Chinese Spy Balloons: The Sky’s the Limit

Balloons were an important tool for intelligence gathering in the nineteenth century. Since then, their usefulness has declined sharply. The United States used high-altitude balloons in the 1950s to spy on the Soviet Union (the Soviets complained and shot them down). Balloons were replaced, first by the U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance plane (also shot down) and then by Corona reconnaissance satellites, the first of many generations of spy satellites that many countries use today. Now a Chinese balloon is drifting over the United States, raising grave concerns over people who should know better.

Balloons are not an ideal platform for spying. They are big and hard to hide. They go where the winds take them (prevailing winds goes from North Asia to the Northwest United States) and are essentially unsteerable. Japan launched balloons to drop firebombs on Washington state in WWII—the target was Seattle, but they could never get the balloons to fly over it. Balloons would be a strange choice for a technologically advanced and sophisticated opponent.

A balloon has to carry a sensor payload to gather information, but since the balloon will never return to base, there has to be some way to transfer the collected data back home. In the 1960s, the United States developed a complicated technology that let a C-130 aircraft snatch the dangling payload dropped from the first reconnaissance satellites, but to use a similar system, the Chinese would have to fly a large plane over U.S. territory, a very risky proposition. Or the payload could be parachuted to the ground, but that means any payload would not be recovered unless China has people standing around in Montana or Labrador, also a risky proposition. The balloon could radio back any collected data, perhaps even to a Chinese satellite overhead, but there have been no reports of radio transmission from the balloon. Collecting data but being unable to get it back is a waste of time and money. No signal, no payload, no spying.

China has spy satellites flying over the United States every day, taking pictures, collecting radio signals and other data. Their space intelligence constellations have grown in number and improved dramatically in collection capabilities over the last 20 years. China launched another four modern spy satellites last year. China has not used balloons for spying before, and using a balloon would be a step back. The most likely explanation is that this is an errant weather balloon that went astray—lost weather balloons are the basis of many “UFO sightings.” It’s embarrassing for China, and some Chinese meteorologist may be packing his or her bags for reassignment to Inner Mongolia.

This is not to say that China does not spy on the United States. It has a massive, professional espionage campaign against the United States and its allies that relies on human agents, hacking, and spy satellites. Chinese spying is more extensive than the Soviet spying at height of the Cold War. Until 2015, the United States accepted this spying as the cost of doing business with a big market that would eventually become more like a Western country. The United States was wrong and it was not until the Chinese hacked the Office of Personnel Management in 2015—when the records of millions of U.S. government employees were stolen—that there was finally a strong reaction. More needs to be done. If the United States wants to be certain about its purpose, it should shoot the balloon down and see what is in the sensor package. The odds of it landing on someone are negligible.

China should learn from this that it needs to scale back spying as the United States is on edge. For the Americans, what's troubling about this incident is the tendency to overreact. The United States needs better cybersecurity, more FBI agents, the renewal of key authorities like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), and direct negotiations with the Chinese government on the need to scale back their espionage (Obama did this in 2015). Chinese balloons are a distraction. The very real risk of Chinese technical espionage is not explained by improbable scenarios, and worrying about balloons does not change the Chinese espionage advantage. Chinese spying is aggressive, and the United States needs a tougher response, but worrying about balloons is the equivalent of looking under the bed every night for Chinese spies.

James A. Lewis is senior vice president and director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.  

James Andrew Lewis
Senior Vice President; Pritzker Chair; and Director, Strategic Technologies Program