Week of February 12, 2023

US Shoots down Chinese Spy balloon
Over US Airspace


A near weeklong drama ended on Saturday when an American F-22 fighter shot down a Chinese balloon off the coast of South Carolina with a Sidewinder missile.  The wreckage fell into shallow water about 47 feet deep which guarantees that much of the wreckage will be recovered.

Although the flight of the balloon has ended, the fallout will continue.  What will the US discover about Chinese intelligence gathering by inspecting the wreckage?  Why did the Chinese use a balloon instead of using one of its satellites?  How will China react to the American actions?

Undoubtedly China has found a new way to “tickle” American, Canadian, and North American Air Defense systems (NORAD) much like Russian bombers who fly near Alaskan and East Coast American air space.  It is less threatening than a bomber and can yield additional intelligence as it flies over the Continental United States.

There was the diplomatic dance around the event.  China said it was a civilian meteorological balloon that has strayed off course.  The American Department of Defense noted that the balloon was sitting over part of America’s ballistic missile system.

The DoD did say the balloon flight, “violated US airspace and violated international law.”  It also called the action “unacceptable.”  It also alluded to the fact that balloon’s travel was controlled and not just subject to winds.

Biden was briefed by the DoD Wednesday, at which time he ordered it to be shot down, if it posed no threat to life or property.  The Defense Department let the balloon continue its flight across the United States and shot it down as soon as it was over the ocean, but still in American airspace.

Shooting the balloon down was a bipartisan desire.  Trump was clear in how he would react.  “SHOOOT DOWN THE BALLOON,” Trump responded on his social account.

The Montana congressional delegation was even more forceful.  “I’d pull the trigger if they let me,” texted Congressman Zinke.

“It’s unacceptable to allow communist China to invade out airspace,” said Congressman Rosendale.

The biggest US diplomatic response was Secretary of State Blinken postponing his trip to China next week.


The Chinese Protest Too Much

One can assume that this is not a Chinese civilian weather balloon.  Projects of this size are not purely civilian in China.  The Chinese government would have a say in starting a project that would potentially fly over the US.  The balloon operators would also require a final approval before launching it.

The flight path of the balloon told us much and gave American intelligence an idea of what the Chinese wanted to know.  It evidently flew over the Aleutian Islands, over Alaska and Canada before entering the airspace of the Continental United States.

The balloon’s ability to loiter over a given place gives it abilities that a fast-moving satellite doesn’t have.

This is not a random route taken by a weather balloon that has gone off course.  It followed the Great Circle route that aircraft take to fly from the US to China.  It is also the same route that Chinese bombers would take from China to heartland America – either to attack the American nuclear ICBM missiles like those at Malmstrom Air Force Base or attack cities in the American Midwest.

The 60,000-foot altitude is like the altitude Chinese bombers would fly.

If there is metrological equipment onboard, as the Chinese claim, it would give the Chinese the weather conditions at altitudes that their bombers would fly.

But there are other possibilities.  Russia regularly flies bombers towards the US to see how quickly interceptor aircraft are launched and what radar bands are used to track their aircraft.

Of course, Russian aircraft withdrew after being challenged.  In this case, the balloon continued its route unchallenged.

Given the size of the instrument package on the Chinese balloon, it could pick up air defense radar emissions, communications from Air Force bases, frequencies used by the US, Canada, and NORAD, and tactics of intercepting aircraft.  This information would be pure gold for any nation planning an air attack on the US.  Much of this intelligence could not be gained by merely flying close to US airspace.

It could also pick up cell phone communications.

Another possibility would be to gather information that might be used in planning a hypersonic missile attack on the US. The Chinese would want additional intelligence if this was the intended route of hypersonic missiles targeting American ICBM bases.

And the balloon did fly over some US ICBM bases.

So, why didn’t the US shoot down the balloon until it had reached the Atlantic?  Obviously, the story that it could cause civilian casualties and damage was partially right.

But that wasn’t the whole story.

America wanted to capture the balloon and its equipment for intelligence purposes. The shallow depth of the Atlantic off South Carolina would make it easier to recover.  A water landing would limit damage, especially if the balloon acted as a drogue and slowed the craft as it descended.  However, it’s logical to assume that the craft has self-destruct devices in it and would be ordered to explode if there is a possibility of capture.

Although it hasn’t been mentioned much, the US was also spying on the spy balloon.

No matter its purpose, the craft was sending telemetry back to China.  Undoubtedly, the National Security Agency (and many other agencies) were capturing, storing, and studying the data being sent back to China.  Although it was likely encrypted, the NSA might have broken the code or at least knew how to make use of the telemetry.

If the NSA was spying on the craft, they would have also learned something about how China uses it communications network.  Did the balloon communicate directly with China?  Did the data go to a Chinese communications satellite first?  Was a Chinese agent on the ground the link between the balloon and China?

Of course, the Chinese could have used a top-secret code machine to encode the data, but it would be unlikely for the Chinese to risk sending top secret coding equipment unguarded over US airspace, even though it probably had a self-destruct mechanism on the machine.



Chinese Reaction to the Shooting down of its Balloon

Chinese reaction was muted until the balloon was brought down.  China’s Foreign Ministry stated its “strong dissatisfaction and protest against the US’s use of force to attack civilian unmanned airships.”

US Secretary of Defense Austin accused China of using the balloon to “surveil strategic sites in the Continental United States.”

If China continues to push the civilian nature of the flight, expect the US to bring out a piece of the craft that has no meteorological uses, but is clearly for intelligence applications.

The US could also use this incident and the reported flight of a Chinese balloon over Latin America to improve relations with its southern neighbors.

The Chinese have several options to “save face.”  One can expect China to use its claim of sovereign rights over the South China Sea to board an American civilian craft and tow it to a Chinese port.  It could also force a US civilian or military aircraft to land in China on the grounds that they had violated Chinese airspace.

Another, more dramatic move would be to attack an American spy satellite with one of its hunter killer satellites.  The excuse would be that the satellite was involved in intelligence gathering and it was involved in overflying China at the time it was shot down.  The move would be a demonstration of China’s strategic capability in space and would demonstrate American military weakness.

What would Biden do in such a case?

Although the Chinese balloon incident is over, expect China to find a way to retaliate.