The Army will be flying a pair of surveillance balloons known as aerostats over suburban Maryland beginning this fall for a three-year test. The aerostats will be moored to the ground with a 10,000-foot tether containing fiber-optic cables, and they will carry sophisticated radar equipment, able to monitor vehicles on the ground from Staten Island nearly as far as Richmond.
The potential for abuse is obvious. These balloons would be able to tell if you were speeding on the interstate. They’d be able to provide evidence that a person living at a certain address were having an affair, dealing drugs or gambling obsessively, depending on her movements. The Army says that it will not use the aerostats to track individuals, nor does the military intend to share data from this experiment with law enforcement. Instead, the stated purpose of the aerostats is to monitor for airborne threats — rogue and hostile aircraft, presumably, and cruise missiles, and who knows, maybe the occasional extraterrestrial invader as well.
Any threat, no matter how unlikely, can be used to justify the deployment of surveillance technology. And there’s no immediate reason to believe that the Army will abuse its newfound capabilities. But even if no one is looking through the other end, are we still O.K. with having a pair of spyglasses in the sky, figuratively speaking? As with the National Security Agency’s data-collection capabilities, the question remains: is this really something we want to have floating over our heads?
Another question. Since when has the Army worried about cruise missiles? Isn’t that more in the Air Force’s line of work? As the Army’s traditional mission of waging war on land seems less necessary and more risky following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the service is working to reinvent itself — which sometimes means bureaucratic spats with the other branches. If your goal is to convince folks that you should be responsible for a new kind of 21st-century mission, floating a pair of aerostats just 45 miles outside Washington is sure to attract policymakers’ attention.
Collective noun of the day: A pair of aerostats is known as an “orbit.” Click “Know More” to keep reading about the $2.7 billion program.