The long, strange history of spy balloons

The First Reaction of the Chinese Ambassador to the United States: How the US Embassy Accepted to a Subic Bay Naval Base: The Case of George W. Bush

Beth Sanner was a deputy director of National Intelligence for Mission Integration where she oversaw elements that coordinated and lead collection, analysis, and program oversight throughout the Intelligence Community. She was also the president’s intelligence briefer. She is a professor of practice in the Applied Research Lab for Intelligence and Security at the University of Maryland. The opinions that are said in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry says the balloon was an “unmanned Chinese civilian airship” and that it was shot out of the sky by the United States.

In late 2016, the Chinese seized an unmanned US Navy underwater vehicle in international waters in the South China Sea, just 50 nautical miles from Subic Bay in the Philippines, and hundreds of miles from China. Although Subic Bay was America’s largest naval base in Asia until it was withdrawn in 1992 due to disagreements over leasing costs, US sailors might soon return after Manila allowed a bigger US military presence in the Philippines. It was widely believed to have been a message to Donald Trump, who angered Beijing by taking a call from Taiwan’s president, just two weeks before his inauguration. The US was accused of espionage by Beijing even though it agreed to return the craft three days later.

The most memorable and instructive example dates back to the presidency of George W. Bush. On April 1, 2001, Chinese fighter jets harassed a US Navy plane over international waters. One of them crashed into the other. 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 were repeatedly interrogated before US officials negotiated their release.

If the US craft had been downed, Chinese authorities would have immediately blamed the US and made it clear that they were responsible for any loss of life. The Chinese Ambassador withdrew quickly in front of the US Embassy.

My first reaction to the Chinese balloon when it was identified floating over Montana was probably the same as yours: “Shoot it down, already!” My role in such circumstances as a senior intelligence official was to emphasize the facts, not the outrage, and provide a measured, clear-headed assessment. A senior intelligence official would have joined the US military at some point in the past week during meetings in the White House Situation Room. So I’m inclined to buy the risk-benefit calculus that drove the decision to wait to shoot the balloon down until it was flying over shallow US waters where the risk posed by a large debris field was minimal.

He said that his committee has briefed them on the risks that China poses both to the economy and the military. China pushes the envelope until a line is set down.

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 is the author of “The Cost of Chaos: The Trump Administration and the World.” The views expressed are of his own. There is an opinion on CNN.

And it reminded me that when my father, Tom Bergen, was a lieutenant in the US Air Force in the mid-1950s, he worked on a program to help send balloons into Soviet airspace.

He was assigned to the Headquarters Air Material Command in the 60’s. He worked on the “Grand Union” project where balloons were used to deploy cameras to the Soviet Union. Those spy balloons were launched from Turkey.

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.

Did China steal the F-35 hijacking report? The Pentagon’s All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office re-examined

According to CNN, the Chinese balloon that has flown over the US in recent days is part of an extensive Chinese military-run program that has done at least two dozen missions over five continents in the last few years.

The United States and its competitors have spy satellites which they can use to take photos. They are able to do full-motion video. They can take thermal images of people at night. When the skies are clear, they can spy on pretty much anything, with a resolution of centimeters.

Satellite imagery is getting so cheap that you can now buy your own close-up images of Russians in Ukraine, if you so choose. Two months ago, Maxar Technologies was acquired by a private equity firm for $6 billion and they have built a profitable business on this model.

But it may help explain, at least in part, an element of a little-noticed report published by the US Office of Director of National Intelligence last month.

This raises some interesting questions about the work of the Pentagon’s All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office: Could some of the balloons they identified be from China? And could some of the 171 “unexplained sightings” of UFOs that they also assessed be Chinese balloons?

China has done worse than that. The US alleged that it was gaining from the work of hackers who stole design data for the F-35 fighter aircraft and that China was taking much of the personal data of millions of Americans. China called the F-35 theft report “baseless” and denied responsibility for the OPM hacking.

The Discovery of a Chinese Surveillance Balloon and What It Learned about the U.S. Cyber-Intelligence Mission

A senior State Department official said Thursday that the balloon “was capable of conducting signals intelligence collection operations” and was part of a fleet that had flown over “more than 40 countries across five continents.”

One official familiar with the intelligence said about 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. Rather, there are multiple “variations,” these people said.

The Washington Post reported the link to the broader program, which was discovered before the latest balloon was spotted.

Biden administration officials disclosed new information Thursday about the capabilities of the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that traversed the United States last week and what they are learning as the FBI begins analyzing the recovered parts after the balloon was shot down Saturday.

Defense officials say that the US gleaned important clues to the answers of some of these questions while the balloon was transiting the United States.

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.

Multiple defense officials and intel sources briefed on the intelligence say the Chinese explanation isn’t credible and that it was intentional.

This elite team consists of agents, analysts, engineers and scientists, who are responsible for both creating technical surveillance measures and analyzing those of the US’ adversaries.

