PRC Spy Balloon: Situational Assessment


    Between the 28th of January and the 4th of February, 2023, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) tracked a large surveillance platform. This platform was found crossing the continent in violation of American and Canadian sovereignty. The platform, a spy balloon of purportedly Chinese origin, travelled above many high-security military and civilian installations. An F-22 Raptor from the Air Force 1st Fighter Wing shot it down off the coast of South Carolina.

    1.0. The Spy Balloon

    The US military had been aware of the spy balloon from its launch site on Hainan Island [source], but American newsgroups discovered its presence by the 28th of January, over the city of Billings, Montana. US officials indicated that the balloon was approximately 200 feet tall [source], allowing it to be visible to the naked eye and common camera equipment despite it having remained at an altitude of 60,000 feet for much of its flight. The balloon, though claimed to have been a weather balloon that strayed far off course by officials from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) [source], also possessed advanced manoeuvring capabilities that indicated its construction to be beyond that of meteorological platforms [source]. On the 3rd of April, 2023, US officials confirmed that the balloon was able to make multiple passes over key military installations and transfer information collected from scraped electronic signals as it did so [source].

    1.1. Payload

    Defence officials from the Pentagon have stated that the balloon not only possessed a “technology bay”. This housed a number of surveillance devices to collect intelligence on bases and missile sites within the US homeland [source]. Most important of these was systems to scrape signal intelligence transmitted by US weapons systems. Additionally, the US Naval Expeditionary Command’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 was deployed to recover and assess the debris field. This was due to the possibility that the balloon possessed an explosive payload for the purpose of self-destruction [source]. 

    2.0. Strategic Goals of the Spy Balloon

    The presence of the spy balloon as a surveillance platform comes despite the advanced nature of PRC satellites, which could potentially achieve similar goals without being as easily detected or having served as an airspace violation. However, satellite image quality is not necessarily to par with the ability of a high-altitude spy balloon due to the distance, and the loitering capacity of a balloon is far larger than that of a satellite, as satellites in orbit will generally be out of range of a target rapidly [source].  Additionally, balloons are cheaper than satellites and can take advantage of a gap in NORAD’s sensor setup [source].

    The PRC has maintained its claim that the balloon was of civilian origin [source], indicating the desire for plausible deniability. However, the United States, Japan, and several other countries have revealed an awareness of a long-term surveillance balloon program [source]. Many of these have violated sovereign airspace in the US and its allies in previous incidents. These previous incidents have not been as high profile. Defence experts like Marina Miron of King’s College have argued that the nature of the 2023 spy balloon resulted from differing political goals [source]. By making a high-profile crossing of the North American continent, the PRC may have attempted to send a signal of being able to act with “impunity” on the international stage.

    2.1. Precedent

    Though the 26 January spy balloon was the most provocative use of a spy balloon, evidence suggests that the PRC operates a large spy balloon program. After the discovery of the balloon, the United States revealed its awareness of a dozen or more balloons it had tracked globally in previous years. Some of these had intruded on US airspace during the previous administration [source]. In response, the PRC stated that the US had sent spy balloons to the provinces of Xinjiang and Tibet [source]. It called back to the 1974 shoot-down of a US spy balloon and the US history of using spy balloons.[source].

    2.2. US Response

    The United States Air Force’s shoot-down of the balloon occurred over the Atlantic Ocean. President Joe Biden has stated that the balloon was allowed to cross into the Atlantic to avoid property damage. Further, the US government prioritised learning more about the balloon’s abilities. Since NORAD has declared major changes to its radar and sensor capabilities to raise the threshold for detection. It has also announced improvements to “categorisation” [source].

    In the aftermath, the US began a sequence of airspace shutdowns and utilised air assets to shoot down several “unidentified aerial phenomena” (UAP) in the week after the original shoot-down [source]. Little evidence suggests that these were of PRC origin or spy balloons. Changes in NORAD sensor doctrine caught them and they were shot down as a result of potential threats posed [source]. Though social media sources entertained extraterrestrial origins for these UAPs, all evidence indicates that they were not. Evidence suggests that they were possibly private or hobbyist enterprises [source].

    Since the final shoot-down on the 12th of February, tensions have not escalated and the US has not identified further UAPs, nor has it released statements on the recovery of the shot-down UAPs.

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