spy balloon

Asymmetry, Subterfuge, & Tomorrow Wars

It has been a year since the Chinese Spy Balloon incident.

Nobody is talking about it anymore.

Except for maybe a few nerds who track this stuff.

I get it.

It’s not the juicy hot topic of the day like it was when it first happened — and we tend to stop giving a shit about stuff once we hear about it once — so nobody is really talking about it anymore.

(more on normalcy bias below)

But despite our best efforts to block out reality, the fact remains: these “spy balloons” are still flying over strategic points of interest and conducting surveillance with even greater frequency.

I think the most recent spotting that made the news cycle happened over Taiwan a few weeks ago — it happened very quietly, and then it disappeared from the cycle — but if there is one instance of this happening in a strategic location, you can reasonably assume there are more.

Possibly many more.

spy balloon 2024

China’s PLA activity around Taiwan through January 2024, where there have been roughly 57 reported balloon flights and 17 overflights. (via @detresfa_)

And this “very small threat” (as described by US intelligence officials) could very soon become a very serious problem as balloon tech becomes more sophisticated, and eventually weaponized, as today’s engineers are able to build them at even greater levels of abstraction and scale.

The United States, as a prime example, has made a focused and dedicated effort to the manufacturing and improvement of computer software and hardware over the past 70 years.

And, we have gotten really good at it.

During that time, as hardware became faster and cheaper, the nerds were able to write their code at higher levels of abstraction — and with an added boost from modern economics — we have been able to significantly grow our economy over this timespan, which helped fuel even more growth in software.

But our enemies have stolen our playbook.

And they have been experimenting with and implementing Keynesian style Fiat-o-Nomics into their world domination strategies — not only because doing so allows you to rapidly grow an economy — but because it also gives you the ability to invest heavily in technology and conduct long-duration, sustained, total war.

Many of these nations were 20, 50, 100 years behind us not too long ago, but you could make the case that a few of them, China most notably, has achieved parity, at least on a technological level.

Note: As software became more user-friendly (and hardware got cheaper and faster) software engineers were able to write software at higher levels of abstraction, leading to an increase in accessibility and appeal. This lead to higher demand, as a broader user base was able to utilize the technology effectively. Products like the iPhone and web applications like Twitter and Instagram exemplify this trend. As software was able to be abstracted at higher levels, developers were also able to develop it more efficiently, lowering development time and cost. This led to higher demand for software developers as businesses wanted to leverage technology to gain a competitive advantage. Lastly, the evolution of abstraction techniques (e.g., cloud computing and virtualization) have expanded the capabilities of software significantly. This, in turn, has led to an even higher demand for software that can leverage these advancements. 

As I mentioned earlier, this trend began around the mid-1950s — a period of history that many nerds now call the beginning of the ‘tech era’ — and over the past 70 years the demand for software has continued to grow, fueling economic growth, and giving private competing companies and warring nations alike the ability to make better software to support their objectives.

Today, software/technology is being built at levels of abstraction never before witnessed in human history, and it can be delivered worldwide at scale.

Spy balloon technology, for example, has benefited significantly due to this trend – and over the past 200 years – has advanced from one of the simplest forms of espionage, to one of the most technologically advanced and useful.

That said, in the interest of full transparency, I must add that my company, Deimos-One, designs and develops advanced autonomous stratospheric vehicles.

In simple English: we build advanced robots (aka payloads) that are carried by balloons, and these robots can perform a variety of actions in the sky (undetected by the human eye) at altitudes ranging from 60,000 to 120,000 feet (nearly 23 miles above the Earth’s surface).

They are very modular and built to be adaptable and multi-mission capable.

They can appear and disappear.

They can shift flight path and direction.

They can launch from nearly anywhere.

Most are benign, but you could easily modify them for warfare.

We have interfaced with the U.S. Air Force and NASA, and while I can’t go into specifics about what was discussed in those meetings, I can say that a lot of countries are starting to invest heavily in stratospheric (balloon-borne) warfare technologies, and China has a very robust, modern “spy balloon” program.

But let’s pivot back to the original Chinese spy balloon incident for a moment.

