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What China Might Have Been Up to With the Balloon Mission

5 minute read
Eftimiades is a retired senior intelligence officer and author of the book "Chinese Intelligence: Operations and Tactics." He is a Senior Fellow for the Atlantic Council

Many wonder whether the recent penetration of U.S. airspace by a Chinese surveillance balloon constitutes a so-called Sputnik moment in U.S.–China relations. China blatantly violated U.S. sovereign territory and unlike the shadowy world of espionage, it did so in full view of the American public. The American public wants to know how and why—and Washington is coming up short on answers.

The first large balloon was a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) intelligence asset. It is unlikely the four other objects recently detected over North American air space are Chinese collection platforms. However, the Pentagon confirmed that on four previous occasions, Chinese spy balloons conducted missions over the U.S. The U.S. trained its RADAR systems to look for balloons and is now finding them.

So why balloons? Balloons are much cheaper than spacecraft to launch and operate. Unlike satellites, they can loiter over a specific ground target. Even countries with advanced RADAR systems have a difficult time detecting them depending on the materials used for the balloon and the size of the sensor array. Let’s explore several potential intelligence missions for China.


China has a longstanding practice of communicating its political positions through military tests, exercises, diplomats, social media posts, state-owned media, businesses, think tanks, academics, and covert influence campaigns. This balloon flight, on the eve of a visit by the U.S. Secretary of State, could have been China’s effort to show strength. In Beijing’s mind, the balloon collection effort could have been a way of saying that they want friendship but are strong and will not bow down to the U.S.

Likely intelligence missions using balloons

  • Intercept High Frequency (HF) communications. The Chinese airship was likely capable of collecting and geolocating terrestrial based HF military communications. Militaries use secure HF communications to cross great distances. These signals bounce off the ionosphere, allowing them to move over the curve of the Earth. Other uses of HF frequencies include maritime and aeronautical communications, Shortwave broadcasting, and Ham radios.
  • Intercept downlink between satellites and ground station. To intercept communications from the military’s Wideband Global SATCOM geosynchronous satellites, one must be within the communications envelope between the satellite and the ground station. A balloon hovering in the upper atmosphere between a military base and a satellite could collect the communications between the two. Malmstrom Air Force Base, home to one of three operational ICBM wings is in Montana, where the Chinese balloon hovered for three days.
  • Sensor Drop. A high-altitude balloon can drop autonomous gliders that travel to land near targets of interest. The gliders can be outfitted with sensors to detect anything from micro vibrations (i.e. passing trucks, tanks) to radiation or chemical particles (affluents) in the air. Targets might include military, nuclear, or chemical production or storage facilities. A balloon could deploy dozens of gliders. With a conservative 10-to-1 glide ratio, a GPS guided glider released at 60,000 feet could travel over 100 miles to its target.
  • Collect cellphone communications. Another possible collection target is 5G cellphone communications. These networks are on relatively high frequency bands and do not penetrate the atmosphere well. However, collecting these signals could identify and locate military units and individuals.
  • Collect detailed atmospheric data. Atmospheric data is used to calibrate ballistic missile and hypersonic vehicle reentry.
  • High resolution imaging. A simple commercial grade satellite telescope on a high altitude balloon would be capable of distinguishing ground targets one inch apart. A significant increase in capability over any satellite.
  • Dispense bioweapons. Dispensing a bioweapon could be done from a balloon. However, it is quite difficult as one would have to compensate for high levels of radiation, sub-zero temperatures, etc. As the Covid-19 epidemic illustrates, ground release and human-to-human transmission would be an easier form of deployment. Deploying an Electromagnetic Pulse weapon is also possible but equally unlikely.
  • The Ramifications for Beijing

    The U.S. reaction is problematic for Beijing. The public attitude has shifted its opinion and China now presents a clear danger. The media coverage and U.S. domestic political interests will likely further galvanize Congress into taking bipartisan action to respond to China’s aggression. Presidential candidates will need to advocate increasingly hardline policies on China as the U.S. moves into the 2024 election cycle.

    Washington’s response includes blacklisting six Chinese entities who were involved in the production of the collection platform. It is likely there will be additional trade or other export restrictions on technologies or companies if the balloon’s collection systems are found to have U.S. parts.

    Washington is leveraging this event to build global awareness of Chinese intelligence activities among allies and partners. The U.S. stated it shared information about the recently downed balloon with at least 150 diplomats representing 40 countries. In a joint speech with Secretary of State Blinken, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg noted all member nations are increasing their awareness of China’s intelligence activities.

    As the American public grapples to understand the China threat, certain truths are becoming evident. Beijing badly miscalculated by violating U.S. airspace, particularly on the eve of Secretary of State Blinken’s visit. China has publicly threatened the U.S. not to escalate the situation with an “overreaction.” Beijing will continue to react loudly and make counter accusations if Washington displays the intelligence collection hardware before the American public and the world. The Biden administration is caught between China’s threats to let the matter drop, and the public and Congress demanding to know more.

    U.S. and foreign intelligence and law enforcement officials have labeled China the world’s greatest intelligence threat. By being honest and open, the Biden administration has a unique opportunity to lead the world in confronting this threat with bipartisan support from the Congress and the American public.

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