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Spy in the sky? Up, up and away in a mysterious Chinese ‘weather balloon’ and what this means for aerial sovereignty

Spy in the sky? Up, up and away in a mysterious Chinese ‘weather balloon’ and what this means for aerial sovereignty
A high-altitude balloon, which the US government has stated is Chinese, is seen as it continues its multiday path across the northern United States in Charlotte, North Carolina, US, 4 February 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Nell Redmond)

A so-called Chinese weather balloon, mysteriously off course over much of the continental US, has provoked a storm of anger, annoyance and posturing, and even managed to generate a Chinese semi-apology for interrupting the equanimity of millions of Americans. But what was its purpose and what happens now in the often-vexed US-China relationship?

Balloons have intrigued people for hundreds of years, regardless of whether they have had utilitarian or even military purposes, or have been used for the pleasure of adventure tours in such places as Cappadocia, Turkey, or the Magaliesberg in South Africa, among so many others. There are Pixar feature cartoons about balloons such as Up (watch the trailer here) and a universally loved poem like In Just-Spring by EE Cummings. (Listen to the author read his poem here.) And then there’s The 5th Dimension’s 1967 hit single Up, Up and Away. (Watch the beautiful visuals here.)   

The generally accepted view is that in 1783, two French entrepreneur brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier, were the first to demonstrate the feasibility of building a hot air balloon. After sending a sheep, a duck and a rooster aloft as test animals, they followed with a manned flight which carried the pioneers aloft in a carriage below the balloon.  

Just two decades later, a balloon was being used by the revolutionary French army for the observation of its opposing combatants — the Austrians and Dutch — in the Battle of Fleurus in what is now Belgium. By the American Civil War in the 1860s, Professor Thaddeus Lowe led the Union army’s balloon corps as its commanding aeronaut. To inflate his balloons, Lowe used hydrogen gas released from mixing iron and sulphuric acid in portable installations driven close to the battlefields. As the lightest element, hydrogen gave Lowe’s balloons significant lift and a clear advantage over hot air balloons.  

Enemy troop observations by the balloonist passenger were relayed to ground commanders by semaphore signals or Morse code, transmitted by a trailing wire. (Despite this potentially dangerous mix of hydrogen and electrical sparks, there is no record that any of Lowe’s military balloons exploded in mid-air. However, traces of sulphuric acid from the process eventually weakened the balloons’ fabric to the point where some of the balloons could not be used for extended periods.) 

During World War 1, balloons were extensively used as stationary aerial defences and for observation — and, by the Germans, as bombing platforms to terrorise London. Eventually, advances in aircraft design rendered balloons largely irrelevant in combat, but barrage balloons were still used to help protect cities and troops from aerial attacks. Balloons are still used as static observation points in certain theatres of conflict such as the Middle East and Afghanistan.  

The dramatic and fatal explosion of the Hindenburg zeppelin in 1937, just as it neared its mooring in Lakehurst, New Jersey, largely put an end to using hydrogen as the inflating gas and it was replaced by helium. The latter is less buoyant, but it is inert.  

In World War 2, balloons were largely used as barrage balloons. However, during that war, the Japanese attempted to set fire to the forests of the US Pacific Northwest, using small incendiary devices attached to balloons carried across the Pacific by the prevailing eastward wind currents. We shall meet those prevailing winds again shortly. 

Meanwhile, balloons had become an important part of meteorology (both civilian and military), as they identified air currents and other atmospheric conditions and allowed them to be tracked by ground stations from radio signals. Crewless vehicles, their designs were significantly different from balloons and blimps used commercially, as no crew life support capabilities were needed. 

Manned reconnaissance aircraft

While all of these developments were proceeding, manned reconnaissance aircraft were reaching highly sophisticated levels of development, most famously in the example of the U-2 craft deployed by the US over the then Soviet Union and Castro’s Cuba. The shooting down of a U-2 by a missile while it flew over the USSR and the capture of its pilot, Gary Powers (before he was eventually traded for Soviet master spy Rudolf Abel), provoked a near crisis in US-Soviet relations, given the already existing tensions, such as the status of and access to a still-divided Berlin (and a divided Germany in the larger European picture as well).  

When that U-2 was downed, the US first attempted to offer an explanation that it had been a weather monitoring craft gone seriously off course. That sounds curiously familiar to the Chinese explanation about their balloon that crossed US territory (twice) before being shot down, doesn’t it?   

Back at the time of U-2 flights in the early 1960s, reconnaissance satellites were barely more than an engineer’s dream. In 1962, another U-2 plane was hit — killing the pilot — while flying over Cuba, as part of a desperate effort to confirm the disposition of Russian ICBM missiles newly placed on the island as a surreptitious effort to upend the US-Soviet strategic balance. One outcome of the peaceful resolution of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was a push to create a real-time Moscow-Washington hotline in the event of future crises. Perhaps one outcome of the Chinese balloon contretemps is a recognition that substantive communication between Beijing and Washington is lacking. 

