The Department of Defense will spend tens of millions of dollars this year on a number of “surveillance blimps”—high-tech balloons that will be sent to the U.S. border with Mexico for the purposes of ferreting out drug smugglers.
Stars and Stripes reports that the Pentagon recently agreed to spend $52.2 million on the “operation and maintenance” of as many as 18 blimps, also called “persistent threat detection systems” (PTDS), or simply “aerostats.” Such blimps, which are often outfitted with high-capacity sensors and cameras, can rise to an altitude of some 15,000 feet and can allegedly record ground activity in granular detail. The Pentagon’s agreement, which is designed to aid the Department of Homeland Security, will fund the operation and upkeep of six 17-meter blimps owned by the U.S. Border Patrol and as many as a dozen 22-meter blimps owned by the Defense Department over the course of the next fiscal year. So the thinking goes, having these bulbous, spy blobs drifting over the southern skies will help spot criminal activity at the border—particularly drug trafficking.
While the limited domestic deployment of aerostats has apparently gone on since at least the 1980s, similar balloons have also seen significant use as a U.S. spy tool in the Middle East. Professional bomb-maker Lockheed Martin, which manufacturers them, proudly proclaims on its website that dozens of the balloons have been “put into action” in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003. The point of the balloon is largely to automate surveillance and intelligence operations, allowing for U.S. authorities to know what’s happening in a given environment without having to deploy real, actual people.
Back in the mid-2000s, when aerostat use first began getting more mainstream media coverage, the running commentary was that impoverished goat-herders in Kabul and Kandahar were largely “uncomfortable” with having giant narc balloons hovering over them at all times, recording every move they made. Some felt that it contributed to a “sense of oppression,” as one New York Times article from the period puts it.
Fast forward a decade or so, and similar kinds of spy balloons are now seeing more and more open public use in the U.S. In 2019, the Pentagon stirred controversy when an investigation revealed that it had been testing surveillance blimps all over the country, the likes of which may have used “Gorgon Stare,” a sophisticated military surveillance video-recording technology that has also been outfitted in drones. In 2015, the Pentagon also lost control of a similar spy blimp, allowing it to drift aimlessly through rural Pennsylvania, where it dragged down electrical poles and telephone lines, stopping up traffic and causing some 35,000 people to temporarily lose power.