chinese spy balloon

Written by Haniya Ali 8:43 pm Articles, Current Affairs, International Relations, Published Content

The Chinese Spy Balloon that Lurked Overhead the US

In February, China’s spy balloon—about 200 feet tall with high-tech equipment—was shot by a US fighter jet. This foreign surveillance sparked anger on part of the US, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceling his visit to China.
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About the Author(s)
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Haniya Ali is pursuing her Bachelor's in Government and Public Policy from National Defence University, Islamabad.


In the early morning skies of 28th January above Arroyo de Piedra, close to Colombia’s Caribbean coast, Enildo Altamar and his neighbours noticed a white ball hovering above them that resembled the moon in size. After almost four days of its stay, a Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor jet shot down the Chinese spy balloon with a single AIM-9X missile as it was hovering between 18,000 metres (58,000 feet) and 19,800 metres above the ground close off the coast of South Carolina.

Chinese balloon
An airman flies over the Chinese balloon seen earlier this month
Source: The US Department of Defense

Chinese surveillance balloon debris was found by US Navy personnel off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Along with the FBI, Coast Guard and navy ships began a recovery effort in that area, right off North Myrtle Beach, and they have since found some parts. The pilots witnessed “metal coming apart” as the balloon dropped, according to recordings of their radio conversations as they shot the balloon down.

Contradictory Perspectives on “Surveillance Balloon”

According to a representative of China’s Foreign Ministry, the balloon was a civilian airship that was blown off course because it had “limited self-steering capabilities” and was primarily employed for meteorological research. However, according to US officials, the machine did have propellers, which gave it some navigational capabilities. It could also change altitude to catch different winds.

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According to US officials, the balloon passed close to several important military locations across the nation, such as Montana’s Malmstrom Air Force Base. They adamantly maintain that it was a surveillance operation and that steps were taken to stop it from gathering data as well as to observe it using its manned U2 spy plane from above to see what it might be broadcasting to Chinese satellites.

The authorities reported seeing a second balloon over Central and South America and think a third was active at an unidentified location. The likelihood of multiple balloons being deflected simultaneously and the path adopted by the one above the US support the theory that this is an espionage balloon. There have been reports of possible sightings above Taipei, India, and Japan in 2020 and 2021.

Insight into Chinese Balloon and Minds

Photos obtained while the balloon was still in the air reveal that it carried a significant payload that included solar panels and a scaffold-like structure. Other than the fact that it featured antennae and sensors, the specifics of the electronics found have remained a secret.

According to US military officials, the balloon itself was about 60 metres in height, and the cargo resembled a “regional aircraft” with a length between 26 and 30 metres, like the Embraer ERJ. It is estimated that the payload weighed about 900 kg. Although the US has publicly acknowledged that the balloon did carry equipment to gather electronic signals, according to Dan Lomas at Brunel University London, it isn’t clear what those messages were.

The use of balloons in espionage and conflict is not new. A crewed French observation balloon was employed at the Battle of Fleurus in 1794, and it is believed that they have been used for military signalling for more than a thousand years. According to espionage author and journalist H. I. Sutton, despite the presence of spy satellites and powered planes, there is still a place for easier, less expensive, and crewless balloons.

The payloads that the balloons can carry potentially be an advantage. They lack screws, which is another consideration. This significantly lowers the political risk of being exposed or shot down in public.

A balloon could be modified to focus on taking images in the visible and non-visible spectrums, passively collecting electronic communications, or even probing defences to get more information on their response – then beaming all of that data back via satellites, similar to how the U2 aircraft has a wide range of different sensors and payloads for different missions. Some have hypothesised that the Chinese balloon may have snooped on military base personnel’s cellphone communications to gather important intelligence.

Implications of China’s Recklessness

Governments and military organizations around the world have used various forms of aerial surveillance for intelligence gathering for decades. This can include satellites, drones, and manned aircraft, as well as balloons. However, the use of aerial surveillance technologies for intelligence purposes is governed by international laws and treaties, and their use must comply with the laws of the country where they are operating.

The use of aerial surveillance technologies for intelligence purposes is highly controversial and can be seen as a violation of national sovereignty. Such an activity would likely lead to increased tensions between the US and China and could potentially lead to a diplomatic incident. It could also lead to increased efforts by the US government to counter foreign aerial surveillance and enhance domestic surveillance capabilities.

Additionally, the presence of Chinese spy balloons over the US would likely lead to increased concerns about privacy and civil liberties, as well as potential military implications. The US government and military could respond with increased efforts to detect and intercept any foreign aerial surveillance technologies operating within US airspace.

In conclusion, the implications of a confirmed Chinese spy balloon over the US would be far-reaching and complex, involving issues of national security, diplomacy, privacy, and civil liberties. The US government has consistently maintained that it takes all necessary steps to protect its citizens and national security interests, and it is likely that it would view the presence of Chinese spy balloons over its territory as a significant security threat.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article/paper are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Paradigm Shift.

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