As the Pentagon looks to buy innovative weapons for Ukraine, it might do well to explore the humble barrage balloon. Quaint weapons, associated with an old-fashioned way of war, the barrage balloon was simply a gas-filled bag tethered to the ground by a wire. When employed in numbers, modern balloons can make low-level flight perilous, forcing attackers to fly higher, exposing themselves to basic air defenses and reducing the effectiveness of low-level bombing runs.
This is exactly the sort of low-cost and low-tech innovation Ukraine needs as it struggles to keep contesting airspace over the Donbass region. With the Air Force absent, Ukraine defenders need every possible advantage as they concentrate and start pivoting towards the attack.
For forces struggling to maintain air supremacy, barrage balloons work. First employed in World War I, barrage balloons were enormously effective in limiting low-level air attacks on defended sites. During World War II, the UK deployed about 2,000 balloons, effectively hindering German bombing, aerial sea mining and other low-level flight operations.
Balloons brought down aircraft. During the Battle of Britain, 102 aircraft struck balloon cables, forcing 66 down. Balloons were particularly effective against the first drone aircraft, accounting for 231 V-1 missile “kills.” Tactical doctrine supported rapid balloon movement, and close integration with local air defenses.
These passive defensive systems wore on pilot consciousness, and several reports—from both sides in World War II—cite concerns that balloons loomed large as a threat, degrading effectiveness, and posing a disproportionate distraction to pilots and aircrew.
Despite their effectiveness, Western interest in balloon-based defenses deflated quickly after World War II. Balloons are purely defensive systems, and, once the West seized control of the air in World War II, the passive balloons were no longer needed.
Throughout the Cold War, western battle planners were so confident in their ability to gain air supremacy, balloons were relegated to occasional balky service as sensor-laden aerostats.
Their physical role in serving as an air-defense obstacle has almost been entirely forgotten, and that may make them interesting defensive options in Ukraine today.
Balloons Can Help Limit Threats In Contested Airspace
Old-school barrage balloons might be a very interesting addition to the Ukrainian battlespace.
As Russian aviators try to survive a battlefield saturated with portable air-defense systems, they are flying lower and lower. Russian helicopters, tactical aircraft, and drones are operating at progressively lower altitudes—literally mowing the lawn—to avoid missiles and other antiaircraft systems. Even Russian cruise missiles are flying low-level profiles.
Those tactics make sense. Portable air defense systems often rely on the human eyeball to initiate targeting. It takes time to notice an aircraft, point the weapon at the aircraft, track it, and then fire. By flying low, speedy aircraft are often long-gone before a potential defender has time to spin up a 9K338 Igla or grab a FIM-92 Stinger missile.
There’s just no time to react.
Barrage balloons change the equation.
If used in numbers in tactically interesting areas, balloons make low-level flying a perilous exercise. They immediately force attacking aircraft to operate at higher altitudes. And with the Russian Air Force running out of precision weapons and increasingly relying upon “dumb bombs,” removing the threat of low-level air attack immediately makes Russian air strikes less accurate.
Higher flight paths also expose attacking aircraft to detection and, potentially, anti-aircraft fire. Creative integration of balloons with shoot-and-scoot air defense teams can effectively deny attackers access to ultra-low airspace.
Balloons are more than just a physical threat. Balloons force pilots and unmanned aircraft operators to be on constant watch. They can become a psychic burden, making even the most hardened pilot question his or her career choices.
With new, Kevlar-based tethering systems and modern command-and-control, basic balloons can be deployed using little more than a team in a few pickup trucks. According to America’s Department of Homeland Security, a small 35 cubic-foot balloon can carry a half-pound of equipment over 1,000 feet into the air. Without gear, that tiny balloon can fly even higher. Clustered in known flightpaths, or deployed in likely approach pathways, balloons can make life difficult for Russian fliers.
By countering the mobility of Russian pilots, and forcing them to be both less effective and more exposed to danger, it may be worthwhile to recall this old battlefield tool, and see if it can help Ukraine better protect land assets and keep Eastern Ukraine a dangerous place for Russian aircraft.