At a glance.
- Not space, exactly, but space adjacent.
- "Goodnight, table. Goodnight, moon. Goodnight, Chinese spy balloon."
- Why use balloons?
- Balloons and diplomacy.
- Air defense and public policy: balloons, drones, aerial trash, and other UFOs.
Not space, exactly, but space adjacent.
The major news over the past two weeks has involved the passage and destruction of four objects, at least one of them a Chinese balloon, over US and Canadian airspace. Thus this issue of Signals & Space represents a bit of a departure for us.
The Kármán line, 100 kilometers above the surface of the earth, is the generally accepted boundary of space, the line that divides outer space from the earth's atmosphere. The balloons and other objects that have been reported (and in some cases shot down) over the past two weeks have generally been reported at altitudes of 60,000 feet and change, or at least eighty kilometers shy of space. So call the objects space-adjacent, because they may fill certain operational niches often filled by satellites.
On February 2nd, the US Department of Defense said, "The United States Government has detected and is tracking a high altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now. The U.S. government, to include NORAD, continues to track and monitor it closely. The balloon is currently traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground. Instances of this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years. Once the balloon was detected, the U.S. government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information."
The New York Times had an account of the balloon's detection and tracking.
"Goodnight, table. Goodnight, moon. Goodnight, Chinese spy balloon."
Or so we read this past February 4th on social media (author unknown, sorry, but thanks for the meme, whoever you are) after a US F-22 shot down a Chinese balloon with a Sidewinder off the South Carolina coast. The US calls it a surveillance balloon that violated US airspace, crossing the continent. China says it was a civilian research balloon that went off course, most regrettable, but not nefarious, indeed, not even intentional, and shame on the Americans for shooting it down.
In total, the US shot down four objects in eight days, dispatching them with Sidewinder air-to-air missiles fired by fighter aircraft. The first one, the balloon that brought the issue to prominence as it crossed the US, was downed by a pair of US Air Force F-22s off Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. (The fighters' callsigns were "Frank01" and "Luke01," in a nice homage to Lieutenant Frank Luke, the First World War's Arizona Balloon Buster, credited with fourteen kills of tethered German observation balloons). Subsequent shootdowns occurred off the Alaskan coast, over northern Canada (Canada, as a full NORAD partner, was fully consulted and fully cooperated), and over Lake Huron. Debris is being recovered in all four cases, with the remains of the balloon off South Carolina being the first to be pulled up. Early this week the New York Times published a timeline of the four objects (one balloon, and three other objects that may or may not have been balloons).
The Department of Defense announced the Myrtle Beach interception with an explanation of when the balloon was detected, how it was tracked, and why it was finally destroyed:
"U.S. officials first detected the balloon and its payload on January 28 when it entered U.S. airspace near the Aleutian Islands. The balloon traversed Alaska, Canada and re-entered U.S. airspace over Idaho. 'President Biden asked the military to present options and on Wednesday President Biden gave his authorization to take down the Chinese surveillance balloon as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to us civilians under the balloon's path,' said a senior defense official speaking on background. 'Military commanders determined that there was undue risk of debris causing harm to civilians while the balloon was overland.'
"An F-22 Raptor fighter from the 1st Fighter Wing at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, fired one AIM-9X Sidewinder missile at the balloon.
"The balloon fell approximately six miles off the coast in about 47 feet of water. No one was hurt.
"Long before the shoot down, U.S. officials took steps to protect against the balloon's collection of sensitive information, mitigating its intelligence value to the Chinese. The senior defense official said the recovery of the balloon will enable U.S. analysts to examine sensitive Chinese equipment. 'I would also note that while we took all necessary steps to protect against the PRC surveillance balloon's collection of sensitive information, the surveillance balloon's overflight of U.S. territory was of intelligence value to us,' the official said. 'I can't go into more detail, but we were able to study and scrutinize the balloon and its equipment, which has been valuable.'"
There are several things to note about this statement. First, attribution of the balloon to China was clearly stated, public, and unambiguous. Second, the balloon was permitted to cross the US, and precautions were taken to prevent compromise of sensitive activities or sites on the ground. Third, the balloon wasn't immediately shot down to avoid the risk of debris falling on populated areas. And, finally, the US was able to collect valuable information from the balloon as it crossed North America.
For its part, Beijing maintained that the balloon was merely a civilian meteorological research device, entirely benign and unfortunately blown off course. According to Bloomberg, another balloon seen over South America was also from China, and Chinese authorities said that this one too was nothing more than a weather research airship, also blown off course. “It has made an unintended entry into the airspace of Latin American countries,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning told a regular news briefing Monday in Beijing. “It’s for civilian purposes, and it is affected by the weather and with limited self-steering capability.”
