By Anaya Peguero || Contributing Writer
US officials have claimed that China has had a “fleet” of surveillance balloons that have been deployed over five continents. Though China insists that these balloons are used as “civilian airships” for research, United States officials have looked at the debris and have thus confirmed that these balloons have been designed for surveillance. The link to this broader surveillance program was first reported by The Washington Post last week. The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that China’s broader surveillance program “has violated the sovereignty of countries across five continents.” Officials struggle to apprehend China’s intentions as they insist that the balloon was a weather balloon that drifted off course into the United States, despite what intelligence says.
What does this imply, and what does this mean moving forward?
With the rapid development of modern technology, the race to collect as much data as possible about your adversaries no longer has been limited to the land, sea, and low altitude. Near space has become increasingly critical for modern warfare and national security. Chinese leader Xi Jinping has urged the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to speed up its efforts in space integration, sharpen its offensive and defensive capabilities, and enhance its “near space” influence. Online academic databases show Chinese research having published over 1,000 papers reporting on “near space,” which becomes even more compelling considering China has set up a research center for the development of high-altitude balloons and stratospheric airships.
These balloons have not only been found above the flight paths of commercial and military jets and under satellites, but also in a domain where hypersonic weapons and ballistic missiles cross. Officials are in a race to understand as much as possible about these balloon’s capabilities, including what kind of data it could gather, whether it could intercept existing radio and technological communication, and if they had any vulnerabilities the United States might be able to exploit. Paramount, investigators are looking for indicators such as digital signatures to track down this kind of balloon if it happens to cross into US territory again in the future. Commander of US Northern Command, General Gen VanHerk, admits that the US had a “domain awareness gap” that permitted these balloons to go into US airspace without detection. There are many questions still left unanswered, so it is difficult to make conclusive statements about what is going on.
It may be quite difficult for the intelligence community to learn more about the capabilities and objectives of these balloons as it depends on the extent of the damage sustained by the balloon’s substructure in the initial shoot-down and its 60,000-foot plummet into the ocean. A senior in the State Department said on Thursday that the balloon “was capable of conducting signals intelligence collection operations,” a claim that China has since then rejected.
President Biden since then has come out saying that he will be speaking with Chinese President Xi Jinping about the surveillance balloon. Biden has said that the three aerial objects shot down by the US military were most likely to be tied to research institutions or private companies.
It looks like we will have to sit tight and wait for more analysis to be done, for President Biden to meet with Xi Jinping, and for in-depth research to be done for concrete resolutions to be met.
Sophomore Anaya Peguero is a contributing writer. Her email is email@example.com.