A giant Chinese Spy Balloon, taller than the Statue of Liberty, was spotted and shot down while hovering over U.S. airspace. While China maintains that it was a weather balloon that veered off course this has led to a war of words between the USA & China.
Fuelled by general, collective ignorance, public excitement forces people to believe in the impossible, especially when the matter involves some mythical, “super-secret” technical prowess, whether of our own or of an enemy nation—for the simple reason that they know little about complex technical matters. When we were kids during the 1965 War, we were told in hushed tones by adults that our army was able to make short work of the famous Patton tanks of Pakistan easily because our anti-tank mines had something “atomic” in them. Of course, nobody had any idea what that “atomic” could be. The strength of the rumour lay in leaving it unexplained so that one’s imagination could run riot.
A similar situation exists in respect of the so-called Chinese spy balloons recently found drifting over the sky of the USA. A flurry of un-informed, sensational articles written by journalists who have no scientific credentials or technical knowledge has added to the confusion and misled people further. As a scientist, I consider it my duty to dispel myths by educating people properly.
Multimillion-Dollar Jets Used to Shoot Hobbyists’ Toys
Since governments are no more rational than laymen, the US establishment deputed F-22 Raptor fighter jets costing $143 million to fire AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles costing $400,000 each to shoot down a balloon that could have cost as low as $842! Hundreds of hobbyists use small weather balloons and track them for fun.
The Americans shot the first balloon on January 28 off the coast of South Carolina and the second on February 10 over the skies of Alaska. Within a few days, they shot down three more unidentified flying objects. To add to the mystique and to keep the American public excited, the US military wouldn’t even say that they were balloons. NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) commander, General Glen VanHerck, told reporters. “I’m not going to categorise them as balloons. We’re calling them ‘objects’ for a reason. I’m not able to categorise how they stay aloft.” You can see the amateurish attempt to plant an idea in the minds of the people that the Chinese have invented something which can fly without any apparent reason or known mechanism. Martin McKenzie-Murray, associate editor of The Saturday Paper (Australia) asks, “Was the White House refusing to explain things, or just incapable because of its own profound bafflement?”
Also Read: US Air Force F-22 Shoots Down Chinese Spy Balloon Off South Carolina Coast
Confirming that stupidity is both infectious and universal, by February 14 this baffling phenomenon had spread as far as Eastern Europe. Romania scrambled jets after spotting something mysterious on radar, although their pilots found nothing, while Moldova temporarily shut its airspace after sightings of a balloon near its northern border with Ukraine. Buttressing the stupidity, US officials said that friendly countries like Japan, India, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines (another official claimed as many as 40 countries) have also been targeted for several years by China as a “part of vast aerial surveillance program”. Readers will be amused to note that they did not bother to explain why they had kept mum all these years and not alerted friendly nations.
What Are High-Altitude Balloons
Although the history of crewed high-altitude balloons goes back to the 1930s, they are no longer used for any significant purpose. Un-crewed research balloons are cheaper and usually carry small packages (say, 3 kg or so) of scientific instruments for meteorological, atmospheric and climate research, etc. to heights of 18-37 km, the record being 53 km—to understand it, compare it with the maximum height of 13.14 km (43,000 feet) at which a modern A380 airliner can fly. The first balloon was shot down at a height of 17.7 km (58,000 feet). Larger balloons can carry much more payload but it does not mean, as we will show shortly, that they can do something sinister.
SIGINT and the Myths Surrounding It
Interception of analogue radio communication was easy and fun in an earlier era. Now, decrypting encrypted digital military radio communications of strategic nature is theoretically possible but demands both time and enormous computing power—for all practical purposes, they are considered secure. Had it not been so, the national security of great powers would have been severely compromised, prompting an ambitious nation to launch a pre-emptive war!
SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) comprising Communications Intelligence-COMINT; Measurement and Signature Intelligence-MASINT; and Electronic Signals Intelligence-ELINT is an extremely difficult task demanding a large number of highly sophisticated equipment for intercepting, analysing and parametric exploitation of the signals. The equipment used is huge even when mounted on a satellite—the USA’s NROL-44 spy satellite launched in 2020, weighs over five tons! Ground equipment is much heavier than that!
