China’s Spy Balloon Isn’t as Low Tech as You Think

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Wikimedia Commons
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Wikimedia Commons

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve likely heard about the Chinese spy balloon that entered U.S. airspace last week and floated its way into the hearts of millions of Americans—as well as over highly secured and classified locations like military bases and missile silos.

But if you need a primer: The U.S. Department of Defense announced on Feb. 2 that it was tracking a balloon flying roughly 60,000 feet over Billings, Montana. The object had entered U.S. airspace over the Aleutian Islands on Jan. 28, before making its way through Canada and finally to the U.S. eastern seaboard, where it was eventually shot down over South Carolina on Feb. 4.

The Chinese foreign ministry claimed that it was simply a “civilian airship used for research” and “meteorological purposes,” and later decried the decision to shoot it down as an “obvious overreaction.”The Pentagon, however, didn’t back down from its contention that the aerial craft was a surveillance balloon that came from China, and most outside experts widely agreeding it was built and launched to spy on the U.S.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Wikimedia Commons</div>
Wikimedia Commons

Now, the Pentagon along with other counterintelligence officials are working to salvage any pieces of the downed spy balloon that it can in order to reverse engineer what exactly it was built for.

“We don’t know exactly all the benefits that will derive,” an anonymous senior defense official said at a background briefing on Saturday. “But we have learned technical things about this balloon and its surveillance capabilities. And I suspect if we are successful in recovering aspects of the debris, we will learn even more.”

Perhaps one of the big mysteries that they’ll be able to solve is why exactly China was using something as quaint as a balloon in order to spy on the U.S., which is especially mind-boggling considering the fact that Beijing has an arsenal of highly sophisticated and advanced spy technology to draw on—from satellites, to drones, to an army of hackers capable of infiltrating American databases to plunder sensitive information, data, and money.

However, a look at history shows that both the U.S. and China and pretty much any other country with geopolitical relevance have had long histories of using balloons in order to keep tabs on other nations—and occasionally, on their own citizens.

“U.S. balloons used for espionage made their debut during our Civil War and, before the advent of sophisticated satellite surveillance in the 1960s, [the U.S.] used balloons for recon, especially along military borders,” Loch K. Johnson, the regents professor emeritus of public and international affairs at the University of Georgia and espionage expert, told The Daily Beast.

As time went on, balloon warfare only escalated. During WWII, Japan used bomb-carrying balloons as a sort of proto-drone warfare, floating them across the Pacific Ocean and eventually to the U.S. where they dropped their payload on unsuspecting civilians. When the Cold War emerged, balloons such as Project Moby Dick were utilized by the U.S. Air Force in order to snap pics of Soviet military sites. Balloon usage lingered into the new millennium when the U.S. sent them into Iraq and Afghanistan to keep an eye on activities on the ground.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Wikimedia Commons</div>
Wikimedia Commons

Why? Simple: It’s cheaper. Why spend hundreds of millions of dollars building and launching a satellite into orbit—not to mention millions more for upkeep—when you can just fill a latex balloon with helium, tie a camera to it, and send it on its merry way? With minimal modifications, such a balloon can also be made to travel to a lower or higher altitude, giving itself even more flexibility in how close it is to Earth and for how long it wants to hover there.

These spy balloons are also able to gain information that you can’t necessarily get with a satellite in low-Earth orbit—and without being seen. They can travel higher than most planes, which allows them to remain inconspicuous to the naked eye on the ground. Their slower pace of travel also allows them to avoid radar detection. Johnson adds that its lower altitude compared to a satellite allows for “greater camera resolution.” Thus, a helium balloon can float in a veritable surveillance sweet spot above any unsuspecting nation.

“Balloons are cheap and somewhat guidable—though sometimes blown in unexpected directions by unexpected winds,” Johnson said. He added that spy satellites typically contain “every conceivable bell and whistle” in terms of cameras and listening devices. As such, they’re a veritable resource sink just to maintain—let alone launch into orbit.

Video Shows Chinese Balloon Being Shot Down Over Atlantic Ocean

Meanwhile, balloons can fly up to roughly 90,000 feet and can be outfitted with an array of systems that allow them to detect missiles, monitor the ground, and even potentially defend itself.

Of course, this wasn’t necessarily the case with the Chinese spy balloon spotted last week. While the reason why the balloon was so low in the sky—and therefore observable to people on the ground—is still a mystery, some do believe that the balloon might have veered off of its intended path, resulting in the geopolitical egg on Beijing’s face. This also highlights a very clear flaw in this type of technology: It’s very much dependent on weather conditions and airstream systems. A slight change can cause it to be revealed—which would undercut the whole subterfuge thing. But that’s a part of the risk assessment and requires a lot of modeling before one of these are launched.

But it isn’t as if China decided that risk was worth it solely because of money. There’s also more psychological reasons for why the country keeps opting to use balloons: it might have wanted to show the American government and, perhaps more importantly, American civilians that they could easily break into sovereign U.S. airspace if it really wanted. China’s activities are now public, but it has now had a chance to gauge the U.S. reaction, which could inform future planning and decision-making for even more escalatory actions like sending a drone or crewed aircraft.

NASA Consulted About Debris Field if Chinese Spy Balloon Is Shot Down: Defense Official

“They have other means to spy out American infrastructure, or whatever information they wanted to obtain,” Benjamin Ho, a coordinator of the China program at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told BBC News. “The balloon was to send a signal to the Americans, and also to see how the Americans would react.”

However, Johnson has a much more straightforward perspective.

“This was super dumb of the Chinese on the eve of a potentially important high-level negotiating session with the U.S. Secretary of State,” he said. “That's why I'm speculating that a lower party official green-lit this misadventure as he or she tried cheaply to augment satellite intelligence.”

He added that it was particularly silly” because both Chinese and U.S. satellites are equipped with cameras that do more than enough to scan the ground, and they “really don't gain much—if anything—added value from balloons.”

So while it might seem like the Chinese spy balloon incident has ended for now, the reality is the geopolitical consequences of this saga are still ongoing. There’s still a lot to be learned about what exactly the balloon was being used for and why exactly China sent it in such a brazen manner. Perhaps it’s fitting that the opening salvo of a new Cold War with China starts off, not with a bang, but with the popping of a balloon.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

Got a tip? Send it to The Daily Beast here

Get the Daily Beast's biggest scoops and scandals delivered right to your inbox. Sign up now.

Stay informed and gain unlimited access to the Daily Beast's unmatched reporting. Subscribe now.