCS pointed out the next Chinese balloon will be shot down the moment it enters Alaska… So the element of surprise using those tactic.for any future operation is now.lost

    So given we are in conspiracy theory territory I’ll give you mine based on my conversation with my friend. First remember Mathias Rust? He was the German who flew a small plane through Soviet air space at the height of the Cold War and landed in Red Square. Now it wasn’t like the Soviets couldn’t see Rust’s plane on their systems but rather they couldn’t decide what to do about it,.Their OODA loop was compromised by bureaucratic indecision and one of.the most.sophisticated air defense systems in the world was rendered useless by basically failure by operator.error. Sure they had their “reasons'” for not blowing Rust out of but really?.All the way to the heart of the Soviet empire?

    So CNN ( which I will take as.a.Biden press release reported that the Biden Admin was.informed.on Tuesday that there.was.a.balloon over Montana.and that Biden ordered it shot down on Wednesday but was told by then it was too late as the balloon was now over populated areas where people.on the ground.would be in danger.from debris. So the balloon continue.

    The CNN worth the reading
    because it is Administration CYA and shows its spin. A spy balloon over US airspace? Not.that big a deal, certainly not something to.alert the NCA during his daily intelligence briefing, because apparently Chinese spy balloons fly over US airspace all the time – it took 4 days to tell the President. Huh

    Also why when was Biden was told by theirs on Tuesday was he not given the time boundaries for making a decision? If Biden’s first instinct was to shoot it down but that option wasn’t going to viable by the next day why was the decision delayed until the next day to review options? Besides that you are worried about damaging stuff on the ground in one of the most sparsely populated parts of the country? Who would get killed? A cow? Even so why wasn’t Biden told on Tuesday that if he wanted to shoot it down that Wednesday would be too late?

    So if you believe the article, and I do in terms of reading in the way a Soviet would read Pravda, foreign military aircraft routinely violate American airspace and nobody does anyrhing or tells anyone, when people are told they are not provided with effective options for dealing with the threat…this is the defense of the homeland? I mean the Soviets had the excuse with Rust that it was a one-time extraordinary event that developed over several hours, what we have here is a recurring problem over the better part of a week

    The other item, only hinted in the story? What role did the upcoming Blinked trip to China impede the ability of the Administration to decide whether to shoot down the balloon Did.the Biden Admin think shooting down the balloon too provocative with the Blinked trip still on the table?

    What do I think as.a possible scenario theory, as crazy ax it sounds, but plausibly meets the facts as currently known? This was a deliberate probe by the Chinese to gain information not so much about a given installation but how well the American air defense system can respond to an intrusion and the NCA can respond to a.crisis. iWe.see that information on homeland security is bureaucratized and therefore rendered ineffective, so much for.the lessons of.9/11. We.alsk.see.that the NCA is incapable of.making decisions within an effective OODA loop; probably Biden is no longer capable of.doing so and this crisis simply proves to the Chinese that while the White -House can stagger along with a Biden recency , the NCA cannot

    The scary thing is that while the information gained from this probe is invaluable, it I is tied to Biden in the White House and therefore timebound which provides an urgency for the Chinese to act.

  12. Mike – comment seen on another site said that the Chinese can’t get inside the White House decision loop because….it doesn’t have one.

  13. If China wants to know how the Biden admin reacts, they just have to ask whichever of their spies are handling the Bidens. China’s head of military intelligence bought the Clintons with bags of cash. In return they got access to every CIA file and diplomatic cable via John Huang. Bubba celebrated with his paymaster in the Oval Office.

    They bought the Bidens via Hunter. And the millions to the Penn Biden Center. Follow the money.

    No matter how corrupt and disgusting you think the deep state is, it’s worse than you think.

  14. Re the radar signature of the Chinese balloon, see this:

    Also, while searching, I found this conversation among air traffic controllers about the radar visibility of weather balloons:

    While military radars are likely different from ATC radars in some ways, I wouldn’t be surprised if the speed filtering is also normally turned on for them.

  15. We may all be missing the point. While the “There’s a squirrel!” nonsense of the Great Balloon distraction was clogging up the media, the Biden* MalAdministration was paid off to allow shadowy forces (Iranian? Afghani? Wagner PMC?) to sneak some of those Stinger missiles which were sent to the Ukraine across the open southern border.