Japanese authorities say that they too have observed balloons like this one operating near Japan.
Why use balloons?
The US says it has recovered sensors from debris recovered after the Myrtle Beach shootdown, and maintains that the payload was designed to collect intelligence. But specifically what intelligence the balloon was equipped to collect is unclear, although the US State Department did say, according to the AP, that US U-2 aircraft shadowing the balloon determined that it was capable of collecting signals intelligence. It represents part of a long-standing collection program, the Washington Post reports, operated largely from the Chinese island of Hainan.
Given the pervasiveness of satellites in overhead collection, why bother with balloons at all? The Washington Post outlined some advantages the lower-tech systems bring with them. They're relatively cheap, for one thing, and relatively unobtrusive. They can float by unnoticed, unless you're on alert for them. And the lower altitudes at which they operate are high enough to make their interception non-trivial, and yet low enough to offer the possibility of achieving higher resolution images than many satellites are believed able to achieve.
So, cheap, expendable, and unobtrusive, balloons are also often perceived as benign, not worthy of much notice. And, as Breaking Defense reports, they're nowadays more maneuverable than many believe. Google's Project Loon, now canceled, demonstrated the ability to position balloons accurately over places on the earth's surface where they could serve as satellite surrogates, delivering affordable and flexible connectivity. In some statements the Chinese have referred to their balloons as dirigibles. If you've wondered how a balloon, which presumably would simply float passively wherever the wind might carry it, could "go off course," the answer lies there: they move under a certain degree of control.
Balloons do have one legal disadvantage that satellites don't. They operate in the atmosphere, and the atmosphere over a nation is part of that nation's sovereign territory, and balloons are subject to the same laws of aviation that govern aircraft. There's no such question of sovereignty in space.
And there's also the question of deniability. Once you're looking for them, plenty of people can see them, and it's difficult to deny what's going on. As Wired put it, quoting a RAND expert, “It’s tough to pretend the spying isn’t happening when it’s floating over Kansas City and regular people are like, ‘Oh look, it’s the Chinese spy balloon.’”
Balloons and diplomacy.
US Secretary of State Blinken postponed a planned diplomatic trip to China, telling his Chinese counterparts that the balloon overflight was “an irresponsible act and that (China’s) decision to take this action on the eve of my visit is detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have.”
Beijing said that the US "overreacted," used "indiscriminate force" in shooting it down, and that China would resolutely protect its own interests. Besides, tu quoque, the US has sent balloons over China and so is really in no position to complain.
The Hill reports that US Secretary of Defense Austin tried to use the hotline between Washington and Beijing to defuse the controversy, but that no one on the Chinese side picked up the phone.
The Atlantic Council has a brief, useful rundown of the range of possible US responses. In addition to interception, public denunciation, and diplomacy, the US has already taken one step: it's sanctioned six Chinese entities for their work on the balloon program. Security Week lists the six blacklisted entities as the "Beijing Nanjiang Aerospace Technology Co., China Electronics Technology Group Corporation 48th Research Institute, Dongguan Lingkong Remote Sensing Technology Co., Eagles Men Aviation Science and Technology Group Co., Guangzhou Tian-Hai-Xiang Aviation Technology Co., and Shanxi Eagles Men Aviation Science and Technology Group Co."
Air defense and public policy: balloons, drones, aerial trash, and other UFOs.
The White House has publicly explained and defended the decision to shoot the objects down when and where US forces did. Members of Congress have nonetheless asked for a more extensive explanation. Some of their questions involve requests for more information about the Chinese balloons and the steps the US can take against this activity. Other members of Congress want to know why the balloon wasn't shot down sooner.
A former member of the US House of Representatives, Mike Rogers, who while in office served as Chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, argues that allowing China’s balloons to transit our country’s territory is a sign of weakness, and one that allows Beijing incredible opportunities to gather intelligence and map our capabilities. He provided the following comments in an email:
“Who knows how much sensitive information was transmitted to Beijing and is now being meticulously sifted through by the Chinese Communist Party. The boldness of China’s flying of a spy balloon through America’s airspace demanded clarity and swift action, and what it received from the Biden Administration was confusion and delayed action. This sends exactly the wrong message to the American people and the world. That China thought it could fly a surveillance balloon into American airspace tells you all you need to know about what Beijing thinks of America's resolve, and where it sees itself on the international stage. None of this is good for America now, or in the future.”
The point is worth considering, but do note the reason why the US delayed shooting the balloon down: public safety, the intelligence value of collecting information on the balloon while it operated, and, finally, the ability to protect sensitive assets from surveillance. The US did appear to track the balloon from across the Pacific; it doesn't seem to have gone unnoticed by NORAD until it suddenly appeared over Montana.