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Balloon reconnaissance: An old tactic with a modern twist

Less sophisticated but harder to detect, balloons pose an immediate threat to Israel and are still used by enemies of the Jewish state

Eyewitness image taken by Chase Doak captures what is suspected to be a Chinese spy balloon on Wednesday February 1, 2023 (Chase Doak via EYEPRESS)

The recent Chinese “meteorological research balloon gone off track” incidents in North America and then in Latin America are nothing new.

Aerial reconnaissance and intel-gathering missions have been a standard tactic employed by militaries the world over since manned balloon flights themselves were the height of "technology" developed way back in the late 18th century.

The strategic advantage of using airspace was quickly understood by military tacticians. They used these to gather intelligence on enemy forces in the battlefields and to neutralize any pending threat.

From the Civil War era through World War I, aerial balloons were used in conflicts around the world. As technology progressed, new and more sophisticated options replaced the balloons.

The First World War saw the first widespread use of aircraft for both tactical and strategic reconnaissance. This continued into WWII and, as aircraft technology developed past the blade era to jet engines, countries found new ways to exploit these for their purposes.

In the Cold War era, opposing sides developed high velocity aerial reconnaissance aircraft, immortalized for posterity by the U2 incident, when a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) intel gathering flight over the Soviet Union was shot down.

The space age then saw the superpowers turning to “overhead reconnaissance” by use of satellites in the outer atmosphere. Photography became imagery, emissions of all sorts became the object of remote observation. Micro-technology and computers enhanced the surveillance abilities of spy satellites that became the standard for the leading military powers of the modern age.

In 1988 Israel became just the 8th of now 10 countries to deploy satellites for military purposes with the launching of the Ofek 1 surveillance satellite. Since then, it has deployed 10 additional satellites into space.

While Israel enjoys a clear technological advantage over our sworn enemies – whether countries such as Syria or Iran or the various terrorist groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Al Qaeda or Hezbollah – these continue to use less sophisticated means, such as balloons, to attempt their own surveillance gathering and aerial assaults on Israeli citizens.

Balloons are advantageous in that they are harder to detect by radar. They can carry explosives and incendiary devices that can be detonated from a distance and are basically resistant to the air defense systems that Israel has set up against incoming missiles and rockets.

The latest incident over America showed that the U.S. military could quickly detect and monitor the route of the Chinese balloon before it entered American airspace. Israel does not enjoy the privilege of strategic territorial depth as the U.S. does. Any aerial body can enter our airspace within minutes of launching and pose an immediate threat. Thus, such attempts are viewed immediately as a violation of our sovereignty and an act of war.

With all our high-tech nation abilities, Israel itself still uses balloons and puts these to good use in the defense of our borders and for long-range intel gathering and monitoring of enemy territories. These are armed with sensitive and exclusive technologies that are shared with the United States as part of our strategic alliance agreements.

Though one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world, the Chinese also understand that balloons still have advantages. Balloons fly at higher altitudes for long durations of time and of course can be camouflaged as civilian meteorology balloons.

They may very well have been deployed for intelligence gathering purposes. The debris gathered may produce evidence towards that. The Chinese would also certainly have taken every precaution so that this would not in any way be interpreted or perceived as an act of aggression against the U.S.

What is most likely is that the incident itself was perpetrated by the Chinese with the intention of evaluating the American response, to assess American abilities and maybe even serve as a trial run for aggressive intentions they are harboring for the future.

ALL ISRAEL NEWS is committed to fair and balanced coverage and analysis, and honored to publish a wide-range of opinions. That said, views expressed by guest columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of our management or staff.

BG (res) Amir Avivi is the founder and chairman of the Israel Defense and Security Forum, an NGO of over 16,000 former members of the Israeli security forces, which promotes Israeli national security through public outreach, education and research.

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