    But, but, but — a Chinese weather balloon is so much more dangerous!

  16. MCS
    February 6, 2023 at 9:27 pm

    February 7, 2023 at 4:43 am

    With the current National Command Authority, and chain of command I would not bet on the next one, or the one after that, und so weiter being shot down. I would rather expect them to be considered normalized and not a threat.

    Subotai Bahadur

  17. Indeed, SB – what in the heck have we kept Norad for, all these decades, if not to detect and counter airborne threats coming from that general direction!

  18. …to sneak some of those Stinger missiles which were sent to the Ukraine across the open southern border.

    Think bigger. I see no reason not to believe that nukes could be brought across the border and stashed wherever, because the regime is just that indifferent to the fate of the actual United States. And no reason to pay anyone off for that opportunity, either.

    But, but, but — a Chinese weather balloon is so much more dangerous!

    Maybe this one was a weather balloon. Maybe not the next one, or the 33rd.

    I’d say the key takeaway here is that the regime has so little interest in the actual physical security of the country that they allowed a foreign device to overfly the entire continent without reaction, until the media embarrassed them. Maybe this has happened before, and this event was only disclosed because the Deep State wants Biden gone and thus now an incentive to expose to make him or his handlers look foolish. Maybe this is the first overflight, etc.

    But nothing about this story makes any part of the US government look even mildly competent.

  19. Sgt. Mom
    February 7, 2023 at 4:18 pm

    Long, long ago when the world was new and my writing was for professional military journals; I was invited to and did visit a lot of interesting places. Among them was the inside of Cheyenne Mountain, when NORAD was still there [it is and has been at Peterson AFB for some time]. I have been inside the command war room sitting in CINCNORAD’s chair. No, nothing special with that other than I was by it when the briefer asked us to sit down.

    However, the NORAD I saw then considered their purpose to be just that defense.

    A bit of historical trivia. The Great Wall of China did work extremely well protecting China from barbarian threats for an awful long time. Until the barbarians figured out that it was easier to bribe those controlling the Wall and its gates.

    Subotai Bahadur

  20. Subotai: “Until the barbarians figured out that it was easier to bribe those controlling the Wall and its gates.”

    Exactly! We all know that the real enemy of the people of the United States is occupying the DC Swamp. It hardly matters whether the Swamp Creatures are sinking the US because they are bought off or because they are just plain stupid. Functionally, We the People are living in an occupied country where the rulers do not have the interests of the people at heart. And there does not seem to be much we can do about it.

  21. So there was an article in the Washington Post of all places ( whatever) revealing that the Chinese have been using balloons in a widespread global surveillance program. The article is pay walked but a summary can be found here

    So if you read the WP article and the CNN earlier you may think crack journalists are doing the hard work getting to the bottom of the story but if you read it Pravda like, you see a spin favoring the Biden Admin

    What image was the CNN image trying to project? That the Biden Administration was on top of the balloon incursion from the start, projecting an image of strength
    Yes the balloon was discovered Wednesday by civilians with cellphone cameras but the NCA was already on the case and Biden (probably while wearing his aviator glasses) wanted to shoot it down but had to be held back. Where did CNN get the info to write the story and.present this image? It wasn’t from reporting but rather from the Biden Administration which wanted the world to know that they aren’t incompetent weasels. CNN now doubt will cost a Pulitzer

    That WP article? If you pair it with the timeline of events from last week it doesn’t sound that flattering and the sources are leaks which means probably Admin approved. So why was it planted? Because there will be Congressional hearings on this and there is good chance there this will be coming out anyway. Damage control, deflate the impact.of any negative revelations

    Yes media.are a.bunch of biased trap weasels but sometimes you can look at what they write not as.biased.information so much close cousins to.advertising in trying to.selli an image to their readers.

    So what do I take.from those.2 articles? That the Biden Administration would s scared because they know this story has got.legs and there is.a.chance that.a.Republican congressional investigation might ask uncomfortable questions. Limited hangout damage control for at best a non composed.mentis.NCA and at worst…..

