Balloons as weapons pose a serious threat to India

Using them both for civilian and military purposes has been a common practice for long.

 |  4-minute read |   28-01-2016
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In simple terms, balloons fly because they are lighter than air. However, that does not mean that any possible threat to security via balloons route should be taken lightly. On January 26, a "balloon-shaped object" near Barmer in Rajasthan was picked up by air force radars and subsequently intercepted and shot down. Finally, it got identified as a made in America advertisement balloon floating from Pakistan side towards Barmer. The balloon did not carry any suspicious payload like sensors or explosives. However, there is a possibility that the balloon could have been used as a decoy just to check India's air defence preparedness.

Usage of balloons in warfighting has a long history. The Union Army Balloon Corps was a branch of the Union Army during the American Civil War (1861-1865). The unit was used for providing intelligence inputs. During initial days, using balloon for military purposes had its own limitations because the process of handling the hydrogen gas (used for filling balloons) was dangerous and time consuming. Subsequently, with the arrival of portable gas generating device, the process of filling the balloons became manageable. During World War I positioning artillery observers on balloons became a common practice.

The origin of drones, the unmanned platforms which are increasing becoming visible on battlefield in the 21st century actually have a "balloon" origin. During 1989, Austrian forces had attacked the Italian city of Venice with unmanned balloons loaded with explosives. Some of these balloons were also launched from the ship. Interestingly, even though the Austrian forces had succeeded in causing some damage to enemy but they also suffered, because owing to change in the wind direction, the same balloons got blown back on locations from which Austrian forces were operating.

Using balloons both for civilian and military purposes has been a common practice for long. The most frequently used high-altitude balloons are the meteorological balloons. The balloons are also used for commercial (advertising) purposes and for adventure sports. Presently, balloons come in various shapes and sizes and are controllable from ground. Some of them are of tethered variety.

Also, balloon tracking devices are used to monitor their travel. Presently, various armed forces are found increasingly using Aerostat systems. These are tethered balloons which low-level airborne ground surveillance system that uses such balloons as radar platforms. As per some market estimates the market for such systems is estimated to be around US$10.40 billion by 2021.

Interestingly, balloon technology could be used as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and also as a platform to launch high-altitude small UAV's with sensor payloads. Mostly, two types of polyethylene balloons are found being marketed by various commercial agencies: a sounding balloon and a free-floating zero pressure balloon. Presently, owing to availability of power supplies with thin, lightweight solar cells/fuel cells and availability of lightweight sensors and cameras, it has become possible to make balloons as a worthy platform which could offer various advantages over the conventional systems.

There are certain types of balloons which are being developed to offer capacities at par with specific category of satellites. Such balloons are called Near-Space systems which could fly above 20 km from the earth's surface. Presently, Google is working on a venture called "Project Loon" under which they propose to provide internet facilities. Project Loon is about using high-altitude solar and battery powered balloons to transmit high-speed internet over a region. These balloons are expected to float at around 18 to 20 km over the surface of the earth in the stratosphere.

Terrorist organisations also have shown some interest in using balloon technology for destructive purposes. Certain evidence to this effect was found in Afghanistan, post 9/11 invasion by the US forces. Several designs were found being worked out for a long thin balloon (operating 10 km and above) which could hinder an incoming fighter jet. Also, sketches and calculations in respect of developing a balloon system which could carry anthrax spores for dropping on a specific target were found. 

These papers were found in the Kabul office of an NGO headed by Bashiruddin Mehmood, one of the two Pakistani nuclear scientists who was detained in Islamabad for questioning for alleged links with Osama bin Laden. The design involved making a helium-powered balloon filled with anthrax which could be busted say over a city to spread anthrax infection.

On the whole, India should not take the possibility of balloon based threat lightly. Particularly, the winds flowing over the North India are mostly of western origin and they travel from Afghanistan/Pakistan region towards India. Today, such winds assist the cold chill to travel towards northern and western parts of India but, it may be remembered that they could also assist an enemy balloon to travel towards India.         


Ajey Lele Ajey Lele

The writer is a Senior Fellow with Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, Delhi.

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