At a press conference on February 2, 2023, a senior US defense official noted that they had tracked the balloon and “our best assessment at the moment is that whatever the surveillance payload is on this balloon, it does not create significant value added over and above what the [People’s Republic of China] is likely able to collect through things like satellites in low-Earth orbit.”

While this may all be true to a certain extent, I do not think that they are talking about all of the risks here.

Case in point: US intelligence officials also recently figured out (nearly a year later) that the same Chinese spy balloon used an American internet service provider to communicate. The balloon connected to the US-based company, then sent and received communications from China. The connection apparently allowed the balloon to send high-bandwidth collections of data over short periods of time.

Again, this is all relatively harmless in theory, and of course it’s easy to rationalize your way out of being absolutely terrified (e.g. “ha ha they make it sound like it was high level espionage when all you need to do is sign up for a Verizon account“).

But if you work with balloon technology long enough, a lot more risks begin to reveal themselves, and when you sit down and really crunch the numbers you begin to notice that the probability of belligerence via balloon does not seem completely theoretical.

It is no secret that the United States military faces growing challenges ranging from great powers China and Russia to regional threats like North Korea and Iran – all of whom seek to undermine their neighbors’ stability and revise geopolitical relationships in their favor – so one cannot underestimate the importance of vigilance in this regard.

So What Is The Threat Level?

Over the past few months, we have conducted multiple assessments and run in-house simulations exploring the largely ignored feasibility of a foreign balloon attack and the related countermeasures a nation may need to implement to defend against such actions.

Based on our calculations, it seems statistically probable that, factoring in the known Technical Readiness Levels (TRL) of existing balloon technologies and/or defenses, one (whether a government or private entity) could theoretically fly an autonomous balloon in stealth over just about any landmass on Earth — and then drop a nuclear payload from stratospheric altitude onto a strategic target.

Note: The stratosphere is the second major layer of Earth’s atmosphere, lying above the troposphere and below the mesosphere. It starts about 10 to 15 kilometers (6 to 9 miles) above Earth’s surface and extends up to about 50 kilometers (31 miles) high.

At stratospheric altitude, a spy balloon in this class will have the ability to hover for 30 to 60 days, out of the range of aircraft like the F-35 (which has a ~15 kilometer max altitude) making intercept/takedown very difficult.

When operating at these altitudes, a balloon can be incredibly difficult to shoot down, (or even detect), so in theory, this sort of mission could be carried out in stealth using a single balloon or even in a balloon swarm.

A balloon swarm, for example, could be deployed in a group of 5, 10, or even 20+ balloons, all programmed to perform different/various tasks to support the mission objective and/or create redundancies.

The swarm could operate and hover at various altitudes (18 kilometers – 40+ kilometers) or (60,000 – 130,000+ feet) for long durations, out of the range of most aircraft, and shooting them down from the ground carries its own set of challenges and risks.

But for the purposes of this shitty analysis, let’s assume a nefarious entity decided to run a stealth balloon attack operation, and we will also assume that balloon is carrying a nuclear payload.

If that payload were to be dropped directly in the center of the United States, there is a decent probability that the blast (the EMP effects most notably) could have the potential to cause mass destruction spanning all the way to both the east and west coasts.

Note: The extent of the EMP footprint can vary significantly based on several factors (e.g., weapon design, yield, atmospheric/geological conditions, etc.) but a high-altitude nuclear explosion (e.g., higher than 30 kilometers) can produce an EMP effect over a vast area. The higher the detonation, the wider the EMP footprint, so, theoretically, detonation at extremely high altitudes can affect an entire continent.

Now, you may be thinking “bro, it’s a balloon, this can’t be a serious threat as a weapon of modern warfare”. 

Sure, when most people hear the word “balloon” they immediately think of clowns or something that is not serious — but balloon technology has gotten incredibly sophisticated over the years — and balloons could become a dangerous weapon on the modern battlefield much sooner than a lot of people realize.

Note: One of the largest NASA research balloons ever flown (called the SPB) had a diameter of around 122 meters (400 feet), giving it an equivalent size of roughly three American football fields. These balloons can carry payloads of about 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds) and can fly for extended periods, potentially over 100 days at a time. Traditional zero pressure balloons, on the other hand, can carry even heavier payloads, and are capable of lifting payloads of 3,600 kilograms (8,000 pounds) or more, making them mission capable of carrying both tactical and strategic nuclear payloads which typically have a max weight of roughly 2,000 kilograms (4,400 pounds), depending on the design and the delivery mechanism.

spy balloon

A prototype aerial robotic balloon, or aerobot, is readied for a sunrise test flight from the California desert (credit: D1L/Deimos-One).

