There is a long, strange history of spy balloons
Exploring the enigmatic behavior of the US Air Force during the 2001 G20 Summit: The story of a US fighter jet downsized by a Chinese pilot
Editor’s Note: Beth Sanner is a former deputy director of National Intelligence for Mission Integration, a position where she oversaw the elements that coordinate and lead collection, analysis, and program oversight throughout the Intelligence Community. In this role she also served as the president’s intelligence briefer. She is also a CNN national security analyst and a professor at the University of Maryland. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
If the tables were turned, China would likely respond in a very crude and escalatory manner to a similar scenario, as it has in the past. Let us review a few examples.
In December, a Chinese fighter jet flew just 20 feet in front of a US Air Force RC-135 plane carrying 30 crew over international waters, as the US Navy reported an increase in unsafe intercepts by Chinese fighter jets. This was just five weeks after the meeting between President Biden and President Xi in Bali during a G20 Summit — a meeting in which they pledged new mechanisms to stabilize the bilateral relationship.
The most memorable and instructive example dates back to the presidency of George W. Bush. There were two Chinese fighter jets that harassed the US navy aircraft on April 1, 2001. One of them crashed. The EP-3’s pilot managed to regain control of his heavily-damaged plane and made an unauthorized emergency landing on China’s Hainan Island. The 24 US crew members were held for 11 days and some of them were subjected to interrogation.
Had any damage or loss of life resulted when China downed the unmanned US craft, Chinese authorities would have quickly placed both blame and liability on the US. Protests would have erupted in front of the US Embassy and China’s Ambassador to the US swiftly withdrawn.
Meanwhile, defense officials insist that the US learned more about the balloon’s capabilities by allowing it to pass over the United States than they would have by shooting it down immediately — a decision that some lawmakers on Capitol Hill have criticized as a counterintelligence threat.
Establishing guardrails is neither strategy nor policy, nor lacking in ambition, as was stated by Ryan Hass during his interview with the German Marshall Fund. The Biden administration can work with Congress to develop a clear strategic framework to advance our global interests by setting clear boundaries with China, and boosting current efforts to explain the threat to a skeptical global South. Another Chinese balloon traversing Costa Rica and Colombia in recent days provides a strong optic.
Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. Bergen wrote “The Cost of Chaos: The Trump Administration and the World.” The views expressed in this commentary are of his own. There’s more opinion on CNN.
My father was in the US Air Force and worked on a program in the mid-1950s to send balloons into Soviet airspace.
He was assigned to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, near Dayton, Ohio, in 1954. He worked on a project called the Grand Union, in which balloons were used to carry cameras over the Soviet Union. Turkey launched the spy balloons.
My dad didn’t talk about this part of his career much, likely because the work was secret, but the program has long since been declassified since it happened around seven decades ago.
The Maxar Technologies-based spy balloons: a new source of intelligence and intelligence intelligence intelligence about unidentified high-redshift objects in the sky
US intelligence officials believe the Chinese balloon identified over the US in recent days is part of an extensive, Chinese military-run surveillance program involving a fleet of balloons that has conducted at least two dozen missions over at least five continents in recent years, CNN reported on Tuesday.
The United States and its competitors have new gadgets called spy satellites that can take photos. They can make a full-motion video. They can take thermal imagery that detects individuals moving around at night! When the skies are clear, they can see pretty much anything.
Indeed, commercial satellite imagery is now getting so inexpensive that you can go out and buy your own close-up images of, say, a Russian battle group in Ukraine. Just ask Maxar Technologies; they have built up a rather profitable business on this model, which was just acquired two months ago for $6 billion by a private equity firm.
It may explain part of a small report published last month by the US Office of Director of National Intelligence.
The report examined more than 500 reports of unidentified objects in the sky over the past two decades, many of them reported by US Navy and US Air Force personnel and pilots. These reports were assessed by the Pentagon’s All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office, a fancy name for the office that tries to examine unexplained phenomena.
China’s “spy balloon” is not an enemy of the United States and does not cooperate with the Russian hacking of the OPM
China has done worse than many other countries. The US believes that it is getting help from the work of hackers who stole design data for the F-35 fighter aircraft in order to build their own fighters and that it is also getting personal information about 20 million Americans who were members of the US government. China denied that it was responsible for the hacking of the OPM.
