Balloon Busting: Uncovering China’s Increasingly Pervasive Airborne Surveillance Activities
On 4 February 2023 the US Air Force shot down a Chinese surveillance balloon that had overflown US airspace during the preceding week. The event highlighted the significant efforts to which China is going to gather intelligence on US military assets and may signify a more robust response to those efforts.
When the US Air Force (USAF) shot down a Chinese surveillance balloon off the US East Coast on 4 February 2023 it used a fifth-generation fighter to accomplish a mission that even the First World War pilots of the US Army Air Service would have recognised.
The shootdown was made by an F-22 Raptor fighter – the type’s first known air-to-air takedown – from the 1st Fighter Wing at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, with a “senior defence official” quoted by the US Department of Defence (DoD) on 4 February noting that an F-22 “fired one AIM-9X Sidewinder missile at the balloon … from an altitude of 58,000 feet. The balloon at the time was between 60,000 and 65,000 feet [18.29 km to 19.81 km].”
A Long and Looming Flight
The Chinese surveillance balloon had first been detected on 28 January 2023 when it entered US airspace near the Aleutian Islands. From there it travelled over Alaska and Canada before re-entering US airspace over Idaho. Although US President Joe Biden authorised the USAF to shoot the balloon down on 1 February, the US DoD decided to wait until the balloon had passed the US East Coast before engaging it to negate the danger of debris affecting anyone on the ground. As it transited the US mainland, the balloon was seen to loiter over Montana and Wyoming: both states that host USAF intercontinental ballistic missile silos.
General Glen VanHerck, Commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and US Northern Command (NORTHCOM), said in a 6 February press briefing that as the balloon made its way over US territory, the US military “took maximum precaution to prevent any intel collection” but “did not assess that it presented a significant collection hazard beyond what already exists in actionable technical means from the Chinese”.
At the same time, he added, the balloon’s flight also provided an opportunity “to collect intel where we had gaps on prior balloons, and … this gave us the opportunity to assess what they [the Chinese] were actually doing, what kind of capabilities existed on the balloon, what kind of transmission capabilities existed”.
These activities included flights by US U-2 surveillance aircraft, with one U-2 pilot even taking a ‘selfie’ on 3 February showing his aircraft overflying the Chinese balloon as it hovered over the central continental US.
The balloon was ultimately shot down about six miles off the coast of South Carolina in a 20-square-mile area that had been cleared of maritime traffic, while a 150-square-mile zone around that site was also cleared of air traffic.
Following that initial event the USAF then embarked on something of a balloon-killing spree, shooting down an unidentified object in Alaskan airspace on 10 February, another over northern Canada on 11 February and a third over Lake Huron on 12 February. Unlike the Chinese surveillance balloon, these objects were shot down soon after being detected as their lower altitude deemed them a hazard to civil aviation. However, by 14 February the White House was admitting that the balloons shot down from 10 to 12 February were probably “benign”, according to US intelligence officials, with the magazine Aviation Week reporting on 16 February that at least one of them was likely to have been a ‘pico balloon’ released by an Illinois-based hobbyist club.
Somewhat disconcertingly, Gen VanHerck admitted in his 6 February press briefing that previous Chinese balloon overflights over the continental United States had gone undetected. “Every day as a NORAD commander it’s my responsibility to detect threats to North America. I will tell you that we did not detect those threats. And that’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out, but I don’t want to go in further detail,” said the general. “The intel community, after the fact … made us aware of those balloons that were previously approaching North America or transited North America.”
It is understood that three balloons entered US airspace during the Trump administration, while a fourth flight prior to the latest event during the current Biden administration.
However, previous balloon flights over the territory of the US and its allies have been detected and acknowledged. On 14 February 2022 witnesses on the ground reported a large circular object floating over the Hawaiian island of Kauai for several hours. Two days later the USAF released a statement confirming that “In regards to aerial activity over Kauai on 2:14: US Indo-Pacific Command detected a high-altitude object floating in air in the vicinity of the Hawaiian Islands,” adding that, “In accordance with homeland defence procedures, Pacific Air Forces launched tactical aircraft to intercept and identify the object, visually confirming an unmanned balloon without observable identification markings.”
On 18 December 2022 a different, larger, airship-like balloon was observed about 62 miles from Subic Bay in the Philippines: a site now poised to host US Navy assets after a 32-year hiatus.
On 17 July 2020 a balloon and payload structure similar to that which overflew the continental US in February was observed over Sendai in Japan. Another balloon appeared over Taipei, Taiwan, in September 2021, while in March 2022 a balloon was seen flying over Taipei’s Songshan Airport, which would be a likely target for any PLA invasion forces.
On 6 January 2022 a similar balloon had been observed over India’s Port Blair: a strategic Indian military port in the Andaman Islands close to the Strait of Malacca.
On 13 February John Kirby, the White House’s co-ordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council, acknowledged that “China has a high-altitude balloon program for intelligence collection that’s connected to the People’s Liberation Army”, adding, “We know that these surveillance balloons have crossed over dozens of countries on multiple continents around the world, including some of our closest allies and partners.”
US President Joe Biden, said Kirby, has directed an inter-agency team to study the broader policy implications for detection, analysis and disposition of unidentified aerial objects that pose either safety or security risks to the US, adding, “Every element of the government will redouble their efforts to understand and mitigate these events.”
