Balloon Reconnaissance Marks 150th Anniversary

WASHINGTON — The intel­li­gence, sur­veil­lance and recon­nais­sance sup­port crit­i­cal to oper­a­tions in Afghanistan got its start 150 years ago this month, when a bal­loon­ist showed then-Pres­i­dent Abra­ham Lin­coln how a gas-filled bal­loon could help the Union Army pre­vail in the Civ­il War.
Thad­deus Lowe met with Lin­coln June 11, 1861, to pitch the con­cept of bal­loon recon­nais­sance.

Thaddeus Lowe's balloon Enterprise, which he demonstrated to President Abraham Lincoln, is inflated in Cincinnati in 1861
Thad­deus Lowe’s bal­loon Enter­prise, which he demon­strat­ed to Pres­i­dent Abra­ham Lin­coln, is inflat­ed in Cincin­nati in 1861.
Pho­to cour­tesy of the Smith­son­ian Nation­al Air and Space Muse­um
Click to enlarge
Thaddeus Lowe inflates his balloon Intrepid during the Civil War's Battle of Fair Oaks in Virginia
Thad­deus Lowe inflates his bal­loon Intre­pid dur­ing the Civ­il War’s Bat­tle of Fair Oaks in Vir­ginia.
Pho­to cour­tesy of the Smith­son­ian Nation­al Air and Space Muse­um
Click to enlarge

The idea was­n’t total­ly new, explained Tom Crouch, cura­tor for lighter-than-air air­craft at the Smithsonian’s Nation­al Air and Space Muse­um here. The French first used bal­loons in 1794 to observe Dutch and French move­ments dur­ing the Bat­tle of Fleurus. 

Lowe got his chance to show Lin­coln the balloon’s ISR capa­bil­i­ties as report­ed his sight­ings from a teth­ered bal­loon as it float­ed 500 feet over Wash­ing­ton. Lowe took a teleg­ra­ph­er and a light­weight tele­graph set with him in the balloon’s bas­ket, and he deliv­ered reports to the White House via the War Depart­ment, Crouch said. 

“He could see 25 miles in every direc­tion, and was able to report on what he was see­ing in the mil­i­tary camps below,” Crouch said. “He demon­strat­ed the fact that if you could get above the bat­tle­field, you could see a lot of use­ful things: where the ene­my was and what the ene­my was doing. Obvi­ous­ly, that was incred­i­bly use­ful information.” 

Con­vinced that bal­loons could pro­vide a crit­i­cal advan­tage on the bat­tle­field, Lin­coln gave the War Depart­ment the go-ahead to estab­lish the Union Bal­loon Corps. It stood up four months lat­er, pro­vid­ing the Unit­ed States’ first “air force” and deliv­er­ing the nation’s first aer­i­al recon­nais­sance capa­bil­i­ty, Crouch said. 

“Some of the most impor­tant gen­er­als of the war loved the bal­loons and appre­ci­at­ed their val­ue in what they could deliv­er,” he said. “They found it gen­uine­ly use­ful in sup­port­ing what they were doing.” 

But the Bal­loon Corps oper­at­ed for just two years before it was dis­band­ed in 1863, the vic­tim of bureau­cra­cy as well as logis­tics. It was run by a civil­ian orga­ni­za­tion that was­n’t able to work smooth­ly with the Army. Fur­ther com­pli­cat­ing things was the fact that the bal­loons required exten­sive logis­ti­cal sup­port to move and inflate, and an entire com­pa­ny of sol­diers to operate. 

Anoth­er chal­lenge — one mil­i­tary mem­bers con­tin­ue to strug­gle to over­come today — was to get the intel­li­gence col­lect­ed from the bal­loons to the ground troops who need­ed it as quick­ly as possible. 

After the demise of the Bal­loon Corps, bal­loon recon­nais­sance began to flour­ish in Europe, Crouch said. And 150 years lat­er, in an age of super­son­ic air­craft and satel­lites, Crouch said bal­loons con­tin­ue to pro­vide crit­i­cal intel­li­gence, recon­nais­sance and sur­veil­lance in ongo­ing mil­i­tary oper­a­tions. Now unmanned, they’re equipped with cam­eras, elec­tron­ic sen­sors and com­mu­ni­ca­tion equip­ment to gath­er intel­li­gence and pro­vide com­mu­ni­ca­tions links. 

Ash­ton B. Carter, under­sec­re­tary of defense for acqui­si­tion, tech­nol­o­gy and logis­tics, has worked tire­less­ly to pro­vide more of this “eyes in the sky” capa­bil­i­ty to ground forces in Afghanistan. This spring, he announced plans to increase the num­ber of aerostats to sup­port coun­terin­sur­gency oper­a­tions and pro­vide increased force protection. 

“We are going to be, this sum­mer, increas­ing many-fold the num­ber of aero­stat-borne cam­eras,” he said. “They’re terrific.” 

“Bal­loons are still with us, still pro­vid­ing recon­nais­sance for warfight­ers,” Crouch said. “One hun­dred and fifty years lat­er, bal­loons are still per­form­ing the func­tion they did in 1861.” 

The Smith­son­ian Nation­al Air and Space Muse­um will mark the 150th anniver­sary of Lowe’s demon­stra­tion and the birth of the Union Bal­loon Corps tomor­row on the Nation­al Mall. 

Re-enac­tors will por­tray Lowe, Lin­coln and Union sol­diers as they demon­strate a 19,000-cubic-foot net­ted gas bal­loon, built in 1941 to close­ly repli­cate Lowe’s, offi­cials said. The Air and Space Muse­um also will present pre­sen­ta­tions about bal­loon­ing and espi­onage dur­ing the Civ­il War and give vis­i­tors hands-on edu­ca­tion­al activ­i­ties inside the museum. 

Source:
U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

More news and arti­cles can be found on Face­book and Twitter.

Fol­low GlobalDefence.net on Face­book and/or on Twit­ter

Team GlobDef

Team GlobDef

Seit 2001 ist GlobalDefence.net im Internet unterwegs, um mit eigenen Analysen, interessanten Kooperationen und umfassenden Informationen für einen spannenden Überblick der Weltlage zu sorgen. GlobalDefenc.net war dabei die erste deutschsprachige Internetseite, die mit dem Schwerpunkt Sicherheitspolitik außerhalb von Hochschulen oder Instituten aufgetreten ist.

Alle Beiträge ansehen von Team GlobDef →