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DARPA’s Innovative Initiative: Capturing Intruding Spy Balloons Nondestructively with CAPTURE

The rise of Chinese high-altitude spy balloons has presented a significant challenge to the security and defense mechanisms of the United States. These balloons can operate at staggering altitudes of up to 75,000 feet, making them virtually untouchable by conventional means. Moreover, their payloads, often filled with advanced intelligence-gathering equipment, pose a considerable threat to national security. These balloons can loom over U.S. territory, collecting sensitive data, and potentially compromising the nation’s classified information, infrastructure, and military assets.

On January 28, 2023, a massive high-altitude balloon of Chinese origin was initially detected traversing Alaskan airspace. Its journey continued over western Canada and the contiguous United States, ultimately culminating in its interception and destruction by a U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor fighter jet off the coast of South Carolina on February 4, 2023. Remarkably, this balloon stood at approximately 200 feet in height and bore a payload equivalent in size to a small airplane, significantly surpassing the dimensions of conventional weather balloons. U.S. officials, on their part, categorically asserted that the balloon’s capabilities were far from meteorological and appeared geared towards surveillance and intelligence gathering, reinforcing the notion that it was a military asset.

The ambitious project, aptly named Capturing Aerial Payloads to Unleash Reliable Exploitation (Capture), is set to revolutionize how we respond to airborne intruders in our airspace. To counter this emerging threat effectively, DARPA’s Capture initiative aims to capture high-altitude spy balloons safely, rather than obliterating them, providing invaluable intelligence while minimizing collateral damage.

Historically, the U.S. military has showcased its midair capture capabilities through feats like Lockheed Martin C-130s snatching film canisters dropped by satellites in orbit. Additionally, it has demonstrated the capability of inflight autonomous refueling by two high-altitude Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawks. However, these demonstrations notably involved cooperative or nonresistant objects, and they were executed at altitudes tens of thousands of feet below the operating sphere within which China’s high-altitude spy balloons typically operate.

DARPA’s Capture project seeks to perfect a unique approach for bringing down high-altitude spy balloons safely, allowing for the recovery and inspection of their payloads and advanced navigation technology.  The goal is to reduce the cost and potential damage associated with traditional shoot-down methods, providing a more effective and resource-efficient solution. It also aims to develop cutting-edge technology that will enable the safe and efficient retrieval of these high-altitude intruders, ensuring that their valuable payloads and navigational systems can be examined and analyzed by U.S. experts.

It’s a significant departure from the traditional approach of simply shooting down such balloons, which often results in the destruction of valuable information. Kyle Woerner, program manager at DARPA, emphasizes the project’s focus on downing high-altitude systems precisely when and where needed. It’s all about enhancing the usefulness of recovered payloads while minimizing the aftermath of these airspace breaches.

The Capture initiative is not your typical DARPA program. It’s managed through DARPA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, a sector where $150 million of the agency’s $3.8 billion budget is allocated for nontraditional defense companies to submit groundbreaking projects. This initiative offers a direct-to-Phase 2 award, usually capped at about $1.8 million, thanks to DARPA’s SBIR XL pilot. This program expands the Phase 2 awards ceiling to $4 million, with an additional $500,000 enhancement option.

While the funding for Capture falls short of the conventional DARPA program budget, it is more than sufficient for a small company to demonstrate a minimal viable product for a high-altitude object capture system. If the initial phase proves successful, DARPA may decide to invest further, potentially with the support of military service partners, to mature this groundbreaking technology.

Notably, the Capture project aims to address high-altitude aerial systems weighing only 500-1,500 pounds, in contrast to the heavyweights like the Chinese balloon that was shot down off the coast of South Carolina. Despite this, Woerner clarified that the project’s primary goal does not include the demonstration of an operationally viable system.

The DARPA CAPTURE initiative aims to develop an integrated prototype system capable of safely capturing and retrieving slow-moving aerial systems of interest at high altitudes while maximizing their potential exploitation. These aerial systems may vary in weight, size, and altitude, with objectives ranging from 500 to 1,500 pounds and altitudes from 60,000 to 75,000 feet. The captured systems should include payloads or the entirety of the aerial system. The process should ensure controlled descent for recovery near inhabited areas and optimize technical exploitation post-recovery. Additionally, response time to aerial systems within U.S. sovereign airspace should be within hours after an engagement decision, addressing the challenges of current limitations in engagement opportunities and recovery operations.

DARPA has a unique mission, focusing on swiftly mitigating the most challenging risks of a particular problem, often seeking solutions to the toughest aspects inhibiting military services from pursuing a program of record.

Companies face a series of technical challenges. Their proposed systems must capture high-altitude objects only reachable by advanced U.S. aircraft such as the F-22 and Lockheed U-2S. Furthermore, these systems should take control of potentially non-cooperative objects and ensure a controlled descent for recovery near inhabited areas, or locations that are currently avoided for recovery purposes.

Perhaps the most daunting challenge is the ability to respond to aerial systems of interest within U.S. sovereign airspace promptly. This requirement means that the system must have the capacity to scale up and respond to airspace intrusions over vast areas, ranging from Guam to Puerto Rico and the northern tip of Alaska to American Samoa.

The capture method itself is another complex hurdle. Historically, the U.S. military has demonstrated midair captures of cooperative or nonresistant objects, typically operating at altitudes significantly below those where Chinese spy balloons roam. With the complexities of high-altitude reconnaissance and the limitations of conventional aircraft, a novel approach is imperative.

Luis Pacheco, editor of StratoCat, an entity that specializes in tracking high-altitude balloon technology, proposed the concept of non-catastically bringing the balloon to a lower altitude, where conventional aircraft, like the C-130, can efficiently manage the capture process. Alternatively, Pacheco suggests employing a ‘harpoon’ or a similar device to make the balloon burst while securing the bag to a sizable parachute, thus ensuring a controlled descent.

As DARPA embarks on this remarkable journey to revolutionize aerial threat response, it opens up endless possibilities for enhancing our security measures, providing a safer and more efficient means of dealing with high-altitude intruders in our airspace.


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