The vast scale of Beijing’s high-tech balloon programme


Ian Williams

Sailors recover the spy balloon (Photo: Alamy)

Ian Williams

11 February 2023

6:09 PM

There will no doubt be some tense moments in the boardrooms of western technology companies over the coming days after the revelation that the Chinese spy balloon shot down after traversing the United States had western-made components with English-language writing on them. The finding was reportedly contained in intelligence briefings to US lawmakers and will almost certainly lead to still greater scrutiny of the sale to China of advanced ‘dual-use’ technology.

China’s continuing claims that the balloon was an innocent weather balloon blown off-course are looking increasingly absurd

Investigators are continuing their efforts to recover the wreckage of the balloon and its payload of surveillance kit from shallow waters off the South Carolina coast but have already concluded that the craft was part of a fleet operated by the Chinese military with sensors capable of sniffing for electronic communications. The targets likely included data transmitted in and around US bases as well as between those bases and US satellites. Officials said the balloon’s surveillance equipment alone was the size of a regional jet, with solar panels capable of powering ‘multiple active intelligence collecting sensors’, with the data sent in real time to Chinese satellites orbiting above.

President Biden has faced fierce criticism for allowing the balloon to cross the US before shooting it down, but it is now clear that one reason – apart from the fear of damage from falling debris – was to observe the 60-meter-tall balloon in action. Officials provided high resolution images from U-2 spy planes that monitored the balloon. They also insisted that other countermeasures had been taken to prevent the balloon from harvesting data.

Officials insist they were monitoring the balloon’s progress well before it crossed into US airspace and was spotted loitering over Montana, home to the Malmstrom Air Force Base, which has more than 100 silos containing nuclear-tipped Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles.

On Friday Joe Biden ordered the military to shoot down another ‘high altitude object’ near Alaska, although the White House did not confirm whether this was another Chinese spy balloon. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said the object ‘posed a reasonable threat to the safety of the civilian flight.’ US officials say at least five Chinese spy balloons have previously crossed US territory – two during the Biden administration, and three while Donald Trump was in the White House. But they have sought to portray the intrusions as part of a global intelligence effort by the People’s Liberation Army air force – with the Chinese spy balloons intruding on the sovereignty of more than 40 countries on five continents. In an effort to gain maximum diplomatic leverage, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman this week briefed dozens of Washington-based diplomats, and US embassies have been sent information to be shared with allies.

Spy balloons are no longer the clunky vehicles of yesteryear and information is starting to emerge about the vast scale of China’s research efforts into what it terms high-altitude ‘lighter-than-air vehicles’. Officials say the programme is operated out of multiple sites in China. Satellite images published by the military-focused website ‘The War Zone’ show large hanger-like facilities in the country’s far western Xinjiang province, said to be part of the secret programme. Chinese academic papers describe the testing of a ‘stratosphere airship’, and a team at China’s National University of Defense Technology is studying advances in balloons. China has also boasted that high altitude balloons can be used as a platform to launch rockets and drones. As long ago as 2018, the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reported that a high-altitude balloon had launched test hypersonic missiles. Video footage posted at the time showing a missile-touting balloon similar to the one over the US has now been deleted. A 2020 article in the People’s Liberation Army Daily described near space as ‘a new battleground in modern warfare.’

China’s continuing claims that the balloon was an innocent weather balloon blown off-course – ‘The unintended, unexpected entry of the unmanned Chinese civilian airship into US airspace,’ as foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning put it this week – are looking increasingly absurd. Ning also fell back on a bit of whataboutism, saying, ‘US aircraft and warships frequently conduct close-in reconnaissance around China, which seriously threatens China’s national security and undermines regional peace and stability.’ But there is a world of difference between missions in international air space or waters close to China and the balloon’s flagrant violation of sovereignty.

The fallout from the spy balloon may only just be beginning. Investigators from multiple US intelligence agencies will pore over the debris from the balloon, and as further details of its surveillance payload emerge over coming days, Washington will no doubt relish Beijing’s embarrassment. There will be close scrutiny of the Chinese companies and institutes that have contributed technology and know-how to the balloon programme. It will shed further light on China’s policy of military-civil fusion, under which civilian or commercial tech must be made available to the military. Further sanctions and possibly criminal charges are no doubt being readied by the US justice department. The links between western tech companies and China will come under further scrutiny, tech restrictions further strengthened.

The balloon affair is a gift to those in Washington who have simply lost patience with the scale and breadth of Chinese intelligence gathering – its attempts to hoover up data and technical knowhow by every means possible, characterised by FBI director Christopher Wray as, ‘the biggest long-term threat to our economic and national security’. It is remarkable to think that just two weeks ago, with secretary of state Antony Blinken set to visit Beijing and meet Xi Jinping, there was some talk of a reset in relations, with China pressing for some relief from sanctions that are restricting its access to advanced western technology. That was always wishful thinking. Now those hopes have rapidly deflated along with the spy balloon, and Xi only has himself to blame.

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Published by Nelle

I am interested in writing short stories for my pleasure and my family's but although I have published four family books I will not go down that path again but still want what I write out there so I will see how this goes

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