Meanwhile, since the heyday of the U-2s, Russia, the US, other nations, and China as well have put into orbit hundreds — perhaps thousands — of reconnaissance satellites, keeping tabs on potential adversaries and providing vast streams of data for military planners and analysts. In addition, open source data has become increasingly plentiful, rich, and detailed — and such information is now invaluable to the world’s militaries, news media, and others, as we have witnessed during the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  

Cover story lacks plausibility

Accordingly, the cover story that the Chinese balloon overflying the US and Canada was a weather balloon that took matters into its own hands — labelled rather cavalierly as force majeure by the Chinese — lacks plausibility, especially given its configuration with those big solar power antennae and a massive truss suspended below the balloon containing instruments. Nevertheless, the actual reason for its deployment puzzles observers. Moreover, this balloon is not the first such launch to bumble its way over the US. Reportedly, there were three during the Trump era. In addition, a similar one has just passed over several Central American and South American nations. 

The key international treaty, dating back to the mid-1960s, that governs the peaceful uses of space, the planets, and beyond, is effectively quiet on one nation’s use of orbiting satellites for the reconnaissance of other states. However, there is a general understanding under international law that balloons, manned, or unmanned aircraft used for espionage that cross international frontiers violate a nation’s sovereignty and can be forced down or even destroyed by the nation whose borders are so violated. 

As Joseph Soraghan noted in McGill University’s law journal back in 1967, examining the international legal circumstances of reconnaissance satellites: “This landmark [space] treaty is in the nature of a culmination of efforts in the United Nations, which were earlier evidenced by Resolutions 1721 (XVI) 4 and 1962 (XVIII). Neither the Space Treaty nor either of these resolutions, however, deals explicitly with reconnaissance activities carried on from space…” 

Soraghan went on to say, “Article I of the Space Treaty provides that ‘outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all states… This is, however, only a formalisation of the view that has been generally accepted for some time that the legal regime of outer space is one of qualified freedom. The United Nations Resolution 1962 (XVIII), adopted unanimously in December 1963, proclaimed that outer space is free for the use of all states according to international law. 

“Aside from international pronouncements, it is generally argued that the lack of protest by overflown nations since the advent of satellite overflights that these constituted a violation of their territorial sovereignty has caused the ‘freedom’ principle to become a customary rule. For practical reasons, sovereignty is rejected because valuable space endeavours, by their nature, must be unrestricted by territorial boundaries.”  


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The principle of aerial sovereignty

However, national sovereignty extends up to the airspace above a nation’s territory, as defined by international law — but not forever into space. This is rooted in the principle of aerial sovereignty that holds that a state has the right to exercise control over the airspace above its territory to the extent necessary for the protection of its national security, public order and the welfare of its citizens. The exact extent to which national sovereignty extends in the sky is not clearly defined, but it is generally accepted to extend up to a minimum altitude of 60,000 feet (18,288m). 

The idea of national sovereignty in the sky has been shaped and limited by international treaties and agreements, such as the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation and the above-mentioned Space Treaty. These agreements establish rules and guidelines for the use of airspace and outer space, respectively, and help ensure nations can exercise their sovereignty in a manner that does not infringe on the rights of other nations. In addition, the principles of customary international law, such as the freedom of overflights, have been established to ensure the free use of airspace for peaceful purposes, subject to the jurisdiction and control of the state whose territory is overflown. 

Given these concepts and treaties, it seems clear the US had the legal right to fire an air-to-air missile at the mysterious Chinese balloon, once it entered US airspace. Further, given domestic sensibilities, the US had exercised reasonable caution by only attacking it once it was over shallow water, so as to avoid civilian casualties or damage to property. Having the instrumentation fall into shallow waters off South Carolina also has a side benefit. It means there is a greater likelihood the military will be able to recover at least some of the balloon’s instrumentation, as opposed to having it crash into the frozen ground at great speed from approximately 20,000m  above the surface, smashing into hundreds of pieces, making it nearly useless for real examination. 

But the actual purpose of these balloon flights remains something of a mystery — even if one embraces the idea they were just errant meteorological balloons out for an extended aerial jol. James Fallows, a licensed pilot, commentator and author, former White House speechwriter, and longtime analyst of East Asian societies (having lived for years in Japan and China) attempted to suss out the purpose of the flyover and its likely ramifications.

‘Three possibilities — all bad’

In his 6 February newsletter, Fallows wrote that while he seriously doubted the cover story that it was on a weather mission, he was mystified about what the people who sent it intended for it. Fallows wrote: “At the moment I can imagine three possibilities, all bad. 

“First, this could have been a screw-up in the most basic sense. Whoever launched it thought the jet-stream winds would keep it over Canada, rather than dipping into the US. Of course that would still mean traversing airspace of a Nato member, and of course it would mean crossing Alaska before that. This possibility is conceivable but not likely. 

“Second, this could have been a screwup within the Chinese leadership. Some military hothead might have thought that sending the balloon would be a great way to poke the ‘declining’ Americans, while proving his or her own ‘fighting spirit’ initiative, and also demonstrating China’s technical and military prowess. There’s a precedent. Back in 2007, it appears that some Chinese military hothead shot down a satellite, without letting the leader at the time, Hu Jintao, in on the plans. Maybe this has happened again? 

