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A history of spy balloons: From the French revolutionary wars to the China incident over the U.S.

Using surveillance balloons to gather intelligence is not rare or new.

The balloon has gotten quite a bit of media attention, but spy balloons used as a means to gather intelligence is not new and definitely not rare. Surveillance balloons have been a part of military strategy all the way back to the 18th century for both domestic and international spying. And they have created a niche for themselves as a permanent part of military must-haves when it comes to surveillance.

Going back all the way to the French Revolutionary Wars through to today, balloons have been used by countries to drop in places they aren’t wanted — so officials can get the information they aren’t officially supposed to have. Here’s a look at the backstory of surveillance balloons.

A French start to what is now an international phenomenon

The first recorded use of balloons for military purposes dates back to 1794, according to the National Park Service, during the French Revolutionary Wars. The French Committee on Public Safety used the balloons as part of the Corps d’Aerostiers (translation: company of aeronauts) for military observation. The first aerial surveillance experiment took place during the Battle of Fleurus against the British, German and Dutch. France won.

The Corps d’Aerostiers continued to be an integral part of the French military until it disbanded four years later.

In the U.S. Civil War, a balloon corps is born

Lowe’s U.S. Balloon Corp. disbanded in 1863 due to bureaucratic issues following a change in military leadership, but the use of military surveillance balloonists persisted in almost every war until the end of the 19th century.

The Great War saw surveillance balloon use … balloon

Most combatants during World War I used balloons to spy on enemy troops. Enemy spy balloons were so effective that they became a major target for air forces.

As part of the war effort, scientists and engineers focused some of their energy on advancing military balloon technology — making them larger and more powerful.

World War II created a space for a new way to use balloons: from the ground

Balloons stay in service, post-WWII

The United States also had a series of balloon programs early in the Cold War that were intended to try to get a peek behind the Iron Curtain. The programs, known as Project Moby Dick and Project Genetrix, had some successes and failures but ultimately worked well enough to keep the technology going.

The U.S. used balloons to spy on the Soviet Bloc starting in 1953 in what was called Project Moby Dick.

That was a precursor to a 1956 project — the first U.S. Air Force high-altitude balloon intelligence program, Project Genetrix — developed by the Rand Corporation. In the words of the State Department, the balloons were used “as a means of overcoming the lack of photographic and meteorological intelligence on the Soviet Bloc land mass.”

While balloons are far from the most secretive form of intelligence, they are still a part of most major government surveillance efforts — at least in some capacity. They were used by U.S. forces in the war in Afghanistan and continue to be part of military operations today.

Clearly, the U.S. isn’t the only country that sees value in this technology.

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