  22. David–interesting link about shooting down balloons, thanks.
    I wonder–are the jets maneuverable enough at that altitude to do a close fly-by–close enough for turbulence and maybe exhaust to stress the balloon fabric within its rigging?

  23. that would suggest they were more proactive, not less, so the balloon flew over japanese airspace, maybe the marianas before reaching the aleutians

    consider a lesser noted link about a release from gitmo, a saudi born pakistani named majid khan who went to pakistan and sought out ksm, and was captured in 2004 and spend 16 years at guantanamo, of course he availed himself of top shelf legal talent, from ccr the mirage formed by feinstein staffer and steele dosssier 2,0 author dan jones, he has been resettled in belize,

  24. My initial though about the Air Force’s tepid response was that, perhaps off-course weather balloons are more common than we might suppose. So common that NORAD notes them, but sees no need to up-channel a report. As long as they stay up at 60,000 feet, above commercial airspace, they’re not a threat to anyone. Maybe when they start descending they publish a NOTAM to the affected region (IDK).

    There’s been some more recent chatter about this particular balloon having all sorts of exotic sensors. I think that’s a lot of internet speculation, so I’m withholding judgment on that.

    As far as being “the perfect platform for an EMP weapon,” 60,000 feet is not high enough to create more than a very local EMP. You need to detonate a nuke at several hundred thousand feet to get the wide-ranging EMP that everyone talks about. Also, our ICBMs are hardened against EMP.

    But I will concede that there’s tremendous value in simply launching such balloons into US airspace just to mess with us, especially given the recent theatrics. It might be illuminating to launch a similar weather balloon off the China coast and let it drift inland, just to watch their reaction.

  25. My initial though about the Air Force’s tepid response was that, perhaps off-course weather balloons are more common than we might suppose.

    Good point- but then why the bizarre hysteria that ensued once this device was discovered?

    If it was only a common weather balloon off course, then the AF should have simply said so. No muss, no fuss. That didn’t happen. We’re now up to the third balloon shot down. Hmmm…

    As far as being “the perfect platform for an EMP weapon,” 60,000 feet is not high enough to create more than a very local EMP.

    Awesome. Local enough to take out a critical defense site? ICBM field? I don’t know, but I have to say I don’t trust either the intentions of the Chinese regime or the competence of the American one.

    The reaction this this reminds me of the reaction to the Orson Wells radio broadcast of the War of the Worlds circa 1938. I’ve read that there was a good deal of hysteria back than , and I think the reason was because people were worried about the general situation.

    They had good reason to be worried then, and I think we have good reason to be worried now.

  26. Xennady — our ICBMs are hardened against EMP, as are most of our nuclear-related C2. As a former missileer, I’m not particularly worried. (But then again, sh*t happens — we’ve never actually tested an operational silo against a real weapon.)

    War of the Worlds is an apt analogy. I think the media hysteria quickly spiraled way out of control, rumor feeding rumor in an ever-accelerating churn. The talking heads are pig-ignorant of all things military, for starters, and they seem to revel in it. The old saying about rumor going halfway around the world before truth puts on its shoes, applies here. The truth doesn’t sell — witness the early and ample evidence that the mRNA vaccines were worthless; that info was shoved aside.

    I’ll reserve judgement until we find out what sensors were on that balloon, and the other we’ve just shot down (I sense another moral panic brewing, as we start clearing the skies of weather balloons). But I’m still sticking with Occam’s Razor.

  27. Agree on the War of the Worlds comparison. People don’t trust the institutions and fear that something will get out of control and lead to catastrophe. In 1938 people feared fascism. In 2023 people fear, depending on their worldviews: Chinese expansionism, domestic political oppression, nuclear war, personal contamination by pathogens or environmental pollution, natural disaster caused by man-made climate change, etc. Not all of these fears are irrational.

    Regardless of any threat posed by a balloon, this incident is a big deal because everyone sees that once the balloon became a subject of public concern the top US leaders were unable to respond effectively. They botched a situation over which they had complete control. They misunderstood the issues, saw the event mainly as a PR problem, failed to make timely decisions and lied to the public. It was like the Afghanistan withdrawal, on a much smaller scale and without the death and destruction but with a similar profound incompetence.

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