On 4 February, the US successfully shot down a Chinese balloon over US airspace, which it described as a “spy balloon”. Beijing strongly denied this, asserting that it was a “weather balloon” instead.
Regardless of the truth of this incident, its impact on US-Chinese relations, and the opposing narratives about the purpose of the balloon, many additional questions have been raised by its shooting down.
Did China really use a balloon to spy on the US, according to the accusations made against it? If so, why are the technologically advanced countries resorting to rudimentary equipment and decades-old technology to do a job that advanced technologies can do just as well?
Since early February, a controversy has been brewing around the world about using balloons in espionage. The proliferation of balloons in many countries has become a hot topic in newsrooms, the media, and research centres worldwide. Decision-making circles in major countries, most notably the US, have also added the issue to their agendas since it represents a new threat that may continue to grow.
The balloon incident fanned tensions between Washington and Beijing, causing the US secretary of state to postpone a planned trip to China that would have been the first since 2018. Instead of the visit focusing on various disagreements between the two sides, the balloon added another issue of contention to the pile.
China then rejected a telephone call from the US defense secretary, and the two sides exchanged accusations and denials about using balloons against each other. Washington accused Beijing of using the balloon that was shot down to spy on the US, adding that this was not the first time that a balloon had been spotted over the US mainland in recent years.
On 13 February, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that since last year US balloons have illegally flown over China dozens of times without Chinese permission.
While this bickering between Washington and Beijing is nothing new in their bilateral relations, some analysts have suggested that the Chinese balloon was simply a test of the US ability to discover it. Alternatively, it could have been a message from China to Washington about Beijing’s capacity to use such methods in response to the US using balloons against it, according to the Chinese accusations.
Other analysts have suggested that the balloon incident may have been a way for China to show the world that it has developed its intelligence and military capabilities using both traditional and modern tools. Perhaps China has been using such balloons to spy on the US for years, without the latter discovering it until recently.
This would comply with the analysis that specifically links the Chinese balloon and the controversy about it to the global space race and to the exploitation of “near space”. Beijing and other capitals have come to realise that near space has become a new frontier of modern warfare and an integral part of national security.
The downing of the Chinese balloon has led to many governments around the world revealing that they have also spotted similar balloons in recent years, with many of them pointing the finger at China. This has especially been the case since the US administration revealed that the Chinese military uses spy balloons at high altitudes as part of its immense aerial-espionage programme that targets more than 40 countries on five continents.
For example, the Philippines military has said that it spotted a balloon that it described as possibly a Chinese spy balloon. The Taiwanese Air Force has said it saw four balloons hovering over Taiwan in February and March 2022. Japan has also revealed that it spotted a balloon and UFOs over its territory in the past three years.
The Pentagon said on 3 February that it had spotted another Chinese balloon over Latin America and that it had shot down a further three UFOs. The US also said that it had spotted surveillance balloons over the Middle East.
Balloons are an ancient tool in the world of espionage and the military, and the fact that China may have been using them for this end is nothing new. In recent years, many countries have been taking a new interest in balloons.
Spy balloons came into use at the end of the 18th century in Europe, when French forces used surveillance balloons against Austrian and Dutch forces during the Battle of Fleurus in 1794. They were also used in the US Civil War (1861-1865). In World War II balloons played an even greater role.
The US used high-altitude balloons to spy on the USSR during the 1950s and 1960s, especially through the so-called Project Moby Dick before they were replaced by U-2 spy planes and satellites. It has also used balloons in Afghanistan in recent decades to monitor the activities of the Taliban.
The US army has also developed defence systems that rely on balloons, including the JLENS missile-warning and interception system at a cost of $2.7 billion and the TARS system that is used for border security and against drug smuggling.
Pentagon budgeting for balloon projects rose from $3.8 million in 2021 and 2022 to $27 million in 2023. The main focus is to monitor developments and the tests of Russian and Chinese supersonic weapons.
The UK has also increased its investments in balloon projects. In August 2022, Britain’s Ministry of Defence approved a deal worth 100 million pounds sterling with the US’ Sierra Nevada Corporation to provide balloons for London to use in surveillance and reconnaissance activities.
Despite the clamour caused by the Chinese balloon, this, too, is nothing new. The Pentagon has said there have been previous incidents in recent years when balloons have approached or entered US air space, but for shorter periods and not so far inland.
US officials also said that there were at least two similar incidents of Chinese spy balloons invading US airspace during the tenure of former president Donald Trump, but no official announcements were made at the time.
Craig Singleton, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies (FDD), a Washington think tank, said that Chinese spy balloons were spotted over the past five years over different parts of the Pacific Ocean, including near sensitive US military installations in Hawaii.
The US uses a variety of tools to gather intelligence, including satellites, reconnaissance planes, submarines, drones, bugs, and the Internet. Balloons are used for various intelligence missions, since they can capture detailed images, produce maps, monitor changes on the ground, and observe human activities. They can also intercept communications, especially those between military and intelligence systems, which can then be analysed by defence agencies.
Balloons are also used to monitor the testing of supersonic missiles, with air-defence systems used to evaluate their early detection and operational responses.
There are several factors that could explain why China and other countries resort to the use of balloons for espionage purposes, even though it might seem absurd to use such rudimentary tools in an era of satellites and advanced technology.
An understanding of the advantages such a tool provides could explain why the military and intelligence agencies continue to use balloons today.
First, there are the monitoring capabilities of balloons. The most important determinant here is the ability of balloons to carry out the tasks given them once they are fitted with advanced surveillance technology. Spy balloons contain high-tech equipment such as cameras, radar, and highly sensitive sensors. Advanced cameras allow for high-quality image capture and powerful zoom capabilities, as well as night-shooting capabilities and infrared vision.