“Third, this could have been a screw-up in the grand-strategic sense. Perhaps the all-knowing, all-wise Xi Jinping approved the plans, as a way of demonstrating China’s technical and military prowess, and putting the Americans on guard. 

“None of these possibilities is great. They don’t represent a Chinese ‘threat’, as I’ll argue below. But they increase the China ‘problem.’”  

Fallows also noted it is just barely possible it wasn’t even a Chinese balloon, even though China has already taken ownership of its mistaken path. 

Fallows went on to ask if China had “lost face” from this episode. His view was: “The US announced it was tracking the balloon. It shot the balloon down as soon as it knew that the payload would fall over the ocean rather than onto inhabited US land — and managed the mission so the payload would end up within relatively shallow ‘US territorial waters’. The balloon was bumbling along; the F-22s were purposeful and effective. I don’t know how this is being conveyed within China’s media bubble. But in the rest of the world the media image is of fighter planes zooming up to take out a drifting balloon. You don’t have to be Tom Cruise to judge the strength-vs-weakness in the optics thereof.” 

As to what the Chinese conceivably hoped to learn from a balloon that they don’t already glean from their own satellites, spies, TikTok, and open source data, he added, “I don’t know. I hope we’ll learn more once the balloon’s payload is fished out of the water and examined. One thing the Chinese (or anyone else) would not learn much about concerns the placement of US nuclear-deterrent forces. That information has been on the record for decades. I, personally, have flown a little single-engine plane at 3,500 feet above US nuclear submarine bases — not 60,000 feet up, like this balloon. I have done this many times, above bases both on the East Coast and the West. What I did is perfectly legal. It would have been equally legal for any Chinese citizen who was a passenger or pilot on a helicopter or small plane… 

“As Brian Schweitzer, the former governor of Montana, recently told Jim Robbins of the New York Times, the location of ICBMs across the plains states is hardly a secret:

“‘I grew up in a little farmhouse a mile from an intercontinental missile,’ he said. While the missiles are underground and not visible, Mr. Schweitzer said, you can drive up to the facility and take a photo. ‘Taking a rental car would be a lot cheaper than sending a balloon from Beijing,’ The exact Lat[itude]/Long[itude] locations for hundreds of the sites are freely available online … Chinese or Russian spies would have found them many years ago.” 

Was the US in peril?

Fallows then questioned the whole idea of whether the US was ever “in peril” during this flyover, as so many Republican members of Congress have already insisted in the past several days — and whose comments and those of others have been hyped by broadcast news channels. 

Fallows added: “…conceivably there is some peril: We don’t know what we don’t know. But on current evidence, this seems like a gigantic screwup on the Chinese side. It reveals simultaneously how far they might be willing to push things, and how bad they might be at doing so. I would not want to be the person who pushed this great idea within the Chinese leadership.” 

In fact, the most recent news indicates that the Chinese meteorological office head has been thoroughly rusticated to a distant job, giving rise to a feeling someone is already the official scapegoat for this mess.  

And so, where do the two nations — China and the US — go from here, besides setting up a hotline to contain such things before they get out of hand? It is being reported that China “reserves the right” to deal with “similar situations” following the United States’ decision to shoot down its high-altitude balloon. 

As China’s defence ministry spokesperson, Tan Kefei, said on Sunday, “The US used force to attack our civilian unmanned airship, which is an obvious overreaction. We express solemn protest against this move by the US side.” He added that China “reserves the right to use necessary means to deal with similar situations”. 

Before that, the country’s foreign ministry had chastised the US for “overreacting” and “seriously violating international practice”, after the F-22 fighter jet fired the missile that downed the balloon. It added: “The Chinese side has repeatedly informed the US side after verification that the airship is for civilian use and entered the US due to force majeure – it was completely an accident.” 

Regardless of these protestations, we should expect Republican congressmen and senators, along with those GOP figures eyeing a run for their party’s 2024 presidential nomination to use this event as a club to beat on President Joe Biden as being somehow soft on China. We should expect the imminent visit to China by Secretary of State Tony Blinken, now postponed as a result of this incident, to be rescheduled — but not for a while — and for such events to be part of the agenda for discussion. 

We can also expect that US experts will pore over every scrap of instrumentation recovered from the waters off Myrtle Beach coast with an obsessive, fanatical diligence — drawing on methods used to figure out why a jetliner crashes into the landscape and shatters into a million pieces. 

If specialised cameras, sensors and other gear are recovered in whole or in part, expect a public clamour (and much Republican ranting and raving) over what kinds of secrets such instrumentation could have observed — beyond the air and ground temperatures over Montana in the midst of an Arctic vector winter. DM

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  • Andrew Newman says:

    It certainly wasn’t civilian as it didn’t have the required ADS-B transponder.
    All the Google Loon balloons had transponders and could be tracked on civilian trackers including for example on Flightradar24.

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