During a war, by intercepting and analysing signals, for example, it is possible to work out an electronic order of battle (EOB) by identifying SIGINT emitters in an area of interest, determining their geographic location or range of mobility, characterizing their signals, and, if possible, determining their role in the broader organizational order of battle. SIGINT is a valuable tool for combating terrorists because their field communications are often rudimentary. However, in peacetime, a nation is simply not interested in listening to the radio communications of a colonel or division commander.
According to a RAND study ‘SIGINT for Anyone’, commercially available SIGINT equipment include maritime domain awareness; radio frequency (RF) spectrum mapping; eavesdropping, jamming, and hijacking of satellite communications; and cyber surveillance. They are for enthusiastic amateurs, however, and not of any use to a superpower like China or the National Security Agency (NSA) in the USA! To even think so is childish at best and utterly stupid at worst.
Why the Balloons Could Not Have Been Used For Spying Through SIGINT
The general belief was that the Chinese were spying (that is, collecting Signals Intelligence-SIGINT) over the USA through those weather balloons. Had it really been so simple to collect meaningful intelligence from spy balloons, what was the necessity of spending trillions of dollars/Yuan upon spy satellites in the first place? Of late, it has become a popular pastime to attribute all sorts of scientific impossibilities to the Chinese or the North Koreans, as if they have discovered something beyond the science that we have studied.
A weather balloon does not ‘fly’ in a controlled manner—it just drifts. The US has the world’s most sophisticated air defence and surveillance network. And yet, they mean to tell the world that a huge weather balloon could leisurely drift undetected into their air space and they got no wind of it! Outrageous! The Americans are claiming that the balloon shot down was about 200 feet tall. Compare this with the size of a typical ICBM warhead, which is just about four feet. The ICBM warhead moves at a terrific speed of some 25,000 km/hour whereas the weather balloon drifts at a leisurely speed of not more than 200 km/hour depending on wind conditions. In that case, what would they do with the re-entry vehicles of ICBMs-Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles of Russia, China, or North Korea?
Do they mean to tell the world that, as Frank N. von Hippel (American physicist and Co-Director of the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University) has disclosed; the $280 billion the USA has spent so far on missile defence has been a waste? If their Early Warning System Radars cannot detect a 200 feet balloon, how will they ever detect a four feet warhead? A plea that they have recalibrated their radars only now is clearly untenable, being a post facto contrived defence. In the instant case, the Chinese balloon was loitering for about a week over the United States and Canada before President Joe Biden ordered it shot down—a week, you must note. If a balloon that large could loiter in their air space for a week means either the American air defence is a farce, or they are making a fool of the whole world, including themselves—both things cannot be true simultaneously!
Nobody asked a fundamental question; WHAT EXACTLY the Chinese could collect by way of SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) by sending balloons over the USA, which are just being carried away by air currents in an uncontrolled manner, and not able to fly along a prescribed path or over militarily sensitive areas or installations? The atmosphere is flooded with a billion types of electromagnetic signals emanating from all sorts of electronic devices ranging from mobile phones, the Internet, TV sets, laptops, and what not.
It is next to impossible to intercept and filter out anything of interest out of that unimaginably gigantic volume of electromagnetic junk, and then transmit it to some base station in the home country thousands of miles away—all from a small package hung from a balloon with very little power. If that were indeed possible, we have wasted our lives and trillions sending constellations of satellites into orbit. In any case, remember that communications of strategic interest are highly encrypted anyway with state-of-the-art technology—many of them not even in the public or commercial domain and decrypting them is almost impossible for all practical purposes.
Keep in mind that next to the USA (3,433 satellites), the Chinese have the highest number of active satellites (562) in space—more than even Russia’s (172). Many of them are what would in common parlance be called ‘spy’ satellites. These include a series of Earth Observation (Yaogan and Gaofen) and Reconnaissance (Fanhui Shi Weixing and Ziyuan) satellites. In April 2022, Chinese researchers admitted that they were using advanced AI systems that could potentially turn commercial satellites into spy platforms.
With such sophisticated technical resources at their disposal, there is no reason to believe that the Chinese have fallen into such bad times that they would be obliged to use 1950s technology for spying! A contrived hypothesis that balloons are being used because lasers or kinetic weapons could target satellites is simply ridiculous. It is like saying that because soldiers now wear bulletproof jackets, they should carry spears or battle axes instead of rifles! Alexander Neill, a Singapore-based security analyst and adjunct fellow at Hawaii’s Pacific Forum think-tank also admit that the balloon could be of little intelligence value given the far more effective constellation of military and spy satellites which the People’s Liberation Army has at its disposal now.
