The recent report indicating that the Pentagon is closely observing a believed Chinese spy balloon flying over the mainland United States has sparked various inquiries. One of the primary concerns is to determine the exact activity that this balloon could be conducting.
According to US officials, the trajectory of the balloon, initially observed in Montana on Thursday, has the potential to cover a significant number of confidential locations. As a result, the officials have stated that necessary measures are being taken to safeguard against any foreign intelligence gathering.
However, the reason for Chinese spies opting to use a balloon instead of a satellite to gather information remains unclear. The presence of a Chinese balloon in the skies over the US is not a new phenomenon, but this particular instance appears to be exhibiting distinct behavior compared to previous sightings, according to a US defense official.
The official stated, “What distinguishes this incident from previous ones is that it is lingering for a more extended period, being more persistent than previous sightings. This is one key characteristic that sets it apart.”
Although satellites are the preferred option for intelligence gathering by spies, the use of balloons for spy missions dates back to the early stages of the Cold War. According to Peter Layton, a former Royal Australian Air Force officer and a fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute in Australia, the US has deployed hundreds of such balloons to keep an eye on its rivals.
However, with the advancement of satellite technology enabling the collection of aerial intelligence data from space, the trend of using surveillance balloons had declined. This is until recent events suggest a resurgence in their use.
Recent progress in the miniaturization of electronics has led to the possibility of balloons making a resurgence as a modern spying tool. According to Layton, balloon payloads can now be lighter, making the balloons more compact, cost-effective, and easier to launch than satellites. Blake Herzinger, a specialist in Indo-Pacific defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, stated that despite their low speeds, balloons may not always be noticeable.
Herzinger added that balloons are very low profile with low to no emissions, making them challenging to detect using conventional situational awareness or surveillance technology. In comparison, balloons offer capabilities that satellites cannot perform. According to Layton, satellites are equally efficient but have more predictable orbital dynamics. One advantage of balloons is that they can be directed by onboard computers to utilize winds and can move up and down to a certain extent, allowing them to linger for a limited duration. Unlike satellites, they cannot linger and thus, a large number of satellites are required to maintain surveillance of a particular area of interest.
What might it be monitoring? According to Layton, the suspected Chinese balloon is probably gathering information on US communication systems and radars. He explains that some of these systems use high-frequency short-range signals that are affected by the atmosphere and have a line-of-sight orientation, making them highly directional. In such cases, a balloon may be a more efficient collection platform than a satellite. Retired US Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton, a CNN military analyst, concurs with these views. He stated that the balloon could be acquiring signals intelligence, including monitoring cell phone and radio traffic. Layton stated that the intelligence data collected by the balloon could be transmitted in real-time back to China through a satellite link.
The suspected Chinese spy balloon, which was first spotted over Montana, has raised concerns among US officials who believe it could potentially be overflying a number of sensitive sites. Analysts believe the balloon might be collecting information on US communication systems and radars and relaying it back to China in real time via a satellite link. Montana and neighboring states are home to US intercontinental ballistic missile silos and strategic bomber bases. The US has taken measures to prevent the balloon from collecting any sensitive data, but has decided against shooting it down due to the risk of falling debris. While some believe it could be a deliberate act of spying, others suggest it could be an accident, with the balloon being blown off course or Chinese operators losing control. China has stated that it is aware of the reports and is trying to verify the details of the situation.