by Dr. Emma Gatti
The latest spy but-maybe-not China-US balloon crisis has made it clear that the geopolitical tension between the two powers is escalating. But there is more to the story than the balloon.
The past four weeks have been eventful for the U.S. military. On Wednesday, February 1st 2023 an unknown floating balloon, the size of three school buses, was spotted flying over Billings, Montana, at around 18 km above the ground. On Friday, February 3rd, Mao Ning, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Foreign Minister’s spokesperson, released a note claiming that the airship was “of a civilian nature, used for scientific research such as meteorology. Affected by the westerly wind and its control ability is limited, the airship seriously deviated from the scheduled route. China regrets that the airship strayed into the United States due to force majeure”.
Maybe because the balloon was said to have overflown locations that house nuclear weapons, maybe because of the lack of clear communication between the two countries, or maybe simply because of the tense climate between them, the US did not buy it. This type of activity is not unprecedented: China has been flying stratospheric balloons like this before. The difference this time was that apparently the balloon was staying over the U.S. “longer than usual”. A senior Pentagon official declared that the object was “clearly a surveillance balloon that was flying over sensitive sites to collect intelligence”. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken cancelled a scheduled trip to Beijing that very same weekend and told China’s director of Central Foreign Affairs Office, Wang Yi, in a phone call that the balloon was an “irresponsible act and a clear violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law”. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the balloon was being used by the PRC “in an attempt to surveil strategic sites in the continental United States”, and ultimately President Joe Biden decided to “shoot it down”.
Launching a clearly visible, difficult-to-maneuver spy balloon the size of 3 buses appears like a dumb move
On Saturday the 4th, after crossing the U.S., the U.S. military shoot down the high-altitude balloon, which blew apart in a small explosion before falling into the sea at Surfside Beach, South Carolina. The following day, the navy started recovery operations in an attempt to clarify the nature of the aircraft. China’s reaction did not take long to arrive. In an official statement released on Monday, February 6th, Mao Ning declared that “We have stated several times that this incident was totally unexpected and caused by force majeure. […] China has time and again made that clear to the US, and yet the US side still went ahead with the use of force, which is a clear overreaction. The Chinese side is firmly opposed to that. I wish to stress that in the face of this kind of unexpected, isolated incidents, both sides, the US in particular, should act in a calm, professional, and proper manner without the use of force”.
However, this was not an isolated incident. On the same Monday, another Chinese balloon was spotted floating over Latin America and the Caribbean. The Colombian Air Force and Costa Rica’s Civil Aviation Authority both confirmed that a white balloon similar to the one spotted over the U.S. was tracked in their airspace. Beijing admitted ownership of the balloon and said that it was used for flight tests. The aircraft was not taken down by Latin American authorities, and it is not clear where it is now.
Since early February the balloons have kept coming. On February 10th, the U.S. shot down a smaller device over Alaskan airspace. On February 11th another device was downed over Canada. And on February 12th yet another device was taken down over Michigan. Why do they keep coming? It appears that in response to the crisis the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) adjusted the way it uses radar data from civilian air traffic systems to make it more sensitive, and as a result, the number of objects it detected increased sharply.
It is not clear whether these balloons were Chinese or not. As a matter of fact, it is not clear if they were balloons at all.
In the three most recent cases, the US has yet to share detailed information about what kind of object was shot down, other than to say they were smaller than the Chinese balloon taken down earlier in the month. In other words, it is not clear whether these balloons were Chinese or not. As a matter of fact, it is not clear if they were balloons at all. The object shoot down near Lake Huron (Michigan) had an “octagonal structure with strings hanging off but had no discernible payload” a U.S. official said. The object shot down over Canada was described by Canadian authorities as “cylindrical”, and American officials say it is more likely it was a balloon, whilst Alaska’s appeared unlikely to be a balloon, because it broke into pieces when it hit the frozen sea, therefore more likely to be a drone, a Defense Department official said. John F. Kirby, a White House spokesman, also added that the Alaskan object was much smaller that the Chinese balloon, “roughly the size of a small car”.
Balloon or U.F.O?
