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What We Know About The High-Altitude Balloons Recently Lingering Off America’s Coastlines

Their recent appearance over both coasts of the United States appears to be a test of exactly this networking capability. Federal Communications Commissions records reflect an approved license for one of Raven Aerostar’s subsidiaries, Aerostar Technical Solutions, to fly balloons within a two hundred-mile radius around Vista, California from May 9th until May 30th this year.

The stated purpose is to test networked radio systems, the Silvus 4400E and Silvus 4200E, on the high altitude balloons. Although the application only lists the California locations, further correspondence in FCC records show a conversation about permitting additional locations on the East Coast:

The company appears to have aggressively pursued its balloon testing in recent years, with experimental radio license applications dating back until at least February 2020. Balloon tests had previously been approved and conducted across the Southeast and Southwest. For example, residents of Jackson, Mississippi may have noticed a meandering balloon track around May 4th this year.

During the same period of time, the company has been conducting tests of its new solid-state X-band radar technology platform, the HiPointer 100. Testing appears to be taking place near Norfolk, Virginia with an experimental license approved from April 5 until October 2, 2021. Unlike these roaming balloon tests, the HiPointer 100 testing appears to be constrained to within about three miles of a Norfolk naval facility. 

The HiPointer 100 is designed primarily as a “perimeter defense and port security” tool according to Raven Aerostar. The device is highly portable and easy to use with minimal configuration. This includes the capability to be mounted on balloons, although it isn’t clear if it is being used in the ongoing balloon tests.

At least some of the balloon trials have been associated with defense technology contracts. FCC records reflect authorization for balloon flights around Stanley, New Mexico until December 1, 2021. Supplemental application materials divulge that the testing involves work under Defense Technical Information Contract FA8075-14-D-D0014. The contract identification appears to be a typo of FA8075-14-D-00014, a $1.8 billion dollar research contract held by Alion Science and Technology Corporation. 

The broader contract includes projects like this one, focused on “unmanned aircraft systems for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, targeting and precision strike capabilities for naval air systems command persistent maritime UAS program office.”

Raven Aerostar itself celebrated a five-year multiple-award contract from Naval Sea Command Systems (NAVSEA) in February of last year. The work cited involves the “Unmanned Vessel market” and their “Perception Radar solution,” according to the General Manager of Aerostar Technical Solutions, Michael Schwartz.

The company has a rich history of working in the defense and intelligence realm. In 2011, engineers associated with the current balloon program were presented with awards from the Naval Air Warfare Center for its work in supporting intelligence efforts in Afghanistan. Specifically, the award cited the company’s work on the Persistent Ground Surveillance System (PGSS), which is designed to monitor insurgent activity with high persistence balloons.

Raven Aerostar also notably carried out tests involving balloons carrying ISR systems at altitudes of around 65,000 feet over six states in 2019. U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) sponsored that work as part of an experiment to evaluate whether this could a useful additional tool for supporting counter-narcotics and disaster response operations, along with more general intelligence collection requirements. 

Although often overlooked, balloons have seen a modern resurgence as a reconnaissance and communications platform in recent years, with intense interest from more than one service branch. The War Zone previously reported on the Army’s plans to leverage balloons that can deploy drone swarms from high altitudes and penetrate into contested airspace for extended periods of time while carrying radars, electronic warfare and electronic intelligence systems, networking relays, and other payloads as a key future operational concept. 

The recent contracts with NAVSEA suggest that the Navy may be interested in some similar ideas. With that in mind, it’s also important to note that high altitude balloons with unspecified payloads were employed during a recent large-scale exercise focused on evaluating various unmanned capabilities and associated concepts of operations that the service held off the coast of southern California in April.  

Though the Navy does not appear to have specified the type of balloons used during that exercise, which was called Unmanned Integrated Battle Problem 21 (UxS IBP 21), footage and imagery the service released showed individuals wearing hardhats with the Raven Aerostar logo on them launching a Thunderhead.

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