A brief history of weaponized balloons

On June 15, 2021, the BBC reported that Israel had launched another attack into Gaza in retaliation for an assault of incendiary balloons. The headline certainly turned some heads, and seemed particularly bizarre following all of the other recent news about Israel and Palestine. Fire balloons? What?!

But, as journalist Kelsey Atherton explains in his wonderful newsletter, Wars of Future Past, there is indeed a robust history of balloons being conscripted into warfare:

There are six deaths recorded in the continental US from the balloons, five children and 26-year-old Elsie Mitchell, who was five months pregnant at the time. The family came across a balloon they'd found in the woods of Oregon, which exploded as they encountered it. It's a tragedy, as civilian deaths in war especially are, but what's remarkable is how their deaths were the only tragedy from the attack.


What stands out about the incendiary balloons is not just their range but the extremely limited ability to cause harm. It's a marked contrast from the weapons held across Albuquerque, in the National Museum of Nuclear Heritage and History. I had intended to frame this as a sort of symbolic parallel, but reading Karns, I found a direct connection between the incendiary balloons and atomic weaponry.

"Yet the most tactically success­ful bombing would remain clas­sified for decades," Karns writes.

As it turns out, a balloon bomb was once used against the power generators of Hanford Engineering Works in Washington. The year was 1945, and the reactor at Hanford Engineering Works was being used to supply plutonium to the Manhattan Project. Six months later, that plutonium would be used in the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.

Atherton's history of incendiary balloons is full of bizarre historical factoids like that. Apparently, weaponized balloons aren't such a bad idea after all:

There's a host of reasons for incendiary balloons to be more effective in 2021 Israel than they were against 1945 United States. An incomplete list: orders of magnitude shorter flight times, no need to rely on the jet stream, decades of trends towards a drier climate, an already arid (and thuse target-rich) region.

It's worth reading the whole weird history, if for no other reason than so you can join me in now being skeptical about the deadly potential of every balloon you see.

Incendiary Balloons, Iron Domiciles [Kelsey Atherton / Wars of Future Past]

Image: D. Sharon Pruitt / Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 2.0)