The Chinese balloon that transfixed America in recent days was no surprise to Cheng Ming-dean. “This balloon has been appearing for a long time!” the head of Taiwan’s Central Weather Bureau wrote on Facebook on Saturday, pointing to a picture of the same kind of balloon taken by an agency employee in September 2021.
The US government’s outing and downing of the balloon has now focused global attention on China’s sprawling programme for so-called lighter than air (LTA) vehicles — which Beijing is rapidly putting to use around the world, including for military purposes, after years of research and pilot projects.
The Pentagon has said it has observed a second balloon over Central and South America, without elaborating, and stressed that China had been operating a number of surveillance balloons in recent years.
They “are all part of a [Chinese] fleet of balloons developed to conduct surveillance operations, which have also violated the sovereignty of other countries”, a US defence official said. “These kinds of activities are often undertaken at the direction of the People’s Liberation Army. Over the past several years, Chinese balloons have previously been spotted over countries across five continents, including in Asia, South Asia and Europe.”
In February last year four groups of high-altitude balloons were detected over northern Taiwan, home to most of the country’s population and some of its most important air defence sites. The same month, the US Air Force scrambled fighters to intercept an unmanned balloon off Kauai, a Hawaiian island that has a key missile-testing range.
In January 2022 one of the white orbs was spotted over India while another was seen over Taiwan in September 2021. The earliest publicly reported sighting was over the northern Japanese city of Sendai in June 2020.
Taiwan’s armed forces last year confirmed a local news report that the February 2022 balloon swarm originated from the PLA Rocket Force, the missile arm of the Chinese military. In keeping with Taipei’s strategy to avoid public panic over Chinese military threats, the defence ministry said the balloons posed no danger and were being used for meteorological observations.
But despite the apparent overlap with Beijing’s explanation for the latest balloon, analysts dismiss the claim that these are harmless civilian craft.
Cheng, the weather bureau chief, said the Chinese devices were fundamentally different from weather balloons in size, altitude and materials.
In the most stunning evidence of China’s military use of stratospheric balloons, Chinese media including the military channel of state broadcaster CCTV reported in September 2018 that a high-altitude balloon tested hypersonic missiles.
Video footage carried by CCTV and reposted on social media app Douyin at the time, but now deleted, showed a balloon visually identical to the one over the US last week, carrying what looked like three different kinds of warheads.
According to Chinese media reports and a related Chinese Academy of Sciences research paper, they were models for “wide speed range” hypersonic vehicles, which can fly both below and above the speed of sound.
China’s research on LTA vehicles belongs to two institutes at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, one of which is exclusively dedicated to high-altitude balloons. But in line with Beijing’s “military-civil fusion” policy, which calls for civilian or commercial technology developments to be made available for military use if necessary, those efforts are closely integrated with those of the PLA, its research institutes and the military-industrial complex, and as such subject to secrecy.
State media have only occasionally trumpeted the achievements of the country’s LTA vehicle programmes — for example, the launch of the airship Yuanmeng, or Dream, in 2015; the launch of an airship carrying a 5G base station in September last year; and launches of tethered high-altitude aerostats for research on the Tibetan plateau since 2019.
Except for the 2018 missile test, Beijing has kept silent about stratospheric balloon flights such as the one over the US. Military analysts believe the most likely reason is their focus on military applications.
“These balloons can and will almost certainly collect a lot of data needed for scientific research, but that is of course useful for the PLA,” said Sheu Jyh-shyang, an assistant research fellow at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, a think-tank backed by Taiwan’s defence ministry. “The data is useful for the Rocket Force, and the balloon is also likely to be used for ISR,” he added, using the acronym for military intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
The US navy on Saturday was starting the process of trying to recover the debris from off the South Carolina coast. The defence official said the US would learn more after analysing the debris, but he said assessments conducted while the balloon was in flight showed it had a “broad array” of spying capabilities.
The PLA’s balloons have been doing much more than spy on whatever country they are flying over. According to a military official from another Asian country, one focus area in the Chinese military’s balloon flights in recent years is to collect data that can enhance the accuracy of over-the horizon and other radar systems used for targeting in wartime.
Military analysts said data points such as atmospheric density would help the PLA develop software tools known as advanced refractive effects prediction systems, which are key for advanced radars that aid missile, air and naval operations.
“They are likely to be making rapid advances in this now given the recent steep increase in the frequency and range of such balloon flights,” said the military official who asked not to be named because he was not authorised to speak to the media.