So, how did we get here?

For argument’s sake, we will start at the very beginning.

Spy balloons have been surveilling humans since 1794.

Alas, it’s true.

This stuff is nothing new.

Let’s hit rewind on our VCRs.

We will take a step back in time and try to find an origin point of where this spy balloon bonanza may have all began.

The first military use of these bad boys traces back to the French Revolution (1794), where during the Battle of Fleurus, the French used hot-air balloons (aka aerostats) for reconnaissance over enemy positions.

At the time, this marked a significant advancement in military tactics, as the balloons offered an aerial perspective of the battlefield unlike anything seen before in history.


Let’s hit fast forward on our VCRs.

We are now in the American Civil War (1860s).

Both the Union and Confederate forces used hot-air balloons for reconnaissance.

It is noted by some scholars, that a dude named Thaddeus Lowe (who was a soldier in the Union Army’s Balloon Corps) used spy balloons to gather critical information about Confederate troop movements.

Let’s hit fast forward again on our VCRs.

We are now in the 20th Century, in the thick of global war.

During World War I (1914-1918), balloons were mainly used for artillery spotting — they were tethered at specific locations and elevations, which provided a stable platform for observers. Their weakness, however, was that they were easy targets for enemy aircraft and ground fire.

Later on, in World War II (1939-1945), armies changed their tactics and we saw a shift towards more defensive strategies. As a prime example: the British used barrage balloons to protect against low-flying aircraft during the Blitz.

During the Cold War Era (1947-1991), however, things shifted back towards reconnaissance, but balloons saw very limited use during this time. Most historians contend that the bulk of spy balloon use during the Cold War was carried out by the United States over the Soviet Union, and that they typically involved early integrated forms of photographic and signal intelligence.

Today (2024+) modern spy balloons are incredibly sophisticated, and they incorporate all of the advanced technologies of our time (AI, machine learning, stealth, cloud, high-powered cameras, and more) and they can stay in the air at very high altitudes for up to 100 days or more.

These modern balloons can float at the edge of space, providing a high-performance platform for continuous monitoring of large areas.

In recent years, countries like the United States and China have been investing heavily in this area, and both countries now have advanced “top secret” spy balloon programs designed for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions.

These modern systems often incorporate stealth technologies to evade detection, they can linger over areas of interest for extended periods, and offer a cheaper, less provocative alternative to satellites for intelligence gathering.

I don’t think it would be super difficult to outfit one of these with a weapon of mass destruction, but it would be helpful to conduct a few test runs first, and that may be what we are witnessing right now.

So, could a balloon attack happen soon on United States soil?

I think it is technologically achievable, but it’s probably unlikely in the near term due to various game theoretical constraints.

But, for argument’s sake, let us consider the possibility.

With supercomputers, machine learning, AI, and advanced weapons systems, would it be possible to conduct a nuclear attack on the United States using a spy balloon?

Let us see.

We will run the analysis using default settings in [smoov.bra.in2023] and build a predictive model using our proprietary and completely made up Advanced Technology Abstraction and Readiness Index (ATARI).

First, we evaluate the known params:

-Technical Readiness Level
-Defensive Preparedness
-Stealth Technology Efficiency
-Detection Capability
-Deployment Success Probability
-EMP Effectiveness Level
-Geopolitical Stability Level
-Environmental Impact Factor
-Strategic Value
-Optimism Bias Index

bla bla bla

Now, let us consider a function of a complex variable f(z) = nuke + us where we assign technical readiness levels, defensive preparedness, stealth technology efficiency, detection capability index, and deployment success a specific weight to form a probabilistic argument to estimate the chance that a mass destruction event will occur, and/or the event’s place in spacetime, and/or the number of active events that may occur within or beyond our star.

Let us import the vars into our shitty bathroom formula:

us² [(x²) + (y²) + y(z²)] + ded
P = ——————————————
Σi (7x – war + nuke²)

Solving for nuke + us we can conclude with a 69% probability that shit happens and that shit will probably happen until shit happening ceases to occur.

Explanation of Variables:

  1. Technical Readiness Level (TRL): Evaluates the developmental stage and operational reliability of the balloon’s advanced technologies, such as stealth capabilities and weapon deployment systems, from initial concept to fully tested and mission ready.
  2. Defensive Preparedness Index (DPI): Gauges the target nation’s defensive readiness and capability to respond to or mitigate such an attack, including counter-EMP technologies, emergency response systems, etc.
  3. Stealth Technology Efficiency (STE): Measures the effectiveness of the balloon’s stealth technology, considering factors like radar cross-section, infrared signature, and visual camouflage.
  4. Detection Capability Index (DCI): Rates the target nation’s ability to detect the threat, considering radar coverage, satellite surveillance, other sensing technologies, etc.
  5. Deployment Success Probability (DSP): Estimates the probability of successful weapons deployment, considering variables like weather conditions, interception likelihood, navigational accuracy, etc.
  6. EMP Effectiveness Index (EEI): Assesses the weapons effectiveness and potential impact of an EMP, factoring in the blast radius, intensity, and resilience of the target’s infrastructure.
  7. Geopolitical Stability Index (GSI): Assesses the likelihood of a nation engaging in aggressive acts based on economic and political stability, international relations, and historical context.
  8. Environmental Impact Factor (EIF): Considers environmental variables affecting the mission, the balloon’s path and the effectiveness of an EMP (e.g., atmospheric conditions, solar activity, etc.).
  9. Strategic Value (SV): Assess the strategic importance of the target location based on factors like population density, military presence, and economic and/or geological significance.
  10. Optimism Bias Index (OBI): Quantifies the tendency of decision-makers to underestimate the likelihood or impact of negative events. This could be measured by historical miscalculations in similar scenarios, expert elicitation regarding common biases, and/or psychological profiling of decision-makers.

Now, considering the quality and scope of our bullshit formula, we will need to make some tweaks to model this thing more accurately and improve confidence levels — so we will take a more multidisciplinary approach and integrate elements from military strategy, political science, physics, and technology.

Here’s a conceptual framework:

  1. We will synthesize a multifaceted probabilistic analysis with doctrinal military stratagems and cutting-edge scientific/technological advancements.
  2. We will use Bayesian inference to update probabilities as new information becomes available.
  3. We will leverage sophisticated data processing tools, including machine learning algorithms, artificial intelligence, and edge computing to rapidly evaluate potential threat vectors and discern anomalous activities.
  4. We will run advanced analysis to determine detection probabilities and fail points of any and all surveillance apparatus, and detection systems, including any possible countermeasures.
  5. We will draw upon the principles of game theory and diplomacy, buttressed by astute quantitative analysis and geopolitical intelligence to guide strategic imperatives.

This schema is not comprehensive, but rather serves as a basic guide to build off of to solve for aerial intrusions and their associated probabilities, threat levels, readiness levels and defenses.

That said, to build a model that is accurate and robust, we will also need to calibrate it using historical data, expert elicitation, and simulation studies.

Then we will plug all of the variables into our super awesome, top secret, and completely made up Advanced Technology Abstraction and Readiness Index (ATARI) matrix to get a true probability.

This index, in theory, would quantify the complexity and advancement of the balloon’s technology, including its stealth capabilities, propulsion systems, payload efficacy (e.g., the nuclear weapon and/or resulting EMP effects), any modern and/or futuristic technological abstractions that might be employed (e.g., AI, quantum computing elements, etc.), including defensive techniques and/or political constraints and unfold everything into a probabilistic matrix, scaled ad infinitum.

Model Calibration, Data Sources, and Use:

  • Data and Expertise: The model would require calibration using historical data, expert opinions, and simulations. The addition of OBI necessitates input from behavioral psychologists and experts in decision-making processes.
  • Dynamic Adjustments: OBI should be reassessed periodically to reflect changing leadership, cultural shifts, and historical learnings.
  • Weight Adjustments: The OBI could alter the weights of other variables, particularly DSP and DPI. If optimism bias is high, it might lead to overestimating defensive capabilities (DPI) or underestimating the adversary’s technological efficiency (STE).
  • Scenario Analysis: In scenario planning, varying levels of optimism bias (OBI) can be applied to see how underestimation of risk affects preparedness and response strategies.
  • Simulation Studies: Run simulations using various scenarios to test the model’s reliability and adjust weights accordingly.
  • Historical Data: Use past incidents of similar nature (if available) for initial calibration.
  • Expert Elicitation: Consult with experts in geopolitics, military strategy, and technology to assess the weights and values of different factors.

Known Limitations:

Predictive models in complex and speculative scenarios (such as balloon belligerence that are nuclear in nature) are inherently limited by the availability and reliability of data, the rapidly changing nature of technology, and the unpredictable nature of human decision-making in high-stakes geopolitical contexts.

Therefore, this shitty model should not be used as a definitive predictor of events, but rather a fun tool to use in an exploratory exercise of risk and readiness.

Additionally, as humans are unpredictable by nature, it is difficult to accurately measure and quantify biases (e.g., optimism bias, availability heuristic, status quo bias, etc.) and their effect on certain outcomes, as they tend to be dynamic in nature, change in response to stimuli, and may require more sophisticated psychological assessments and/or historical analysis in a continuous reevaluation framework within the model for more accurate results.

That said, we decided to include human bias to make the model more nuanced, and reflect not just the strategic and technological aspects of such an attack, but also the human element (as an important psychological dimension) which is often pivotal in decision-making processes (and the corresponding outcomes) as human decision-makers often tend to underestimate the likelihood or impact of negative events.

futuristic spy balloon

A futuristic balloon-carried payload flies over urban areas in the stratosphere.

Now, let’s move on to the fun but less obvious solution sets.

We must ask ourselves:

  1. Are there advantages to the suborbital position? If so, what?
  2. Is it possible to stop a spy balloon? If so, how?

If you were to present this question to the general public (or even a college classroom), you will usually get the same response: “I’d just shoot that sucker down, pew pew!” or something along those lines.

But, shooting down a spy balloon, particularly of the modern high-altitude, stealth tech variety, can be very difficult for many reasons, but the top ones are usually:

1. Altitude Range. Modern spy balloons often operate at extremely high altitudes, often reaching a point of apogee around the edge of space (in the stratosphere).

This operating range is typically around 20 to 50 kilometers (65,000 to 165,000 feet) above the Earth’s surface, far higher than commercial aircraft and well beyond the range of most conventional anti-aircraft weapons (and even some air-to-air missiles).

To shoot down a balloon at such altitudes, you would need specialized equipment such as long-range missiles or interceptors equipped with high-altitude capabilities, but at high altitudes, the thinner air provides less resistance, making it harder for intercepting missiles or projectiles to maneuver.

Some possible solution sets may include: developing a specialized warhead or directed energy weapon capable of reaching and operating at extreme altitudes.

2. Balloon Size & Materials. Advanced balloons are often designed and structured to deflect radar waves (i.e., they are coated with radar-absorbent materials and have a relatively small radar cross section) making it difficult for conventional radar systems to detect them.

This can make detecting, tracking, and targeting a spy balloon a real challenge.

They are also built using advanced materials that reduce the balloon’s visibility in both the optical and infrared spectrums, making it challenging for these types of tracking systems to detect and locate it.

As an added bonus, the materials they are using now to construct these balloons aren’t like the party balloons you are used to.

Internally, they are designed with redundancy and damage control as a top priority and are built using advanced materials that are resistant to puncturing and tearing. If the balloon is damaged, self-sealing materials are able repair minor breaches, making it more difficult to “deflate” one and take it down using conventional strategies.

Additionally, many spy balloons these days incorporate advanced AI for autonomous operations and have redundant systems built in for navigation and control, which allow the balloon to (1) adapt its behavior to avoid detection/interception; (2) ensure continued operation if a component is compromised; and (3) continue its mission if it is partially damaged.

Some possible solution sets may include: developing quantum radar technology, AI-enhanced pattern recognition/interception systems that can detect and predict the movement of objects with extreme low observability.

3.  Balloon Defense Systems. A modern spy balloon, which for all practical purposes is a highly sophisticated ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) platform, is often equipped with advanced countermeasures which, despite a balloon’s inability to move very fast, provide it with the ability to evade detection and interception.