Asked by ESD whether the latest Chinese balloon overflight of the US heartland was a step too far for both the Pentagon and the Biden administration, Meia Nouwens, Senior Fellow for Chinese Security and Defence Policy at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, said it was “unclear whether the US decided to shoot down the balloon because it lost patience with PRC [Chinese] surveillance operations, or because the incident played out in the public domain”.
Richard D Fisher Jr, a Senior Fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, based in Potomac, Maryland, argued that the balloon flight “was an embarrassing spectacle for most Americans, with bi-partisan outrage over China’s blatant surveillance over US nuclear weapons bases finally forcing the Biden Administration to shoot it down”.
However, Fisher also suggested that the much more muted US reaction to China’s surveillance balloon overflights of Hawaii and the Philippines could have “emboldened Beijing” to push its luck.
Various US military and State Department officials have said that the Chinese balloon that was shot down on 4 February was about 91 m (200 ft) tall and had a payload array about the size of a regional jet. As well as solar panels to power onboard systems, the payload included signals intelligence (SIGINT)-gathering equipment, according to the officials. Video of the balloon appeared to show a rudder, small motors and multiple propellers that would have afforded some degree of manoeuvrability.
Fisher noted that the “balloon’s technical payload has to date not been revealed but reportedly carried optical, signals and weather data sensors”. The latter sensors, in fact, were alluded to by the Chinese when they acknowledged that the balloon was theirs while insisting it was a civilian platform used mainly for meteorological purposes that had simply been blown off course.
Interestingly, Fisher believes that these meteorological sensors were probably the most important part of the balloon’s payload. “The balloon was able to gather far more intimate weather data than satellites,” he said, explaining that this date was “crucial for targeting Chinese small multiple independently targetable nuclear warheads and newer hypersonic glide vehicle warheads. Minor changes in atmospheric density or wind direction can greatly impact the accuracy of small and manoeuvrable nuclear warheads.”
Fisher added that “after a space war disables most low Earth orbit satellites, China’s balloons can continue the surveillance necessary to continue nuclear and conventional warfare”.
China does, of course, have many other platforms for surveilling the US military. During Congressional testimony on 14 February 2023 US Space Force Commander General B Chance Saltzman stated “China’s military” has 347 satellites, which would include China’s 30 or so Gaofen series of radar and optical satellites, some of which have a resolution of 0.1 m. However, Fisher pointed out that this may not include the growing number of supposedly commercial surveillance satellite constellations – which ultimately are controlled by the military – like the planned 138-satellite Jilin constellation, some of which have a 1 m resolution.
China also plans a broadband satellite series to rival the US SpaceX Corporation’s Starlink constellation, said Fisher, noting that many of those satellites can be expected to have optical or radar surveillance capabilities.
Meanwhile, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and PLA Naval Air Force (PLANAF) have a fleet of Shaanxi Y-8 and Y-9 four-turboprop aircraft for anti-submarine, electronic/signals intelligence (ELINT/SIGINT), and electronic warfare missions.
In addition, the PLA Navy has many large dedicated ELINT/SIGINT vessels that can assist with missions such as submarine acoustic signature gathering and anti-ship ballistic missile targeting.
Further to these military assets, China’s massive fleet of fishing vessels are operated almost like a maritime militia. While often used to assert Chinese presence without resorting to overtly military platforms, the fishing fleet can also be used for military surveillance.
Espionage adds to the mix
Looking at China’s growing military power, it is easy to cite instances where Chinese capabilities have advanced in leaps and bounds. Over the last few decades, for example, the PLAAF has gone from operating Soviet-designed, licence-built combat aircraft to flying a home-grown fifth-generation fighter in the form of the Chengdu J-20. China is crucially also now self-sufficient in high-performance jet engines. Thus, despite Russia’s belligerence in Eastern Europe, the US military now cites China as the pacing threat in all of its strategic planning. It seems clear that Chinese surveillance and espionage operations have certainly had their part to play in effecting Beijing’s technological advances.
“Continuous and all-encompassing espionage against the technology of all nations has been a major foundation for China’s meteoric economic rise and its military growth, which may soon surpass the power of the United States,” asserted Fisher. “What it cannot buy, China will steal without hesitation, especially if can increase the power of the People’s Liberation Army. Chinese Communist Party policies of ‘civil-military fusion’ require that all Chinese civil entities turn over whatever technology they have that can assist the PLA.
“Ultimately the Western democracies cannot defend themselves without reviving an organisation like the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (COCOM), which prevented much crucial technology from reaching the former Soviet Union,” Fisher added.
While also agreeing that Chinese military platform development has included some level of industrial espionage of US and Western military equipment, as well as reverse-engineering of Russian equipment, Nouwens pointed to China’s indigenous capabilities now attaining a level where the country’s advances in capability are now coming more from within. Citing how the push for great civil-military fusion is incentivising China’s private sector to work with its state-owned defence-industrial enterprises to boost innovation, Nouwens said that, “while the latter is easier said than done, China’s military procurement of advanced equipment is not dependent on espionage or surveillance anymore in the way that it was decades ago”.
As the Pentagon appears, at least, to signal a more robust response to China’s more flagrant surveillance activities, it seems likely that the US military and the industry that supports it will similarly double down on measures to mitigate Chinese intelligence gathering. The curtailing of balloon flights, however, will only stop one small part of that effort.
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