The past week has seen a massive media and social craze over the suspected Chinese military Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) balloon that was drifting over the United States before it was shot down off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday. While the concept may be new to a lot of people, balloons have long cemented themselves as an intelligence platform for militaries for nearly 200 years. Today, as we have seen, these balloons still have a purpose, a purpose that the United States military has poured tens of millions of dollars into in recent years to be used against Russia and China.
Politico, citing military budget documents, reported last July that over the past two years, the United States military spent nearly $3.8 million on balloon projects, with an additional $27.1 million being spent in fiscal year 2023. The main purpose of the increased investment into balloons appears to be involved with US military efforts to track Russian and Chinese hypersonic weapons developments.
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Balloons are effective as they can operate at extreme heights for long periods of time. Depending on their payload, balloons can have an exceptionally diverse ISR mission set, such as taking imagery, harvesting data, and acting as communication relays for air and ground forces. The United States used balloons extensively in Afghanistan, called the Persistent Threat Detection Systems program, where they acted as fixed camera positions to monitor Taliban activity. Just last spring, the US military deployed Thunderhead High-Altitude Balloon Systems during the Balikatan joint-exercises with the Philippines, which aim to support multi-domain operations.
In the Indo-Pacific, the United States insists that its surveillance operations are carried out in international waters and airspace, however, with China’s claims over the South China Sea, this may become a renewed point of contention that sees increased tensions. In response to the recent balloon downing, China’s Foreign Ministry stated that it “reserves the right to use necessary means to deal with similar situations,” which opens up justification for engaging American ISR assets in the region.
With the Chinese balloon, questions were raised about its effectiveness as defense officials downplayed its intelligence threat. In regards to imaging, the balloon could be considered pointless as satellite imaging can achieve the same, if not better effect, in monitoring sensitive military installations. Balloons are most effective over areas of operation when it comes to imaging, as they can remain fixed in a general area and provide constant surveillance, which is something satellites cannot do as imaging can only be taken once a day as they orbit the planet. We do not know the balloon’s payload, however, and as mentioned above, it could have been outfitted with an array of systems meant for SIGNIT or ELINT. Since the US military was tracking the balloon since it entered American airspace, electronic warfare (EW) measures were likely in place to mitigate other intelligence risks.
Overall, the use of balloons for intelligence is nothing new and is widely utilized, even by the United States. They still hold a place in modern operations and the United States will continue to invest in them for surveillance and increased data integration. The threat balloons pose as a whole cannot be downplayed, but there is a play and time they are most effective. One could speculate that the Chinese balloon was an attempt at a show of force due to recent US military developments regarding the new naval base in Guam, as well as expanded basing options in the Philippines.