OTD personnel, for example, construct surveillance devices used by FBI and intelligence community personnel targeting national security threats — but they also are responsible for managing court-authorized data collection and work to defeat efforts by foreign intelligence agencies to penetrate the US.

But, according to one member of the House Intelligence Committee, “there’s number of reasons why we wouldn’t do that. We want to collect off it, you want to see where it’s going and what it’s doing.

The procedures the US has to protect sensitive locations from overhead monitoring are similar to a digital black out, said a defense official.

Biden downplayed the effect of the intelligence gathering balloon that was sent across the US by Beijing, after signs appeared over key military installations.

The idea shooting down a balloon that gathers information about America makes relations worse. Biden told PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff in a wide-ranging interview a day after his second State of the Union address.

Biden administration officials have stressed that the meeting was not canceled, but instead delayed until a later date. That date has not yet been set.

Asked by CNN this week if US officials had any indication as to why China would commit such an overt act, Biden laughed off the question. He said they were the Chinese government.

The Biden administration officials have said that they will end up benefiting from the ability to collect information from the balloon and Chinese intelligence as well as the recovery of itswreck from the Atlantic Ocean.

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise’s office said the chamber will vote Thursday on a resolution “condemning the Chinese Communist Party’s use of a high-altitude surveillance balloon over United States territory as a brazen violation of United States sovereignty.”

Vice President Joe Biden was criticized by Republicans for waiting a few days before shooting the balloon down.

Discovery of a suspected Chinese spy balloon over the Atlantic Ocean on Sunday afternoon, and diplomatic response to the Ukraine crisis in Ukraine. A statement from the Foreign Ministry on Monday

He mentioned that he shared an observation with the US as they warned China against providing military support to Russia in the crisis in Ukraine.

The US Navy released photos Tuesday of its recovery effort of a suspected Chinese spy balloon, which US fighter jets shot down over the Atlantic Ocean on Saturday.

On Monday, Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of US Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), told reporters that the balloon was roughly 200 feet tall and carried a payload weighing more than a couple of thousand pounds.

Take a picture of yourself with large debris falling out of the sky. That’s really what we’re kind of talking about,” VanHerck said on Monday. Potentially hazardous glass from solar panels, as well as material that is needed for batteries to operate in such an environment and even the possibility of explosives to blow up the balloon that could have been present, were all found in the balloon.

“[T]his gave us the opportunity to assess what they were actually doing, what kind of capabilities existed on the balloon, what kind of transmission capabilities existed, and I think you’ll see in the future that that time frame was well worth its value to collect over,” VanHerck said.

The balloon was ultimately shot down on Saturday afternoon by a single missile from a F-22 fighter jet out of Langley Air Force Base, Virginia. According to the Navy, the operation was carried out by active duty, reserve, and National Guard personnel.

“The Chinese side has repeatedly informed the US side after verification that the airship is for civilian use and entered the US due to force majeure – it was completely an accident,” another statement from the Foreign Ministry said.

It was expected that Secretary of State Antony Blinken would make his visit to Beijing within days, but it has been pushed back.

China admitted ownership of the balloon on Monday, saying it was used for flight tests and had “seriously deviated” from its flight course “by mistake.”

The Foreign Ministry said on Monday that China is a responsible country. “We have always strictly abided by international law. We did a good job of notifying all relevant parties and handling the situation which did not pose a threat to any countries.

Light-than-air vehicles, also known as solar-powered drones and hypersonic vehicles, are one of the new vessels being developed by China. They are the same as the one shot down in the US on Saturday and include high-altitude balloons.

Lying above the flightpaths of most commercial and military jets and below satellites, near space is an in-between area for spaceflight to pass through – but it is also a domain where hypersonic weapons transit and ballistic missiles cross.

China’s New Way to Look for Weather: Insights From a Balloon Near Space Development Intl-Hnk

It’s also clear that China is not alone in seeing new uses for a technology that’s been leveraged for military reconnaissance as far back as the late 18th century, when French forces employed a balloon corps.

“With the rapid development of modern technology, the space for information confrontation is no longer limited to land, sea, and the low altitude. The PLA Daily, the official newspaper of thePLA, stated that Near space has become an important part of the national security system.

A scientist on the team tells the newspaper that while satellites are better for short term observation, stratospheric airships can be used for a range of purposes, including disaster warning and environmental research.

Mulvaney wrote a 2020 paper about China’s interest in using lighter-than-air vehicles to look for weather, and noted that they are cheap and provide long-term persistent stare.

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 “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.

The US has also been bolstering its capacity to use lighter-than-air vehicles. 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 any further information about the incident, though a paper published last April by researchers in the PLA institute said that airdrift balloons were spotted over China in 1997.


The DIA Report on the US Space Operations at Joint Intelligence Center and the Interaction Between the Taiwan, Japan, and Chinese Spy Balloons

“Understanding the atmospheric conditions up there is critical to programming the guidance software” for ballistic and hypersonic missiles, according to Hawaii-based analyst Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center.

