In recent weeks, a spate of air balloons emerged in Ukraine's airspace that may have been launched from Russia and Belarus. There are peculiar similarities to those spotted in U.S. airspace. Indeed, U.S. intelligence reports said that several drifting Chinese balloons were shot down and that they may have been used for spying.

Let’s take a closer look.

The balloons in Ukraine's airspace had metal reflectors which radars detect as air targets. Their structure is very simple: just two or three metal sheets that perfectly reflect radio waves. Such balloons are rather difficult to shoot down due to their high altitude and low visibility to air defenses.

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They are used to distract, exhaust and even detect air defense systems. Their manufacture is inexpensive while the cost of shooting down one balloon reaches hundreds of thousands of dollars. The enemy wants us to expend our missiles on such decoys instead of its aircraft and cruise missiles that attack our cities and infrastructure.

Russia has aerostats that can carry up to 900 kilograms of payload at altitudes of up to 33 kilometers. Russian media suggests the payload could be bombs or other explosives, even though it is practically impossible to ensure precision. Smaller balloons could carry special equipment for adjusting artillery fire in specific areas.

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According to Yuriy Ihnat, spokesman for the Ukrainian Air Force, our radars can tell one type of aerostat from another and Ukraine will not waste missiles on decoys.

"The Russians probably want us to fire missiles on their balloons, but every aerial target flies at a certain speed and altitude. Reflector balloons are of no lethal threat, but they need to be controlled because there can be something serious among them, as happened in Dnipro on Feb. 12, when an Orlan-10 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was flying among air balloons," said Ihnat.

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Such aerostats usually fly at altitudes of 10,000-20,000 meters where constant winds let them travel thousands of kilometers. Available information on the current and forecast altitudes and directions of wind flows makes it possible to calculate the trajectory of an aerostat and pinpoint its location in real time. Thus, it is possible to plan both meteorological and reconnaissance missions.

Chinese officials did not deny the presence of their balloons in U.S. airspace and explained the incident as atechnical error,” insisting that they were just weather balloons.

Aerostats can be used not only as decoy targets for air defenses, but also for aerial reconnaissance. For the latter purpose, special equipment in small containers transmits data through a closed radio channel. Such small targets – 5-10 meters in diameterdrifting at altitudes over 18 kilometers – are extremely hard to detect, because they are invisible to the naked eye and transparent to radars. Radars can only spot the attached equipment, but even then, the dispersion area is very small.

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This is not the only problem with fighting such aerostats that fly at altitudes unattainable to most fighter jets. Firstly, the pilot has to keep the plane and take aim at the maximum altitude. Secondly, the jets speed greatly exceeds the balloons. The jets radar can only detect such a target at close range, leaving the pilot too little time to fire a missile or the gun. Thirdly, even if a balloon is hit by a missile, it can still fly for hours, letting helium out through two holes. While descending, it may travel 500-100 km. The missile needs to detonate in front of the balloon to destroy it by fragments.

In 1998, a Canadian weather balloon accidentally went out of control and, instead of landing after three days as planned, drifted across Canada toward the Atlantic. Two Canadian Air Force CF-18 fighters were sent to destroy it. The pilots did not use air-to-air missiles but fired more than 1,000 rounds from their automatic guns. Eventually, nine days later, the weather balloon landed in Finland.

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In its aerial warfare against Ukraine the aggressor country uses all types of weaponssatellites, fighters, bombers, UAVs, cruise and ballistic missiles and balloons, each with its specific functions and purpose. Ukraine needs to develop and put into practice adequate methods of counteraction, so its air defenses can accurately detect, identify and destroy flying objects without exposing themselves and spending expensive missiles on balloons.

In modern warfare, it is expedient to use remotely controlled lighter-than-air aircraft, avoiding human losses. Intelligence data obtained from high-altitude aerostats is not inferior in terms of quality to those obtained from satellites. Finally, it should be noted that it is a lot cheaper to manufacture, use and maintain balloons than engine-powered aerial or space systems, which makes them an effective weapon.

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