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Spy balloon. Weather balloon with solar panels. View from the ground. Aerostatic balloon. 3d rendering
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The Chinese Spy Balloon Saga (Part 1)

China may be playing a psychological game with the United States

On February 4, the U.S. shot down a Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of South Carolina. The balloon was first spotted on January 28 over the Aleutian Islands, and then traveled over Alaska, through Canada, and then into Idaho. Chinese spokespersons maintained that it was a meteorological research balloon that had veered off-course. However, recovery crews confirmed that the balloon platform was equipped with communication surveillance and interception tools. Since then, three other aerial objects, all flown within the vicinity of sensitive U.S. military sites, have been shot down. The other three are not confirmed to be of Chinese origin and have not been identified as surveillance balloons.

NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) and NORTHCOM (United States Northern Command) have recently tweaked their radars and sensors to identify relatively small, slow-moving aerial objects. After doing so, three additional aerial objects were identified the weekend of February 10-12. NORAD was originally formed during the Cold War so the U.S. and Canada could jointly monitor the Arctic for Russian missiles and airspace infraction. This means sensors were calibrated for fast-moving, large objects, not two-story, slow-moving surveillance balloons. Notably, the aerial object shot down in the Yukon territory on February 11 by a U.S. F-22 fighter at the behest of Canadian authorities marks the first time NORAD brought down an object in Canadian airspace.

The two-story tall balloon that was shot down on February 4 housed a bus-sized platform with antennas and sensors for collecting intelligence and intercepting communications, according to officials from the Pentagon, the State Department, and the FBI.

Critics said the U.S. should not have allowed the balloon to travel from Idaho to the Atlantic Ocean over such a large swath of the United States, but in so doing, authorities obtained information on the purpose of the balloon and how to detect other high-altitude surveillance balloons. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Images captured by high-altitude U-2 surveillance planes showed that the balloon was equipped with multiple antennas, including an array likely capable of pinpointing the location of communications… Those U-2 and other reconnaissance flights also found that the balloon carried large solar panels capable of powering an array of intelligence collection sensors.

-Vivian Salama, Chinese Balloon Carried Antennas, Other Equipment to Gather Intelligence, U.S. Says – WSJ

This was not the first time a surveillance balloon has been spotted in U.S. airspace. Since 2019, there have been at least four other instances of Chinese surveillance balloons in U.S. airspace, although they were determined to be spy balloons after-the-fact. In April 2022, a U.S. military report entitled “People’s Republic of China High-Altitude Balloon” determined that a Chinese surveillance balloon had circumvented the globe in 2019 at high altitudes (65,000 to 328,000 feet), evading detection until it left U.S. airspace.

The Three Aerial Objects that Were Shot Down Over the Weekend

Between Friday and Sunday, the U.S. and Canada shot down three unidentified aerial phenomena that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told Vox are likely for surveillance. Since then, the White House has said these three aerial objects were likely “benign” and did not post a “kinetic military threat.” According to a U.S. Department of Defense press release, the fourth balloon takedown on February 12 had been tracked by NORAD from Montana and had flown in proximity to sensitive Department of Defense sites. Military pilots shot it down over Lake Huron near the U.S.-Canadian border.

The other two takedowns were in Alaska and Canada’s Yukon territory. The aerial object that was taken down in Alaska was detected near the largest oil fields in North America. Authorities confirmed that it was likely a balloon and that it might have been surveilling important U.S. infrastructure, including the trans-Alaska pipeline. Additionally, the balloon was apparently flying below 40,000 ft, posing a safety threat to civilian airspace. U.S. Representative Michael McCaul (R-Texas) told Axios that Beijing was trying to gather intelligence on three major nuclear sites in the U.S. According McCaul, it is so they can assess U.S. capabilities should a conflict occur in Taiwan.

Previous balloons have been spotted around U.S. military bases, both at home and abroad. Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines have also reported Chinese balloons in their airspace, and concurrent to the discovery of the February 4 balloon in the U.S., Costa Rica and Columbia reported a Chinese balloon that had traversed Central and South America, although Columbian military determined that the balloon did not pose a threat to national security.

Balloon technology dates back to World War I when U.S. fighter pilots shot down German surveillance balloons. According to the AP, the two fighter jets used in the mission to shoot down the February 4 balloon in the Atlantic had the call sign “Frank” (i.e., Frank One and Frank Two) in honor of 2nd Lt. Frank Luke. He won the Medal of Honor in World War I for his skills at shooting down German balloons and aircraft.

Japanese Balloon Bombs

Balloons have been a go-to surveillance tool because they can be controlled remotely, float at varying altitudes, and require minimal propulsion. This helps the balloons evade sensors. Plus, balloons are cheap. Coupled with satellite technology, which monitors the higher air space, and balloons can serve as another tool for espionage.

However, even with modern-day advances in balloon technology, security analysts and the U.S. Defense Department point out that China has better ways to collect intelligence that is less likely to be detected and traced. John Hultquist, director of intelligence analysis at Mandiant, told the Wall Street Journal that unlike a balloon that can easily be identified as Chinese, “cyber is pretty unique as a cheap and deniable capability.” China has over a twenty-year history of cyber espionage and IP theft in the U.S. and Canada.

The spy balloon saga may be a psychological game. Luis Elizondo, the military intelligence officer who ran the Pentagon’s U.F.O. program until 2017, told the New York Times that adversaries attempting to fly objects into U.S. airspace is nothing new. In many ways, it is a way to show that they can:

“What’s happening now is you have low-end technology being used to harass America…It is a high-impact, low-cost way for China to do this, and the more you look up in the sky, the more you will see.”

-Julian E. Barnes, Helene Cooper, Edward Wong, After Shooting Down Flying Objects, U.S. and Canada Have More Theories Than Answers – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

The Chinese Spy Balloon Saga (Part 1)