First and foremost, a balloon in this class is probably going to utilize stealth technology and build it into the balloon’s materials and structure, which will significantly reduce its visibility to detection systems, making it harder to track.

This stealth tech will more than likely be complemented by electronic countermeasures (e.g., emission control, radar jammers, signal encryption, etc.) and physical countermeasures (e.g., dynamic shape alteration) to further obscure its location from enemy tracking and make the balloon harder to detect.

It could also feature thermal and optical camouflage technologies (e.g., stealth paint, radar-absorbent material, etc.) which would minimize its thermal footprint and alter light reflection, further complicating visual and heat-seeking detection methods.

But, if you’re like me, you’re not going to just outfit your spy balloon with passive defenses, you’re going to be aggressive so your payload can actively adapt to threats.

This means equipping it with AI-powered propulsion/navigation and autonomous controls, enabling it to perform dynamic, evasive maneuvers in response to detected threats, without the need for direct human assistance.

This system (in theory) would allow the balloon to rapidly change direction in all axes of motion, exploiting every advantage the stratosphere may offer to make detection and interception more challenging.

As an added bonus, you could build in some logic that would allow your balloon to use real-time atmospheric data so it could autonomously maneuver into weather conditions that offer additional cover, leveraging natural phenomena as a low-cost shield against detection and engagement.

And if you really found yourself in trouble, the balloon could deploy decoys and chaff to create false targets and confuse radar-guided weapons.

Note: If the balloon is technically sophisticated it could deploy a swarm of mini-drones for active defense, or even kinetic systems to intercept incoming projectiles, but these are more futuristic technologies and not yet applicable to the wars of today. 

4. Technical Challenges. Adding a new layer to an already complex mission, one must also bear in mind the technical challenges and risks associated with shooting down a high-altitude spy balloon.

These challenges and risks can be multifaceted and significant, but the most notable of all is probably the debris fallout.

When a high-altitude (often heavy payload) object like a spy balloon is destroyed, for example, the resulting debris follows a trajectory influenced by multiple factors, which can destroy property on the ground, as well as injure/kill people.

So, your challenge here is the prediction and control of the debris trajectory.

What is the size, composition, and altitude of the balloon?

What is its payload?

How will the debris disperse in the atmosphere?

If the altitude is significant, it can result in a broader dispersal pattern, increasing the area at risk on the ground.

That said, you will also need to project the size and nature of the debris.

Larger debris fragments can cause significant damage upon impact, especially in populated areas.

Additionally, if the balloon carries hazardous materials or sensitive equipment (e.g., a nuclear weapon) there is a risk of detonation and/or contamination upon impact.

To make a very difficult probability distribution even more difficult, you will need to take into account atmospheric conditions (e.g., wind patterns, air density, etc.) as they will play a critical role in the debris’ descent path, making an accurate prediction challenging.

Taking all of these factors into account, if you were to build a risk mitigation model, you should probably bake in some sophisticated prediction algorithms that can help you determine the best interception method; taking into account the balloon’s altitude, trajectory, flight path, atmospheric conditions, etcetera, to help you optimize your interception method of choice while minimalizing debris size and ground risk.

So, now that we got all of that out of the way, let’s dive into the good stuff.

What type of weapons can shoot down spy balloons?

And what are the odds of success?

I’ve never shot down any of our balloons (although this would be a fun test to run), but if we were to ever run such a test, I’d imagine there are probably only a few weapons systems in the world that could shoot one of our balloons down with a reasonable success probability.

The chance of success will be tricky to accurately calculate and will depend on multiple variables such as: the balloon altitude, the conditions, weapon used, etc.

And you can reasonably assume, with a solid level of confidence, that the higher the altitude of your balloon, the lower the probability that anyone can successfully shoot it down.

That said, here is a breakdown of weapons systems that you could probably use to take down a high-altitude spy balloon with some (half ass) corresponding success probabilities:

1. Air-to-Air Missiles

Specific Types: AIM-120 AMRAAM, R-77 (the Russian equivalent to the AMRAAM), or Meteor BVRAAM (European version). These are typically used by fighter aircraft like the F-22, F-35, Eurofighter Typhoon, and Sukhoi Su-35. I’d say the mission success probability is fairly high at lower altitudes (<20 kilometers), but would decrease significantly, and incrementally, at higher altitudes due to missile range limitations.