Artificial intelligence and machine-learning technologies have also helped to develop unmanned balloons capable of performing complex tasks and making decisions with or without human intervention. Given the fact that such balloons may not return to their launch bases, they are equipped with systems to transmit the collected data back home, including via satellite.
Another reason for the superiority of balloons in performing intelligence tasks is altitude. Spy balloons usually hover in “near space” at higher altitudes than spy planes that range between 60,000 feet and 150,000 feet. The relatively low altitudes of spy balloons compared to satellites also provide advantages, as they allow for the detection of electromagnetic emissions that satellites sometimes cannot record.
These include low-energy radio frequencies and communications systems and radar that use short-range frequencies that can be absorbed by the atmosphere.
Balloons can also be used to capture higher-quality images, since balloons have the advantages of Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites without their disadvantages. While LEO satellites are relatively close to Earth and can thus take clear images by virtue of shorter distances, the speed of their rotation around the Earth can impact the clarity of such images. It takes about 90 minutes to complete one orbit around the Earth, and this can interfere with the capability to take clear images.
Although satellites that travel in higher geosynchronous orbits do so at the same speed as the Earth, which means they capture images continuously, their further distance from the ground negatively impacts image clarity.
Spy balloons are closer to the Earth’s surface than satellites, which means they can observe and photograph more clearly and move more slowly, enhancing the quality of resulting images. Michael Clark, a defence and security analyst, believes that the greatest advantage of spy balloons compared to satellites is their ability to observe an area for a longer period of time, and to capture images from different angles.
Second, there are security, strategic, and tactical aspects to the use of spy balloons. While standard balloons depend on wind for direction and movement, modern ones can be controlled in these respects and can be equipped with steering devices that change altitude to catch wind travelling in different directions or engines and propellers to help direct them. Advanced technology allows for remote control, while artificial intelligence can be used to enhance the balloon’s auto-control capabilities.
Air balloons have better manoeuvrability and stealth capabilities compared to satellites and planes. While the high altitudes of balloons compared to aircraft allow them to avoid detection by traditional air-defence systems, their slow speed makes it harder for radar to detect them. In addition, advanced technology and special outer coatings make it harder for radar to spot them.
Malcolm Macdonald, a professor of space technology at the University of Strathclyde in the UK, points out that the movement of balloons is unpredictable on monitoring devices compared to satellites. While modern balloons are technologically simple and contain very little metal, they are still capable of detecting and engaging incoming missiles or deploying drones to protect themselves.
At the same time, the decision to engage and shoot down a balloon carries some risks. Shooting one down over a residential area could lead to human and material losses, for example. After the Chinese balloon was shot down over the US, it produced debris of about seven miles in radius. There are also difficulties in successfully hitting a balloon because they are resistant to some weapons. The Canadian Air Force’s attempt to shoot down a rogue weather balloon in 1998 using F-18 fighter jets took almost six days, for example.
Third, there are logistical and economic factors in the use of balloons. They come at a much lower cost compared to planes and satellites, and this does not only include manufacturing and operating them but also lower losses if the balloon is destroyed or lost. The cost of losing a balloon is much lower than that of losing a satellite.
John Blaxland, a professor of international security and intelligence studies at the Australian National University, draws a direct link between the resurgence of interest in balloons and technical advances in anti-satellite weapons. Balloons are simpler to manufacture and easier to launch, recover, and maintain compared to satellites. They do not need the use of an airport, unlike planes, and they only require limited ground equipment to supply them with fuel and gas.
The ability of balloons to carry a large payload is another advantage, and advances in technology have shrunk the size of the electronics they carry. This means that it has been possible to develop smaller, lighter, and more efficient balloons. Improvements in materials have led to the development of more durable balloons that can withstand a wider range of weather conditions and operate over long distances without the need to refuel.
Fourth, there are political and legal factors in the use of balloons. The reasons why countries are more and more resorting to the use of spy balloons include disavowal and evasion. They can claim that the balloons are of a civilian nature and are being used for civilian purposes, for example, such as meteorological activities, which is exactly what China claimed. While other options such as drones and reconnaissance planes can be problematic, balloons are less immediately suspicious, and their use is governed by legal provisions.
It can be claimed that a balloon is being used for meteorological purposes, and the wind can be blamed for violating another country’s airspace. These claims were both made by Beijing in the recent incident.
FUTURE OF BALLOONS
Due to the growing controversy surrounding the use of balloons in espionage and the increased spending on balloon projects in recent years, is it likely that the use of balloons for intelligence activities will expand in the future?
Some security experts say that balloons represent a new peak in developing and using new high-altitude surveillance machines. Since balloons use advanced technologies, cameras, and sensors, this also enhances their capabilities and advantages.
Ahmed Eleiba, a researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “the future of the intelligence and military uses of balloons will depend on two things, the first being the technical aspects of the equipment they carry. This will differ from country to country and according to the nature of the mission, whether the balloon is equipped for photography only or also for offensive and combat capabilities. There is also a trend to improve balloon camouflage to reduce detection and downing.
“The second determining factor is deterrence, especially since the US was able to shoot down the Chinese balloon,” Eleiba said. This was “a first of its kind operation”, he added, and it had deterrence implications. It was also the first operation carried out by an F-22 jet, usually used for combat operations, against a balloon.
Eleiba also heads the Armament Unit at the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies, a think tank, and predicts that countries will strengthen their defensive tools and capabilities against balloons. Similar to what has been happening with so-called star-wars programmes involving satellites, he expects that the increased intelligence and military uses of balloons will lead us into a new era of war in space as more balloons go up and more counter-measures are taken.
The writer is an assistant researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly