The Cost of Chaos: The US Air Force in the War of Worlds. Contributed to by P. J. Bergen, aka Tom Bergen
Peter Bergen is a professor of Practice at Arizona State University, and a vice president at New America. Bergen’s book was called “The Cost of Chaos: The Trump Administration and the World.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more 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.
In 1954 he was assigned to Headquarters Air Material Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. He worked on the project which deployed balloons that carried cameras over the Soviet Union. The balloons were launched from Turkey.
The program that my dad worked on was a top secret one and it has been declassified since about seven decades ago.
The balloon overflight of the US airspace by China and a report by the Pentagon Anomalies Resolution Office (DoDAO)
The first balloon to enter US airspace was over Alaska on January 28 according to the assistant secretary of defense. The balloon was not determined to have hostile intent when it was spotted and officials didn’t think it would have a significant intelligence gathering ability. That changed when the balloon began drifting over the lower 48 states, but while it was over Alaska, officials determined it was not over critical infrastructure.
The United States and its rivals have new technology called spy satellites, which can take photos. They are able to do full-motion video. They can take thermal images that show the movement of people at night. They can see pretty much anything with a resolution of centimeters when the skies are clear.
Commercial satellite imagery is cheap, so you can buy your own close-up pictures of the Russian battle group in Ukraine. Just ask Maxar Technologies, they built up a business on this model and it was just acquired for $6 billion by a private equity firm.
The balloon overflight of US territory by China is not a national security crisis, as a bunch of svelte Republican politicians have implied.
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.
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. The reports were evaluated by the Pentagon Anomaly Resolution Office, which tries to find out what is going on with aliens.
The China of the F-35 Flight: Blame Me! Observations of the Associated Tracking and Intelligence of the Latest Flying Balloon
But China has arguably done much worse. US officials have accused it of benefiting from the work of hackers who stole design data about the F-35 fighter aircraft as China builds its own new generation of fighters – and of sucking up much of the personal information of more than 20 million Americans who were current or former members of the US government when they reportedly got inside the computers of the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in 2015. China called the F-35 theft report “baseless” and denied responsibility for the OPM hacking.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington is being asked by CNN if the balloon that was shot down is part of a broader program.
Roughly half a dozen of those flights have been within US airspace – although not necessarily over US territory, according to one official familiar with the intelligence.
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 that the link to the broader program was uncovered before the latest balloon was spotted.
The US has been using a different method for tracking balloons in near real time across the globe, but that has never been consistent because of the findings. The existence of this method could further inflame criticism from Republican lawmakers that the administration didn’t act quickly enough to prevent the balloon from entering US airspace last week.
The tracking method provided an important tool as US officials monitored the latest balloon to transit the continental United States, gathering intelligence on it as it crossed the country before it was ultimately shot down off the coast of South Carolina last Saturday.
China apologized for the incident in a statement on Friday, but still maintained that the vessel was thrown off course by the US.
There are still some watchers of elite Chinese politics who think that a balloon mission to the US would not have been approved by the leader of the country.
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.
When it comes to national security threats, OTD personnel build and maintain surveille devices used by the FBI and intelligence community personnel, while also being responsible for managing court authorized data collection and work to defeat foreign intelligence agencies.
There are a number of reasons why we wouldn’t do that according to one member of the House Intelligence Committee. We want to collect off it, you want to see where it’s going and what it’s doing.
A defense official said the US has procedures – akin to a kind of digital blackout – to protect sensitive locations from overhead surveillance, typically used for satellite overflight.
First flight tests of a suspected Chinese spy balloon: High-altitude airships, hypersonic vehicles, and stratospheric drones
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, the NORAD commander told reporters that the balloon was more than two thousand pounds and that it was 200 feet tall.
According to sources, the cold and deep waters of Alaska made it less likely that officials would recover the balloon after it was shot down.
“[F]rom a safety standpoint, picture yourself with large debris weighing hundreds if not thousands of pounds falling out of the sky. VanHerck said that they were kind of talking about that. There is potentially hazardous material on solar panels including material that is required for a batteries to operate in such an environment, as well as the potential for explosives to destroy the balloon that could have been present.
“[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.
Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson Tan Kefei said on Sunday that the US had “used force to attack our civilian unmanned airship, which is an obvious overreaction.”
President Joe Biden suggested Wednesday that bilateral relations with China had not been affected by the balloon fallout, but China reacted angrily to the shootdown, refusing a call with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a high-stakes trip to Beijing on Friday. It is likely that new sanctions in response to the balloon would inflame tensions.
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.”
Mao Ning said on Monday that China is a responsible country. “We have always strictly abided by international law. We have informed all relevant parties and appropriately handled the situation, which did not pose any threats to any countries.”
In addition to developing high-tech vessels such as solar-powered drones and hypersonic vehicles, China is also reviving decades-old technology to utilize this area of the atmosphere, called lighter-than-air vehicles. They include stratospheric airships and high-altitude balloons – similar to the one identified over the continental United States and shot down on Saturday.
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 is developing a near-space battlefield for military reconnaissance: the case of the Cloud Chaser, a 100 meter-long airship seen by an unmanned aerial vehicle
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.
The space for confrontation between information is not limited to land, sea, or low altitude with the rapid development of modern technology. In an article published in the PLA Daily, it was noted that near space has become a new battlefield in modern warfare.
Unlike a rotating satellite or airplane, the high altitude balloons can fly for a long period of time over a fixed location without being detected by radar, said Shi Hong, the executive editor of the magazine.
They are cheap and can be used for a long time for collecting imagery, communications and other information.
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 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 and Mulvaney Investigations of the 2016 US-Japan Missile Missing Emission Event at the Lunar Air Launch Complex (LAA)
Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the Joint Intelligence Center who now lives in Hawaii, said that understanding the atmospheric conditions is key to programming guidance software for missiles.
