Ask the Chief: balloon hullabaloo

A Chinese high altitude balloon carrying equipment has been carried along in the atmosphere over the United States this past week causing all sorts of ruckus. Their government has responded to United States that it was accidental, and not intentional, violation of our national sovereignty. While the balloon has maneuvering capability and seems to possess a sophisticated payload, the Chinese government claim, that it is an off-course weather balloon, is laughable. It would have been more credible had they claimed it was high altitude survey of their investments in the United States (the Chinese have invested some $200 Billion in the past quarter-century in US businesses and real estate). Though the U.S. Defense Department says the balloon has not ventured over sensitive military installations, and the Government has not ordered it to be shot down, one wonders whom is leading who on. At a time when the Chinese government has trillions of dollars at their disposal, building aircraft carriers, orbiting space platforms, and conducts espionage via HUMINT (spying on government officials, theft of intellectual property and technology by foreign agents) and COMINT (intercepting radio transmissions and hacking into computer networks), this balloon seems to be very low tech espionage for an adversary.

To gain military or economic advantage, nations have engaged in surveillance or intelligence gathering of their rivals for millennia. With the invention of radio communications, ELINT (electronic intelligence) grew exponentially as each nation devised more sophisticated means to mask their operations. With the satellite era, FISINT (foreign signal intelligence) was developed to intercept and analyze telemetry, determining a potential adversary’s capabilities and intentions. All of these have prompted increasingly sophisticated means of securing them from observers.

Determined adversaries view the long game to achieve their objectives. Years before the Second World War, Imperial Japan was sizing up the military capabilities of the United States to thwart their territorial ambitions. The US was then also decrypting their communications, which facilitated the Allies in reversing their early military successes and shortened the war in the Pacific. Since the end of World War II, the Cold War competition between two nuclear-armed adversaries seemed only to conclude when the economic cost to the Soviet Union became unsupportable. At the same time, China has also developed nuclear weapons, and provided enormous support to North Korea and North Vietnam militarily and economically, in two conflicts with the United States. In negotiations beginning with the Nixon Administration in the early 1970s, the economic benefit of a global market open to China has created their global power.

China is a different economic competitor and adversary. More students in China pursue engineering and science training than in the US or in Europe. International corporations with offices in the PRC have nationals working around the globe. With wealth from international consumers, the PRC has provided foreign aid to build (Chinese) militarily and politically-useful seaports, industrial capacity, and resource development around the globe. A balloon floating over the United States might be calculated to test our response, as a metric to China’s long-term foreign policy objectives. Two years of a global pandemic that originated in the PRC due to a failure at a government virology lab, and subsequent obfuscation by their government and officials in foreign nations (with ties to the PRC), lend themselves to being tools of future conflict. Another balloon carrying a biological agent does not seem farfetched.

The PRC has conducted increasingly bold military maneuvers near Taiwan, and is likely monitoring regional powers’ response to its client, North Korea’s, missile tests. However preoccupied the United States is with domestic problem, overt military action against Taiwan in the coming year may be a last option in their Party chambers. Through a century of international agreements, should an adversary attack a treaty partner (Taiwan), the United States will enter the fray. A surveillance balloon over the United States might be a metric to gauge whether the United States populace would be prepared to support that.

After this was published, it appears that the United States did shoot down the balloon as it crossed over into the Atlantic airspace. -February 4,2023. We know it had no civilian-use payload, as it would otherwise have been launched from a Walmart or an Amazon facility – the route most Chinese products go through.