My home state of Montana was recently featured in news feeds this week as the first to observe and identify what the US Air Force says is a Chinese spy balloon. The Chinese claim it is a civilian weather apparatus that was blown off course, but the equipment visible in photographs suggests that this is a lie. Beyond that, another similar balloon has been spotted over Latin America – one wayward high tech Chinese balloon might be believable, but two is not a coincidence.
There are numerous theories as to why such a surveillance platform would be used by the CCP and what it is designed to look for, and I thought I would offer a couple theories based on my years of study into similar projects pursued by the US Department of Defense and DARPA.
First, the immediate question is why the Biden Administration has not destroyed the balloon? Why not shoot first and ask questions later? Well, Biden’s silence on this issue suggests he either has no answers or that the truth will make the American public very angry. The most likely reason it has not been shot down is because it is very difficult or impossible to shoot down.
High-altitude balloons travel at 80,000 to 120,000 feet. The average fighter jet can hit altitudes of 65,000 feet and new generation drones can climb to 50,000 feet. These balloons also emit little to no heat signature, which makes them very difficult to target using missiles. If laser technology exists that has such a range, the US military is not talking about it. It might actually be easier to shoot down a Chinese satellite than one of these balloons.
Is there a way? It could be done perhaps with a missile using a large fragmentation-type warhead, but the White House does not seem too interested in exploring options.
Another explanation is that the DoD is waiting to see what these balloons do. This is where I would present a few theories as to their purpose. Here is what I think is most likely given the progress of spy balloon technology right now…
Chinese ALTA Balloon Program
For a few years now DARPA has been playing with a concept for high-altitude surveillance balloons using a technology called “Strat-OAWL.” Balloons have been fielded for centuries as surveillance weapons, but unpredictable wind and atmospheric changes push the balloons around, making them useless within a couple of days for any specific region.
To break it down simply, Strat-OAWL is the experimental use of lasers to read wind speed and direction far ahead of a balloon. The balloon then uses that data to increase or decrease altitude to ride airstreams in whatever directing the military wants the balloon to go. This could allow increased navigational control; but the Holy Grail that DARPA seeks is a high-altitude balloon that can stay in one place indefinitely.
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I find this idea impractical, like most DARPA projects, if only because wind currents can change faster than any balloon can adjust altitude, but I do see the potential uses here. The Chinese could unleash hundreds of high-flying spy balloons with similar capabilities to spy satellites at a fraction of the cost and with less risk of destruction by enemy fire. The CCP may be attempting to test their own version of the DARPA directional-balloon tech, while also waiting to see if the US has the means to shoot down the devices.
Lidar Observation From A Balloon Platform
The Chinese have been messing with lidar technology a lot lately. Lidar uses pulsed lasers to measure small variations in terrain to uncover hidden shapes and structures. It also has a knack for cutting through forest canopy and other obstructions. The problem with lidar is that the platforms commonly used to carry the apparatus are faster moving and only capture a snapshot in time. Also, it cannot see through thick clouds, dust, rain, snow or fog.
NASA and DARPA have both been testing lidar from balloons as a means to keep the lasers in the sky longer above a specific area. The Chinese balloon also looks somewhat similar to the equipment used on European lidar balloon experiments.
A lidar-based spy balloon would explain Chinese interest in Eastern Montana, where there are numerous known nuclear-missile silos as well as suspected hidden silos. The Chinese balloon did in fact come near at least one known nuclear-missile base near Billings. Lidar could be exploited to find hidden bases in the region.
Much like lidar, multispectral-imaging tech is highly dependent on the platform that it is mounted on. MI is used to measure wavelengths of light that are not visible to the human eye and it is tested in many scientific applications. However, there are military applications, including using MI to discover hidden variations in terrain that do not match the surrounding environment. In other words, its meant to sniff out camouflaged buildings, vehicles, fighting positions, etc.
China launched two satellites for multispectral imaging in 2019 and may now be trying to test the same equipment on balloons. It’s hard to say if they are looking for a unique target, or if they are just establishing baseline image maps to be used in the future for…who knows?
Weapons Delivery Platform
High-altitude balloons are cheap and relatively effective surveillance platforms that can be used much like satellites but, with the right equipment, could become far more maneuverable. With the CCP’s limited resources it makes sense that they would be utilizing low-cost and low-visibility measures instead of expensive and easier-to-target long-range drones or spy planes.
However, these systems are not just useful for observation – they can also be used to deliver weapons packages, including EMP weapons, nuclear weapons and biological agents. The US has been testing balloons for nuclear delivery ever since Operation Yucca in 1956.
In the event of war between China and the US, the CCP may be looking for a way to strike with weapons of mass destruction with a passive delivery system that’s hard to defend against.
The end goal is difficult to figure out. No doubt, the Chinese expect conflict with the US in the near future. The surveillance may be in preparation for an invasion of Taiwan in the near term (next couple of years). Or, the entire circus may just be designed to see how America reacts. So far, the Biden White House has done nothing and has said nothing.
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Chinese satellites “fly” over the US every single day, but we don’t talk about that. Also up there: Russian satellites. And of course Musk’s Starlink satellites. The ISS “flies” over everyone too. And the US probably has the largest spy satellite fleet in the world, “flying” over every square inch of the planet, including China.
So the only real distinction this balloon offers is that it is floating in the space somewhere between the altitudes used by aviation, say commercial at about 40,000 feet and military up to about 70,000 feet, and space. Please keep in mind that the US had no qualms about flying U2’s over the Soviet Union at 70,000 feet, until the Soviet Union figured out how to shoot them down.
The balloon may be no more than an attempt to force this arbitrary legal issue. At what altitude is a flying object legal to shoot down, and not? If the US shoots down the balloon, can China start shooting down US spy satellites? Can Russia start shooting down Starlink satellites, given that those are now a Ukrainian military asset? They both have the demonstrated technology to do that, even if the numbers of available missiles are limited at this time.
And how many balloons has the west floated over Russia and China over the years? Were they all just weather balloons? Maybe the answer is zero, but I don’t know.
It could be that the purpose of the balloon is nothing more than to test overflight precedent.
Or, it could be just a weather balloon that went off course. Sending a bunch of high tech military equipment over a foreign country on a balloon would be risky. The tech could be captured, so you wouldn’t send any “secret” stuff.
Anyway, go out of town sometime on a clear night and look to the sky. You’ll see a lot of satellites. I did this recently, and I was struck by how many more of them there are than when I was a kid. You used to have to watch intently for an hour to see a few. Now there are so many they crisscross in the sky. I even saw a “Starlink train”, which was kind of interesting; 5 satellites in a row not far apart as far as such things go, probably recently launched from the same rocket and not yet in their final orbits.
It’s interesting from a psychological perspective how we are used to the satellites and don’t even think about them even though we all know they are there, but a balloon causes us to loose our minds. Maybe because it’s unusual.