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In a world of drones and satellites, why use a spy balloon?
Despite the furor, spy balloons are actually not that unusual — according to U.S. officials, they have been spotted over American territory a number of times in recent years. Both U.S. and U.K. militaries have also made inquiries about high-altitude balloons.
So why would they still be used — and why don’t we hear about them more often?
It’s only in the past 10 years or so that military attention has returned to balloons, according to Michael Clarke, a visiting professor at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, “because they see how useful they are, or can be.”
“Balloons offer a few advantages over the use of satellites or drones,” James Rogers, an academic at the University of Southern Denmark and Cornell University, who currently advises the U.N. Security Council on the transnational threat of drones, said in emailed comments.
“Not only are they cheaper than launching satellites into space, but by operating within the bounds of the earth’s atmosphere, closer to the surface, they can obtain better quality images.” Rogers adds that the latest generation of balloons are high-tech in their own right, “envisaged as systems that can fly up to 90,000 feet, deploy their own drone systems,” and detect incoming missiles.
Clarke points out that balloons can soar above the range of most planes, and their slow speed also means they aren’t always picked up by radar, while additional technology or paint can help to further conceal them.
Equally importantly, balloons can stay over one area for longer periods than satellites, if the weather permits. Satellites can provide high-resolution imagery, Clarke said in an interview, “but the ability to monitor, to pick up wireless or computer traffic is an advantage if you can stay in one place. … The satellite can only pick that up as it travels over for a relatively short period.”
There’s also the cost benefit: a satellite may cost up to $300 million over its lifetime, according to one estimate from 2020; even the most high-tech balloon would be cheaper.
Malcolm Macdonald, a professor and space technology engineer from the University of Strathclyde in Scotland, agreed that “a balloon is very difficult to see on radar, although the sensor bay underneath will be more visible.”
Balloons also have an advantage over satellites because they are more maneuverable, according to Macdonald. “The motion of a satellite is very predictable, a balloon (or other aircraft) offers the chance for an unexpected overflight, to catch those you are observing by surprise,” he said in emailed comments. “You might hope to get something you might not see, or hear, from space.”
If balloons are indeed useful for surveillance purposes, this leads to another question — why didn’t the United States shoot it down?
Macdonald argues spy balloons can serve another purpose — for example, to expose U.S. defense capabilities. This could explain why U.S. authorities waited for the balloon to become public knowledge before commenting, Macdonald says. “Had they reacted sooner it would have confirmed to the Chinese that U.S. air defenses had seen it.”
The government has said it decided against shooting down the balloon to prevent injuries on the ground — though some Montana residents questioned this, telling The Post the area was sparsely populated.
But there could be another reason, according to Macdonald. “If you know where it is, you can mitigate any risk it poses. But, if you shoot it down you might expose an offensive capability you would rather keep secret.”
Experts were divided on whether it would have been safe for the military to shoot down the balloon over Montana. “The balloon is currently in the lower boundary of the stratosphere, and shooting anything down that is 12 miles up can be both difficult in terms of the range of jets or missiles, but also unpredictable. No one wants this crashing into their living room,” Rogers said.
Clarke agreed that “it’s harder than you’d think to shoot down balloons. It’s been tried before but it doesn’t always work.” In 1998, for example, Canadian, British and U.S. fighter jets unsuccessfully attempted to shoot down a rogue weather balloon that had forced passenger flights to divert.
However, Clarke also raised doubts about the government’s public explanation for not shooting down the balloon: “Montana is not very populated and balloons cause very little debris. If you’re going to shoot it down … you could tell people to stay indoors.” Meteorological balloons also come down regularly, causing little damage, he notes.
Given the tense relationship between Beijing and Washington, Clarke believes political considerations could have played a role in why the United States has not yet shot down the balloon, and why it didn’t announce the presence of the balloon earlier.
“The political reason is that if they shoot it down, it will make a bigger incident of it,” Clarke said. “The sensible argument is: ‘It’s not actually picking up anything valuable, we can get more out of the Chinese from this by underreacting and just needling them with the fact they’re spying on our airspace,’” he explained.
The presence of another suspected balloon in Latin America only strengthens Washington’s case that the balloons were dispatched deliberately, according to Clarke.
Steve Tsang, the director of the China Institute at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, argued that any spy balloon would probably be of “symbolic value, showing that the Chinese are able to send something in the air to survey U.S. military installations.
“And they’re doing it because for decades the U.S. have been sending spy planes along the Chinese coast and sometimes over Chinese airspace to monitor the Chinese in ways that they couldn’t do very much about,” he said. “And now they can, so they are.”
Clarke meanwhile believes that China was responding to recent U.S. decisions in Southeast Asia: “I’m certain in my own mind that this was China’s rather clumsy reaction to the statements that have been made this week, last week, about the reopening of bases in the Philippines,” he said.
Analysts said that decision could offer U.S. forces a strategic position from which to mount operations in the event of a conflict in Taiwan or the South China Sea.