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Kevin Pollpeter
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The overflight of a People’s Republic of China (PRC) spy balloon across the continental United States reveals Beijing’s ambitions to establish itself as a military power with global reach. PRC balloons have overflown more than 40 countries across five continents. Lacking an airborne strategic reconnaissance capability, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) appears to have sought a low-cost intelligence collection platform that was so retro that it has revealed gaps in the ability of the US and other militaries to defend their sovereign airspace.
The spy balloon episode also highlights the increasingly heated diplomatic relationship between the United States and the PRC. The balloon overflight and subsequent shootdown have derailed efforts by both countries to lower tensions and demonstrate how unplanned events can complicate the relationship. The competing narratives from both the United States and the PRC, with the United States portraying the PRC as a malign actor intent on subverting the established international system and the PRC portraying itself as an innocent victim of US aggression, underline a competition that is increasingly likened to a “Cold War 2.0.”

Technical characteristics of the balloon

At the heart of the competing diplomatic narrative is the PRC’s insistence on referring to the balloon’s mission as meteorological. The PRC balloon, however, exceeded the size, payload, and flight time of normal weather balloons. According to reports, the PRC balloon was 200 feet tall with solar panels and a surveillance payload the size of a regional jet, and it weighed more than 2,000 pounds. The balloon was flying at an altitude of 60,000 feet and was equipped with propellers for steering. In contrast, a typical weather balloon carries a payload of just 200 grams and has a diameter of about 1.4 meters at release, with a flight time between 90 and 120 minutes. According to the US government, the balloon payload consisted of “multiple antennas to include an array likely capable of collecting and geolocating communications,” suggesting that the main purpose of the balloon was signals intelligence. Moreover, its solar panels were large enough to support additional types of sensors. The combination of the balloon’s size and technical capabilities suggest it served a strategic rather than a purely meteorological purpose for the PRC.

PRC lacks strategic reconnaissance capabilities

High-altitude spy balloons may fill a gap in the PLA’s strategic intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. Although the US military conducts airborne reconnaissance missions in international airspace off the PRC coast and in the South China Sea, the PRC has no such capability against the United States. The PLA Air Force maintains several types of airborne early warning and control aircraft that have an inherent intelligence collection function; it also has dedicated electronic intelligence versions of the Y-8 and Y-9 cargo aircraft. But with only one overseas base in Djibouti, the PLA lacks access to airfields from which to operate these platforms more globally.

The PRC does, however, have the world’s second largest fleet of satellites (behind only the US). With nearly 600 satellites in orbit—229 of them ISR satellites—the PRC space program is likely China’s main source of strategic ISR. But PLA perceptions of the US military’s determination to achieve space dominance against the PRC during war may have led the PLA to pursue high-altitude balloons. Fearing that the US military would take out its satellites during an armed conflict, the PLA may be seeking to use high-altitude balloons as a backup to a degraded space-based remote sensing system.

In fact, balloons of the type that flew over the United States offer some advantages not offered by other types of intelligence collection platforms. Unlike satellites in low Earth orbit, which revolve around the Earth every 90 minutes, the ability of balloons to loiter over a location for long periods of time allows for extended views of the target and enough time to monitor communications or pick up other electronic signals, such as those emitted by radar. Aerostar, a US company that manufactures balloons similar to the PRC balloon, advertises its balloons as vehicles that can fill “the capability gap between aircraft and satellites,” capable of conducting ISR and other missions “for months at a time.”

What was it doing over the United States?

The balloon’s track has led to speculation that the balloon attempted to collect intelligence on the 341st Missile Wing, a unit responsible for 150 missile launch sites spread out over 13,800 square miles in Montana. The PRC is conducting a massive expansion of its nuclear force and could have as many as 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035, generating concern that it may be considering a more offensive-oriented nuclear policy. Collecting intelligence on the US nuclear force may have been part of an effort to learn more about the US nuclear force makeup that would in turn allow the PRC to better target or counter US nuclear forces in the case of nuclear war.

A diplomatic tussle reminiscent of the Cold War

The overflight and shootdown of the PRC spy balloon and the resulting diplomatic tussle present in stark relief the competition between the US and the PRC as each tries to control the narrative—not only of the balloon flight itself, but also of their respective roles in the world. The US has used the incident to call out the PRC as an untrustworthy global actor intent on upsetting the established rules-based order. The PRC, on the other hand, has used the incident to portray itself as an unwitting victim of a violent US hegemon.
The situation is not without precedent. In 1960, the Soviet Union shot down a US U-2 spy plane flying over Soviet territory on a mission to photograph nuclear sites—an action that also developed into a diplomatic incident. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev publicly exposed the US cover story that the aircraft was on a mission to collect weather data as false. Confronted with undeniable evidence, president Dwight Eisenhower admitted that the aircraft was on an intelligence collection mission. The two leaders met several days later for a summit in Paris where the Soviet leader denounced the United States, proclaiming, “Thanks to the U-2, the [US-Soviet] honeymoon was over.”

Similar to the 1960 event, the 2023 PRC spy balloon incident occurred right before planned meetings in Beijing between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the Director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Wang Yi and the newly minted Foreign Minister Qin Gang. Unlike the 1960 summit between Eisenhower and Khrushchev, however, the United States postponed its PRC visit to protest the violation of US sovereignty.

After initially expressing regret for the overflight and stating that it “will continue communicating with the US side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure,” the PRC Foreign Ministry has attempted to establish narrative dominance, alleging that the US conducted more than 10 balloon overflights of China in 2022. It has also called the shootdown “unacceptable and irresponsible” and a “clear overreaction and a serious violation of international practice,” and it has accused the US of waging “information and public opinion warfare” against the PRC. The PRC Foreign Ministry also warned the US not to take action against the company that manufactured the balloon, stating that “China will resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of the company concerned, and reserves the right to make further responses if necessary.”

Diplomatic pushback was not limited to the PRC Foreign Ministry. The PRC Ministry of National Defense (MND) refused to take a call from US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, declaring, “We solemnly protest this move by the US side and reserve the right to take necessary measures to deal with similar situations.”

The US has also continued its diplomatic efforts, denying the PRC accusation that the US conducted balloon overflights of China. It has also sanctioned PRC entities involved with the balloon, presented the shootdown as a legitimate use of force against a foreign intelligence collection effort in US airspace, briefed 40 countries on the PRC balloon effort, and released information on the balloon’s intelligence collection payload.16 Ironically, some of this information was collected by a U-2 reconnaissance aircraft—the same type of aircraft downed by the Soviet Union in 1960. Unlike the 1960 incident, however, the PRC continues to claim that its balloon was intended for meteorological research and had accidentally entered US airspace.

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  • Pages: 7
  • Document Number: IOP-2023-U-034871-Final-1Rev
  • Publication Date: 2/23/2023
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