This weekend, I went on a walk on a paved road that soon turned to dirt. The further into farmland it went, the muddier and more difficult to traverse the road became. The map function on my phone, connected by invisible strands to a satellite way above my head, continued to show me these roads, no matter how small they became. However, the map didn’t distinguish among paved, dirty, and impassable roads. I nearly lost my sneakers in the muck.
Perhaps you have a better map function on your phone. Sophisticated satellite imaging can capture details at a 30-centimeter resolution. That’s good enough to tell whether a road is paved or unpaved. It can also determine from space what infrastructure has been destroyed in a tornado or an earthquake. Or it can peer closely at suspected nuclear weapons facilities.
What a satellite can’t do yet is read a newspaper or a license plate from space. Until the more recent innovation of synthetic aperture radar, which relies on a variety of wavelengths, satellites couldn’t see through clouds either. They’re also expensive, and you need quite a lot of them to get any consistent view of an object on the ground over time.
So, now you know why it might be useful—if you want to see something specific from the air—to rely on less sophisticated aerial surveillance devices, like relatively cheap weather balloons that sail through the stratosphere with whatever data collection devices you can cram into them. With Project Loon, which it started in 2011, Google even solved the navigation problem by devising sophisticated computer algorithms to steer high-altitude balloons.
Such balloons are now at the center of the latest spat between the United States and China. The United States recently shot down a Chinese weather balloon that drifted across the country from west to east. The Chinese government says its weather balloon had simply veered off course. Shortly thereafter, it accused the United States of sending its own weather balloons over China more than 10 times since the beginning of 2022.
The United States has subsequently shot down three unidentified flying objects—in Alaska, Canada, and over Lake Huron—which remain unidentified. The U.S. government used to routinely dismiss claims of alien spaceships by calling them misidentified weather balloons, so the combination of an actual balloon and three unknown objects is catnip to conspiracy theorists. The commander of NORAD did little to dispel this speculation when he responded at a press conference this week to a question about alien involvement: “I haven’t ruled out anything. At this point, we continue to assess every threat or potential threat unknown that approaches North America with an attempt to identify it.”
U.S. authorities have recovered the first object they shot down. But they’re not providing a whole lot of details. Early reports suggest that it’s way bigger than an ordinary weather balloon able to carry a much larger payload.
Initially, the Pentagon was dismissive of the surveillance value of the balloon. Back on February 2, the Pentagon press secretary said that “currently we assess that this balloon has limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective.” It has subsequently revised this estimate to conclude that the balloon is part of a global effort by the Chinese to spy pretty much everywhere, even sending four such balloons undetected across the United States over the last six years. According to the Pentagon, the fifth balloon hovered above an ICBM site in Montana before it was later shot down in the waters off South Carolina this month.
Here’s probably what happened. The weather balloon did indeed inadvertently drift off course, the Chinese tried to take advantage of its new trajectory to spy on a few things, and the other three objects the United States shot down have nothing to do with China, aliens, or Marjorie Taylor Greene (who has had plenty to say about all this, none of it sensible).
Meanwhile, this definitely happened: in a rare show of unanimous bipartisanship, the House of Representative voted 491-0 to condemn China over its balloon belligerence.
Why It Matters
Let’s assume that the Chinese ultimately used its errant weather balloon to peek into classified sites and perhaps also to test U.S. aerial defenses. It was a violation of U.S. airspace, but was it really such a big deal? Sure, no one likes to have strangers peering through their bedroom windows. But doesn’t the United States have a voyeurism problem of its own?
U.S. monitoring capabilities are second to none. “With so much attention focused on how the Chinese government has been spying on the United States, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that Washington has its own insatiable appetite for China’s secrets,” writes Robert Windrem of NBC. “The U.S. effort, say experts in and out of government, is extensive, intrusive and very effective.”
Windrem wrote that nearly 25 years ago, in 1999. He quotes intelligence historian Jeffrey Richelson: “The methods by which the U.S. can eavesdrop on Chinese communications range [from the] use of undersea platforms—like submarines—to a variety of antenna systems on the ground up to satellites up to 24,000 miles in space. Overall, it’s a multibillion-dollar effort, and China is a major target.”
In 2001, a Navy intelligence plane collided with a Chinese plane and had to make an emergency landing on China’s Hainan Island. The U.S. crew, after destroying as much of the surveillance equipment on the plane as they could, were detained, interrogated, and eventually returned to the United States. This kind of surveillance has not stopped.
It was once a great deal more intrusive. As historian John Delury explains, U.S. covert operations began shortly after China’s founding, from agents dropped onto the mainland in 1952 to stir up a counter-revolution against Mao to U-2 overflights through the 1960s. The CIA also developed eyes on the inside, with assets embedded in the military, the Communist Party, and the Chinese intelligence agencies.
When the Chinese uncovered and neutralized this network beginning in 2010, the Americans have had to rely increasingly on aircraft and ships to peer through the blinds to see what’s going on inside China. According to a Chinese-government-affiliated think tank, the United States has conducted as many as 2,000 surveillance flights a year near China’s borders along with numerous ship-based monitoring missions.
So, what’s a few balloon overflights among adversaries?
It’s rather naïve of Washington to expect Beijing not to try to achieve parity in the field of surveillance. China has plenty of satellites, around 500. In fact, it’s number two in the world. But it doesn’t really compare to the number the United States has in orbit: nearly 3,000.
How many of these satellites are state-operated and how many are commercial? Increasingly, it doesn’t matter. The amount and quality of material available to paying customers is extraordinary, and independent analysts have been able to use these services to scoop governments or force them to release their own imagery. Indeed, there’s now so much satellite data available that the race will be won by the analysts who best deploy artificial intelligence to sort through all the material. Balloons, for all their advantages in terms of price and proximity, will soon become a relic of a bygone era, like cassette tapes and penny farthings.
An Opportune Moment
The United States and China have nuclear weapons pointed at each other. They have large conventional armies that face off in the Pacific region. They have conducted cyber-operations to gather sensitive data and test their respective software and hardware security systems.
In other words, the two superpowers compete in practically every realm—on land, at sea, and in space. As such, perhaps it’s ridiculous to suggest a ceasefire in the competition over surveillance. True, in 2015, the two countries declared a truce on cyber-espionage for economic gain. And last year, China and the United States conducted nearly $700 billion in trade, a new record, which provides a strong economic rationale for good behavior on both sides. But it’s hard to see either government agreeing to rein in its intelligence agencies from doing what for them comes naturally.
In the end, it looks as though the “hullabaloon” will generate more strife in Congress than in U.S.-China relations. But, as Fareed Zakaria writes in The Washington Post, something more serious will inevitably come along that will not be so easy to defuse, given rising tensions on both sides. So, what can be done?
It probably seems quaint to urge greater cooperation between Washington and Beijing, especially since support for engagement in U.S. political circles has practically evaporated. Yet, greater cooperation on the surveillance of what matters—carbon emissions, humanitarian disasters, the spread of diseases—should be a no-brainer in this era of existential threats. Instead of shooting down each other’s weather balloons (or, potentially, satellites), let’s work together to put more eyes on the problems that negatively affect us all.