It is not clear if the US incident is related to the fact that the island of Taiwan and Japan have acknowledged similar occurrences before.
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.
All of the tactics, techniques, and procedures used by the US and other countries on how they react or fail have value to the PLA.
But senior Biden officials faced pointed questions on Capitol Hill from lawmakers in public hearings and classified briefings as Congress is demanding more information about why the balloon wasn’t shot down sooner.
The Biden administration has determined that the Chinese balloon was operating with electronic surveillance technology capable of monitoring US communications, according to the official.
Sources said that the order to send the balloon was dispatched without the knowledge of the Chinese President.
One official said that the only evidence that has been delivered to FBI analysts so far is theopy itself, the wiring and a small amount of electronics. The official said analysts have not yet seen the “payload,” which is where you would expect to see the “lion’s share” of electronics.
The commander of US Northern Command and NORAD said that there was no significant collection hazard beyond what is already available from the Chinese.
According to the officials, the US has concluded that little new intelligence was obtained from the Chinese balloon operation because the Chinese appear to have stopped sending information to the US once the US found the balloon.
Defense Subcommittee Chairman Jon Tester: ‘What next?’ Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Sen. Tom Brady complain about the Pentagon
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 us that they could mitigate it in real-time, which is accurate, said Rep. Mike Quigley of Illinois.
“I believe that the administration, the president, our military and intelligence agencies, acted skillfully and with care. Their capabilities are extraordinary. Was everything done 100% correctly? I don’t think that would be the case of almost anything we do. But I came away more confident,” Romney said Thursday.
At a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Thursday, Senator Jon Tester queried how the military could say it was not a military threat.
“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’ve [seen] brief incursions, now we’ve seen a long incursion, what happens next?,” said Tester, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee.
The official said that based on China’s “messaging and public comments, it’s clear that they have been scrambling to explain why they violated US sovereignty and still have no plausible explanation – and have found themselves on their heels.”
The mission of the Alaska intelligence mission over the next-to-leading order: Xi, the Pentagon, and the Chinese-US delegation to Beijing
The balloon that was being used to gather intelligence over Alaska was not near sensitive areas, as Pentagon officials stated at the hearing.
The parts of the balloon have been delivered so far, and additional pieces of the balloon that sank has been difficult to recover because of bad weather.
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.
There were no explosives or offensive material identified that would pose a danger to the American public.
One source said that some of the parts in the balloon were written in English but they weren’t high-tech. The source refused to provide a specific amount of English writing in the balloon.
The official stated that they have no explanation for why they violated the airspace of Central and South American countries. It will make it harder for the PRC to use this program because its program will continue to be exposed.
Biden officials expressed the belief that both the senior leadership of the People’s Liberation Army and Chinese Communist Party, including Xi, were also unaware of the balloon mission over the US, and that China is still trying to figure out how this happened, a source familiar with the Thursday briefing to Congress told CNN.
CNN reports that the assessment was conveyed to American lawmakers in briefings on Thursday, and that it’s possible that it could point to a lack of coordination at a time of strained US-China relations.
It could mean that Xi and his top advisers underestimated the potential gravity of the fallout of the mission and the possibility it could imperil Blinken’s visit, which would have been the first from the most senior US diplomat since 2018 and had been welcomed by Beijing as a path to easing strained ties.
In China, state-owned enterprises and robust military-industrial complex are seen as different from the government and military in relation to the device.
Thompson is a research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and he believes that the centralization of power is a problem.
That means that lower-level officials who may have the capacity to more closely monitor such missions may not be empowered to do so, or not be equipped to make political judgments about their impact, he said. Power struggles between lower and higher ranking officials could also complicate communication, he said.
“There is a tension throughout the Chinese system – it’s a feature of Chinese governance, where lower levels fight for their own autonomy, and upper levels fight for greater control,” he said.
The previous crises in China pointed to tensions, such as the outbreak of shisha and Covid-19 where the slow response was seen as having compounded the problem. Local officials were blamed for being used to a system where the information flows from the top down to the bottom up.
Balloon launches could also fall into a gap in which operations were not managed or overseen in the same way as space or other aircraft missions, according to Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago.
It is possible that entities launching balloons may have had little or no push back from other countries, including the US, and that they may have increasingly been seen as routine due to weather conditions and modest costs.
“As a result, while the leaders of these programs have also become emboldened over time to test new routes, it was likely that they didn’t get top priority attention from the perspective of political risk,” he said.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry is Protecting National Security and Independence Against a Surveillance Balloon Tracking Explanation of the G20 Summit in Indonesia
China’s Foreign Ministry appeared caught off-guard by the situation as it publicly unfolded over the past week – releasing its first explanation of the incident more than 12 hours after the Pentagon announced it was tracking a suspected surveillance balloon.
“Because of his personality, he wants 100% (control),” said Alfred Wu, an associate professor, also at the NUS Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. I don’t think the president would allow for that kind of independence.
The US domestic reaction to the postponement of the talks may have been underestimated by the Chinese leader, who may have been more comfortable with the incident that diverted the attention of the public frustrated by a faltering economy.
Washington wants to continue the dialogue after it started during a meeting between the US President and the leader of China, at the G20 summit in Indonesia.
The Chinese companies are being restricted from obtaining US technology without approval from the US Commerce Department.
The Chinese government is modernizing some of its programs, such as balloons and airships, which are used by thePLA for intelligence and reconstitution.
“The Commerce Department will not hesitate to continue to use the Entity List and our other regulatory and enforcement tools to protect US national security and sovereignty,” Deputy Secretary of Commerce Don Graves said in the statement.