The exact nature of the objects, where they are from and what they were intended for will not be confirmed, a U.S. Official said to the New York Times on February 12th, until the F.B.I. and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police will have the chance to thoroughly examine the debris. Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, commander of the U.S.’s Northern Command, when questioned about the nature of these unidentified objects said “I haven’t ruled out anything at this point.” But in interviews on the same day, national security officials discounted any thoughts that these objects represented any sort of alien visitors. On the 16th of February Joe Biden restated that it is unclear what these objects were, what their purpose was or who sent them, but that they likely served commercial or recreational purposes and that there was no evidence of a “sudden increase in the number of objects in the sky”. Finally, on the 17th of February, the US called off the search for debris both in Alaska and Michigan, citing difficult terrain and weather conditions as causes.
The Near Space Race
Unless we belong to one of the defense government bodies that, on one side or the other, have set into motion this diplomatic mess, which story we decide to believe probably depends more on our personal feelings towards the governments involved, and international affairs, rather than real data.
If we want to analyse this story with a sceptical eye, launching a clearly visible, difficult-to-maneuver spy balloon the size of 3 buses appears like a dumb move, especially because China has demonstrated the ability to do much better. In 2022 a US Congress Report stated that China’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance-capable (ISR) satellite fleet had more than 260 systems, second only to the U.S. Furthermore, spy satellites cannot be shoot down legally in peacetime, while balloons can (satellites are protected by the Outer Space Treaty that deems space to be a resource for all mankind, while balloons, like aircraft, are subject to international aviation law, which sets out that a nation’s airspace is sovereign territory that cannot be traversed without express permission). Sending such a large device, perfectly detectable with a radar, had the net effect of pushing the US to scan each centimetre of sky for unidentified objects. These, coupled with the fact that tension between the two countries is on the rise suggests that yes, the balloon might well not have been a spy device, it was not trying to hide, and the US may have overreacted.
This type of activity is not unprecedented: China has been flying stratospheric balloons like this before.
However, it doesn’t have to be an “either/or” situation. China’s interest in pushing dual technology is well known, as are the Chinese blurry lines between what is civil, what is military and what is private. The balloon could have easily been a real weather device, but testing other equipment that could be used in the future for surveillance. As a Pentagon official confirmed to the New York Times, “the belly section of the balloon that houses surveillance equipment is about 90 feet long, or equivalent to three school buses”.
Additionally, China might not be interested in investing in a balloon program uniquely to spy on U.S. ground activities, but because of its interest in the near space economy. Near space, the zone between commercial air space and low Earth orbit (LEO), “is a major sphere of competition” Shi Hong, a Chinese military commentator wrote in a current affairs journal last year. And continued “Whoever gains the edge in near space vehicles will be able to win more of the initiative in future wars”. China might be interested in balloon technologies as a useful and cheaper alternative to communication satellites, since advances in high-altitude balloons might hold out the potential for high-resolution, long-lasting, stable communications, reconnaissance, navigation, and other services. An example of this effort is the Eagles Men Aviation Science and Technology Group, or EMAST, a Beijing-based company involved with China’s balloon development efforts (since the accident, EMSAT has been caught up in the Biden administration’s efforts to counter those plans and a website for the company is not currently available). The ultimate goal of the company, the New York Times reported, was to create an airborne signals network in China using stationary balloons floating at least 25 km high. In this light, China’s target might be much broader than reconnaissance: it might be targeting the building of a low-cost, near-space communication network that can compete with Starlink.
Forget about the balloon
Whether we want to believe the spy story or its duller, technology-driven version, there is much more to China than the balloon incident. The recently published Atlantic Council report “China Pathfinder H2 2022” highlighted the turmoil after the recent decision of President Xi Jinping to suddenly abandon any Covid restrictions after three years of zero-COVID measures. Such a decision pushed the nation into a deep health crisis, which in turn prompted the leadership to strike a more business-friendly tone to help the economy. China’s post-COVID era needs though, the report suggests, to rebuild the confidence of domestic consumers and foreign investors in order to restart the economy. The end of zero-COVID restrictions and the resumption of the travel and service sector’s activities will bring about an improvement in China’s economy. However, an end to zero-COVID does nothing to remedy long-running structural problems. Furthermore, China’s offensive on the international front will also require follow-through, as foreign governments and investors await evidence of the country’s commitment to the announced plans. This also interests the space sector, which has seen the pushing of China’s Moon strategy over the past few years, and is now expecting it to deliver the goods.
Dr. Emma Gatti is a Cambridge PhD and former NASA scientist with ten years of experience in the field of planetary science and geology. She was working as a post-doctoral scholar at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and California Institute of Technology before returning to Milan in 2018 to start working as a space analyst in the field of Space Economy and Space Policy. Since 2022 she is the Editor in Chief and radio host of SpaceWatch.Global.