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U.S. Military Surveying the Midwest with Experimental Balloons

SubverseAug 2, 2019, 8:30:21 PM

By Tarik Johnson

The US military is using experimental high-altitude balloons to survey large portions of the Midwest states. According to the Guardian, who first broke the story, “Up to 25 unmanned solar-powered balloons are being launched from rural South Dakota and drifting 250 miles through an area spanning portions of Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Missouri, before concluding in central Illinois.”

On board the balloons are sensitive radars able to track vehicles at any time of the day, during any type of weather, while floating at altitudes of up to 65,000 feet. The purpose of the balloons is to “Conduct high altitude MESH networking tests over South Dakota to provide a persistent surveillance system to locate and deter narcotic trafficking and homeland security threats.”

Arthur Holland Michel, the co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in New York, told The Guardian, “What this new technology proposes is to watch everything at once. Sometimes it’s referred to as ‘combat TiVo’ because when an event happens somewhere in the surveilled area, you can potentially rewind the tape to see exactly what occurred, and rewind even further to see who was involved and where they came from.”

The Guardian reported that the test is being commissioned by the U.S. Southern Command, also known as Southcom, which oversees intelligence and security operations, as well as disaster response in the Caribbean and Central and South America. The Sierra Nevada Corporation, a Nevada-based aerospace company which supplies Southcom with aircrafts, is the company that filed the documents for the test with the FCC. The FCC documents show that the program is authorized from July 12 through September 1.

The Jamestown Sun found that this isn't Southcom and Sierra Nevada's first go at an airborne surveillance program. Southcom's commander Admiral Craig Faller testified to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee in February that a surveillance program was conducted via light aircraft over Mexico, Colombia, Panama and the Caribbean sea last year. Faller said, “While improving efficiency, we still only successfully interdicted about six percent of known drug movements (in 2018).”

The Guardian suggested the radar system may be Sierra Nevada’s Gorgon Stare video capture system, which US military drones already use. The Pentagon also used Gorgon Stare on tethered surveillance blimps in Afghanistan. It consists of nine cameras recording panoramic images, enabling operators to capture activity across an entire city at once.

The tests were already noticed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU told The Guardian his organization does "not think that American cities should be subject to wide area surveillance in which every vehicle could be tracked wherever they go. We should not go down the road of allowing this to be used in the United States and it's disturbing to hear that these tests are being carried out, by the military no less.”

A rival balloon operator, World View, recently announced that it had carried out its own multi-week test missions in which its stratospheric balloons were able to hover over a five-mile-diameter area for six and a half hours, and larger areas for days at a time. Ryan Hartman, former president and chief executive of Insitu, a Boeing-owned developer of remotely piloted vehicles and newly appointed CEO of World View said that, World View had also completed a dozen surveillance test missions for a customer it would not name, capturing data he would not specify. “Obviously, there are laws to protect people’s privacy and we are respectful of all those laws,” Hartman said. “We also understand the importance of operating in an ethical way as it relates to further protecting people’s privacy.”