2. Interceptor Aircraft

Specific Types: High-altitude interceptor aircraft, such as the U-2 (upgraded and modified for this purpose), MiG-31 (equipped with appropriate missiles, see above). The mission success probability here is tricky, I’d rate it as moderate to low depending on the aircraft’s service ceiling, weaponry, and balloon altitude/location.

3. Surface-to-Air Missiles

Specific Types: MIM-104 Patriot, S-400 Triumf, or THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense). These are typically used by ground-based missile systems, often as part of a nation’s integrated air defense system, and although they wouldn’t be my first choice, I’d give them a decent mission success probability within their operational ceiling (Patriot: ~15 kilometers, S-400: ~30 kilometers, THAAD: ~150 kilometers).

4. Kinetic Physical Counterspace Weapons

Specific Types: American SM-3, Chinese SC-19, or ASAT missiles like the Russian Nudol that are in the anti-satellite class. I’d imagine you’d have a fairly decent chance of success if you used one of these against a spy balloon, but the cost/benefit analysis may not make sense, especially in an economic/political context.

5. Electronic 

Specific Types: In this scenario, you’d attempt (I assume) to take the more cost-effective route of using electronics in an effort to jam the balloon’s systems or hack it to disrupt the control and communication systems. The mission success probability here is very sketchy, I’d call it variable. This could be highly effective if the balloon relies on a certain type of guidance/control system, but there are a lot of unknowns.

Bonus Chance: Futuristic Weapons 

Specific Types: Directed energy weapons, high-energy laser systems (these are currently being developed by the US, China, and Russia). These could be deployed via ground, sea, or air-based platforms, but they are still in the development/experimental phase so the mission success probability of them currently would be zero. If they were operational, I’d assume their effectiveness would depend largely on variables such as range, power, and weather conditions (to name a few). TBD.

Note: Success probabilities of the weapons systems listed here are not fixed and depend on multiple variables such as the target’s altitude, trajectory, weather conditions, choice of weapon, geo-position, and other factors. Exact success rates calculated by the militaries of the world are often classified and not publicly available.


  • Although this analysis is PhD level broscience, this blog is not a scientific journal (yet) and this is not a white paper.
  • This anal-ysis was typed up on the toilet this morning and is probably full of typos and mathematical errors (because bathroom math is usually pretty shitty).
  • This topic is beyond the scope of a twitter level bathroom analysis, but it would be interesting to analyze more variables on a deeper level and see what possible findings we may uncover.


This study investigated the feasibility of a foreign balloon attack, its related probabilities, and the related readiness level and countermeasures required for a nation to defend against such actions.

Our findings indicate that while the probability of a spy balloon attack (of the nuclear payload variety) remains relatively low in the United States compared to more conventional forms of aerial espionage, the strategic utility of an enemy nation using such assets in intelligence gathering cannot be understated.

Additionally, the rapid pace of abstraction and resulting technological enhancements in spy balloons will only increase their attractiveness to actors in geopolitically tense regions — suggesting a rise in deployment optimality and use as technological parity between rival nations may prioritize covert intelligence gathering over direct kinetic confrontation — especially in regions with heightened tensions, but where active hostilities may lead to suboptimal outcomes.

Predictive modeling indicates an upward trend in future spy balloon usage with a noted “high threat probability” as the observable indicators suggest the technical feasibility of an attack balloon to be reasonably strong.

This will need to be studied further, but holding the above to be true, we can conclude with near certainty that:

  1. Technical abstraction will increase spy balloon accessibility, appeal, and unit economics.
  2. Higher levels of abstraction will lead to an increase in spy balloon utilization.
  3. Economic and political incentives will accelerate spy balloon research and development.
  4. Evolution of abstraction techniques will improve spy balloon technology and expand mission capabilities.
  5. Mission modularity will lead to a higher demand for spy balloon technology to gain competitive advantage.

The rest is for you to decide.

Note: If this does not make sense to you, it’s likely a runtime error… [smoov.bra.in2023] needs more CPU and RAM to process fully but the sim params have prevented this. This is an ongoing issue that the developers expected but have been unable to correct.

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