It’s not clear if the Taiwan and Japan incidents are related to the US incident.

The data from the incident will go to China, if it is defined as a dual use or state-owned balloon.

“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.”

Officials familiar with the original DIA report conceded Rubio’s point that they didn’t see the balloon as an urgent threat until it was already over US territory –  even as fresh revelations have emerged about what the US knew about Chinese spy balloons.

The report was spread through channels accessible to the US government. But it wasn’t flagged as an urgent warning and top defense and intelligence officials who saw it weren’t immediately alarmed by it, according to sources. Sources familiar with the report said that the White House was not made aware of the DIA report, and President Joe Biden was not briefed on it.

The US moved to investigate the object because it offered an opportunity to observe and collect intelligence.

Administration officials from the Pentagon, State Department and intelligence community briefed lawmakers on Capitol Hill Thursday on the balloon, which has prompted criticism from Republicans over allowing it to float across the US before it was shot down off the Atlantic coast.

According to defense officials, the NORAD sent up fighter jets to identify a balloon that entered US airspace near Alaska on January 28.

One of the reasons the balloon was not shot down when it entered Alaskan airspace is that the water there is cold and deep, meaning it would be harder to recover the balloon, according to sources.

The president wasn’t briefed until January 31 because of expectations for the balloon, said military officials.

The Congress is interested in the process of decision-making on the balloon as more information about it trickles out.

Reply to Comment on the Alaskan Crisis” by a House Minority Causal Observation Adviser

A Senate Republican aide told CNN that there are still questions to be asked about Alaska. Is it okay to transit Alaska without telling anyone, even though the continental US isn’t the same?

An image that has already gained legendary status in NORAD and the Pentagon is the picture that a pilot took in the cockpit that shows both him and the balloon.

The Biden administration determined that the Chinese balloon was capable of monitoring US communications, according to an official.

Sources said that the order to dispatch the balloon was dispatched without the knowledge of China’s president.

The officials, who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity, said the U.S. has only collected materials that were on the ocean’s surface so far, including the balloon canopy, some wiring and a “very small amount of electronics.”

“We did not assess that it presented a significant collection hazard beyond what already exists in actionable technical means from the Chinese,” said Gen. Glenn VanHerck, the commander of US Northern Command and NORAD, on Monday.

The House briefing Thursday morning was tense, the sources said, with several Republicans railing against the administration, including GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who said that the Pentagon made the president – whom she noted she doesn’t like – look weak by their actions.

The Pentagon told the congressmen that the main concern they had was the safety of citizens, and I believe they were correct in that.

“I believe that the administration, the president, our military and intelligence agencies, acted skillfully and with care. Their capabilities are quite impressive. Was everything done 100% correctly? I can’t think of a scenario where that is the case. But I came away more confident,” Romney said Thursday.

What has been learned so far about the alleged Chinese spy balloon out of Alaska, as seen by the senators, when they didn’t know

The senators pressed the officials over how they could say it was not a military threat when they didn’t know.

“You guys have to help me understand why this baby wasn’t taken out long before and because I am telling you that that this ain’t the last time. We saw a brief incursion and now we have seen a long incursion, what next? asked Tester, the Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee.

Pentagon officials told the hearing that they were not concerned about the balloon gathering intelligence over Alaska as it was not near sensitive sites.

The parts of the balloon recovered on the surface of the ocean have been delivered so far, while recovering additional pieces of the balloon that sunk has been complicated by bad weather, officials said.

It’s not yet clear where the balloon’s parts were manufactured, the officials said, including whether any of the pieces were made in America. Because analysts have yet to look at the bulk of the equipment on the balloon, the officials said that there has not been a determination as to everything the device was capable of doing and its specific intent.

Analysts have not identified any of the material that would pose a danger to the American public.

One source familiar with the congressional briefings said that parts of the balloon were written in English, though they were not high tech components. The source declined to provide detail on what specific parts of the balloon contained English writing.

The official said that they had no explanation for why they violated the airspace of the Central and South American countries. “The PRC’s program will only continue to be exposed, making it harder for the PRC to use this program.”

As U.S. Navy crews continue to fish parts of the alleged Chinese spy balloon out of the Atlantic, a senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, gave reporters an update on Thursday on some of what has been learned so far.

The main electronics payload, however, has not been recovered yet, one of the FBI officials said, adding that it was “very early” to assess what the intent was and how the device was operating.

China as a top spy, espionage, and surveillement: How much is the world’s number one country?

“That narrative is probably part of the information and public opinion warfare the U.S. has waged on China,” Mao added. As to who is the world’s numberone country for spy, espionage and surveillement, that is clearly visible to the international community.

The government is making improvements as well. China launched a project to research materials that can be used to make balloons that can float higher than the ground.

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