Most importantly, the Americans, even after being able to salvage the debris of the first balloon they shot down, have not disclosed its contents—they merely spoke of “significant debris”. That is obviously suspicious. If it really had some “super-secret” spying equipment, it was all the more reason that they should have shown it to the world so as to ‘expose’ China. After all, many of us (including the author) have also studied electronics at a very high level and we must know what is that the Chinese have invented in communications that we don’t know from scientific publications in the public domain.
James Andrew Lewis of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies draws our attention to the fact that there have been no reports of radio transmission from the balloon. In his words, “Collecting data but being unable to get it back is a waste of time and money. No signal, no payload, no spying.”
There is no case that the balloon was not transmitting anything but it would have dropped its payload by parachute over some part of the USA or elsewhere in the world, where a Chinese spy would have physically collected it—let us not get into the world of the gossip of laymen on tea stalls or the feverish imagination of cheap spy-thriller writers that you find on railway station platforms.
In light of this, you can understand why all that journalistic talk of the balloon having been “equipped with an antenna meant to pinpoint the locations of communications devices and capable of intercepting calls made on those devices” is pure bunkum.
Even Reconnaissance Photography through Balloons Is Not Feasible
As for surveillance through aerial photography, anybody who understands the physics of it must know that you require an extremely stable platform for reconnaissance photography of high resolution (even if it is moving at a very high speed like a satellite—but on a rigidly fixed path with no vibration at all) for the sophisticated cameras to take any worthwhile photos. You cannot take any photos of value from an intelligent angle from a platform like a balloon which is wobbling in the air all the time, completely at the mercy of air currents and atmospheric disturbances. In any case, they did not speak of any camera in the debris of the shot-down balloon. Moreover, such sophisticated reconnaissance cameras happen to be huge. In the USA’s KH-11 optical camera satellites, the Cassegrain reflecting telescope and the Westinghouse CCD camera was housed in some 19.5 meters long and 3 meters diameter bodies weighing some 12 tons! You cannot pack a $2000 Canon DSLR handheld camera or a $300 Made-in-China DSLR in a spy balloon—these cameras are not designed for reconnaissance photography!
For intelligence collection, your systems must fly in a controlled manner so that you can make them overfly locations of your choice (be they military installations or whatever of strategic interest). You cannot collect intelligence from a platform that is carried away by winds to anywhere on the planet!
Compounding the Mistake
The Chinese officially regretted the “unintended entry of the meteorological research balloon into US airspace due to an unforeseen and unintended outcome”. Still, it was called a ‘violation of American sovereignty’. Dumbness is so universal that Rep. Jim Hines (D-Conn.) described it as a “Chinese spy craft’ and said that the US will “learn a lot” from the debris. James Andrew Lewis agrees, “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.”
However, the Americans are so entangled in the sheer illogicality of their claim of those balloons being Chinese spy balloons that they and their supporters are now forced to invent more theories, each one being more ridiculous than the previous one. No one can deny the fact that the US air space is one of the most closely monitored ones by a host of agencies—including the US civil aviation authorities, the US air force, the US space force, and the weather networks. It is therefore absolutely unrealistic to expect that it could be so easily penetrated. A theory advanced by John Blaxland of the Australian National University is that the Chinese were indeed expecting the balloon to be caught so as to embarrass the USA through that. Given that the hysteria led to aggravating the tension between the two countries and strengthening the hardliners in the USA who even got the Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone his trip to China, this hypothesis is plainly absurd.
It should be obvious that the theory behind the Chinese spy balloon is nothing but a hoax created to whip up anti-China sentiments with the ulterior motive of justifying many of the USA’s strategic moves, whatever they are. As Dr Paul Craig Roberts (formerly United States Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy) points out, even a poor country like Colombia also, over the skies of which a balloon had drifted, dismissed it as insignificant posing no threat whatsoever—but the mighty US whipped up hysteria, and the dumb world lapped it up. When knowledge punctures excitement built over ignorance, it always comes as a disappointing anti-climax, but I expect my readers to become wiser instead.