The program is part run out of a province in mainland China, according to officials. The US does not know the precise size of the fleet of Chinese surveillance balloons, but sources tell CNN that the program has conducted at least two dozen missions over at least five continents in recent years.
According to one official, roughly half a dozen of those flights have been within US airspace.
And not all of the balloons sighted around the globe have been exactly the same model as the one shot down off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday, that official and another source familiar with the intelligence said. These people said that there are multiple variations.
The link to the broader surveillance program, which was uncovered before the latest balloon was spotted last week, was first reported by the Washington Post.
Sources familiar with the effort say that officials want to understand as much as possible about the balloon’s technical capabilities including what kind of data it could intercept and gather, what satellites it was linked to and whether it has any vulnerabilities that the US might be able to exploit.
A US military commander on Monday acknowledged that the US has a “domain awareness gap” that allowed three other suspected Chinese spy balloons to transit the continental US undetected during the previous administration.
China maintains the vessel downed by the US was a weather balloon thrown off course but did offer a rare expression of “regret” over it in a statement Friday.
But multiple defense officials and other sources briefed on the intelligence say the Chinese explanation isn’t credible and have described the balloon’s path as intentional.
The team consists of agents, analysts, engineers, and scientists who are responsible for analyzing and creating technical measures for the US.
OTD personnel are involved with the construction of surveillance devices used by the FBI to target national security threats, but they also manage the court authorized data collection in order to stop foreign intelligence agencies from penetrating the US.
There are a number of reasons why we wouldn’t do that, according to one member of the House Intelligence Committee. You need to see where it is going and what it is doing.
A defense official said that the US has procedures in place to protect sensitive locations from overflights used for satellite overflight.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping has urged the PLA Air Force to “speed up air and space integration and sharpen their offensive and defensive capabilities” as early as 2014, and military experts have designated “near space” as a crucial link in the integration.
A range of Near-space Flight Vehicles will play a vital role in future joint combat operations that integrate outer space and the Earth’s atmosphere.
This isn’t a China thing at all. The US, and other nations as well, have been working on and developing high-altitude aerostats, balloons and similar vehicles,” said Brendan Mulvaney, director of the China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI), a research center serving the US Air Force.
The space for information confrontation is no longer restricted to land, sea, and low altitude with the development of modern technology. The PLA Daily stated that near space has become a new battlefield in modern warfare and is an important part of the national security system.
A scientist tells the newspaper that stratospheric airships are better for long-term observation and can be used for a wide range of purposes, including disaster warning and environmental research.
A military expert speaks in a video segment about the low cost of near-space lighter-than-air vehicles, which can surveil and take higher resolution photos and videos.
An example of advances China has made in this domain is the reported flight of a 100 meter long (328 feet)Unmanned dirigible like airship known as the Cloud Chaser. In a 2019 interview with the Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper, Wu Zhe, a professor at Beihang University, said the vehicle had transited across Asia, Africa and North America in an around-the-world flight at 20,000 meters (65, 616 feet) above the Earth.
Light-than-air vehicles have been given a boost by the US. In 2021, the US Department of Defense contracted an American aerospace firm to work on using their stratospheric balloons as a means “to develop a more complete operating picture and apply effects to the battlefield,” according to a statement from the firm, Raven Aerostar, at the time.
The documentary did not provide further detail about the time and location of the incident, but a paper published last April by researchers in a PLA institute noted air-drift balloons were spotted over China in 1997 and 2017.
The Schuster incident and the “no-go” for Taiwan and Japan: Implications for the U.S. and the PLA
Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the Joint Intelligence Center in Hawaii, says that understanding the atmospheric conditions up there is crucial to programming the guidance software for missiles.
It’s not clear if Taiwan and Japan’s past similar occurrences are related to the US incident.
CASI’s Mulvaney said that whether the balloon itself is characterized as “dual use” or “state-owned,” data collected would have gone back to China, which is now receiving another kind of information from the incident.
“At the end of the day responses and (tactics, techniques, and procedures) from the US and other countries on how they react, or fail to – all of that has value to China and the PLA.”