Why we may see more spy balloons in the near future

Spy balloon

In this file photo taken on February 1, 2023 this handout photo from Chase Doak and released on February 2 shows a suspected Chinese spy balloon in the sky over Billings, Montana.

Photo credit: Chase Doak | AFP

Early last month, a US military fighter jet from Langley Air Force base in Virginia shot down a Chinese high-altitude balloon over the Atlantic Ocean. The presence of this balloon over US airspace sparked a diplomatic spat between US and China.

Whereas the US maintained that the balloon was spying over them, China dismissed the claim insisting that it was for meteorological purpose. Beijing expressed regret that the meteorological balloon was blown off course, a claim the Pentagon refuted and asserted that it was for surveillance purposes.

US President Joe Biden, who sanctioned the downing of the balloon after being allowed to fly over for about a week, told the press that the ‘spy balloon’ was meticulously brought down over the water to avoid causing damage to individuals or property given the size and altitude the balloon was flying at.

He further condemned China for violating their sovereignty and complimented the military for their action. China on her part, through the foreign affairs ministry, condemned the US for ‘overreacting’ by shooting down their unmanned civilian airship.

The balloon, which was launched in China, reached US airspace on January 28, 2023 through the Aleutian Islands, off Alaska. Among other states the balloon flew over was Montana; a strategic state given that it hosts US nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles. This could have explained the US reaction. The result of analysis of the debris that were retrieved in the ocean is yet to be made public.

In less than a week, the US again shot down a second object over its airspace off the coast of Alaska. This object was said to be smaller than the earlier balloon and was flying at a relatively low altitude, approximately 40,000 feet, compared to the balloon. The White House said that it was posing a threat to aircraft. According to White House spokesman John Kirby, they did not know which nation the object originated from.

Spy balloons have been used before. In fact, they were in use before the emergence of satellites. The French are credited with deploying the first-ever spy balloons in 1794 against the Dutch and Austrian army in the battle of Fleurus. In the 1960s during the American civil war, the Union used them against the Confederate to gather intelligence. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the US deployed them considerably for surveillance and countersurveillance.

Many analysts and security experts have been asking why balloons and not satellites which are more sophisticated and effective in surveillance? The reasons are simple. From the last century, the outer space has been employed extensively by satellites for surveillance and other purposes leaving the sub space almost ‘free’.

Little attention is thus given to the sub space. The major powers are reportedly now considering utilising the sub space as well. Ordinarily, balloons operate at about 80,000-120,000 feet above sea level. This is well above the altitude in which commercial air traffic flies. At this level, little effort is required to operate and maintain the equipment. In fact, most surveillance objects attached to spy balloons are solar-powered.

Balloons are now getting prominence because they are easier and less costly to launch. It is estimated that to send a satellite to space, you need hundreds of millions of dollars. This is unlike balloons that will take up thousands of dollars. Furthermore, laser weapons targeting satellites are on the rise.

Given that they fly in low altitude than the satellites, balloons capture more visible images effortlessly. They move much slower than satellites hence give detailed and sharper images over an area. Balloons are also easy to retrieve.

Although the act of spying, surveillance and espionage are illegal under several international treaties, a report released by the UN in September 2022 acknowledged that right to privacy is under test from modern digital technologies that are being employed for both overt and covert surveillance. During the launch of the report, Nada Al-Nashif, the Acting High Commissioner for Human Rights, said: “Digital technologies bring enormous benefits to societies. But pervasive surveillance comes at a high cost, undermining rights and choking the development of vibrant, pluralistic democracies. In short, the right to privacy is more at risk than ever before”.

Dr Otieno, PhD, is a security, peace & conflict expert; [email protected]


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