TAIPEI, Taiwan — Long before an unmanned Chinese airship floating over the United States grabbed the world’s attention, Taiwan may have glimpsed Beijing’s ambitions to turn balloons — seemingly so old-fashioned and ponderous — into elusive tools of 21st-century military power.
Residents in Taipei and elsewhere on the island have spotted and photographed mysterious pale orbs high in the sky at least several times in the previous two years. But few people here, even officials, gave them much thought then. Now, Taiwanese officials are grappling with whether any of the balloons were part of China’s growing fleet of airborne surveillance craft, deployed to gather information from the self-ruled island that Beijing claims as its own.
The incursions have come into focus since the United States identified and shot down the Chinese balloon that had spent days traversing the country. Beijing has protested the balloon’s downing, asserting that it was a civilian ship doing scientific research. But American officials say that the balloon was part of a global surveillance effort targeting the military capabilities of various countries.
China’s surveillance airships are likely operated by the Strategic Support Force, experts say, a relatively new and often secretive arm of the Chinese military that carries out electronic surveillance and cyber operations. The force emerged from the Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s drive to modernize the People’s Liberation Army, including expanding its intelligence capabilities, spanning from satellites in space to vessels deep undersea, said Su Tzu-yun, an analyst at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taipei.
“The balloons should be understood as one part of its electronic spying system,” he said in an interview. Even data that the balloons can gather about humidity and air currents may be militarily useful, he said. If China ever launches missiles, “this atmospheric information could improve their accuracy.”
A review of Chinese military studies, newspaper articles and patent filings illuminates the range of Beijing’s interests and ambitions with balloons.
Chinese military scientists have been studying new materials and techniques to make balloons more durable, more steerable and harder to detect and track. People’s Liberation Army researchers have also been testing balloons as potential aerial platforms from which to fire weapons.
Even in this hitherto obscure corner of military innovation, China sees big stakes. Its military researchers warn that rival governments, above all the United States, could beat them at their own game. They especially worry about dominance in “near space,” the inhospitable layer of the atmosphere between 12 and 62 miles above earth.
“Near space has become a new battleground in modern warfare,” an article in the Liberation Army Daily, the official newspaper of China’s military, said in 2018. It celebrated China’s feat in the previous year of sending a balloon, carrying a small live turtle, over 12 miles up. Last year, China experimented with using rockets to propel balloons up to 25 miles above the earth.
The Chinese military, like other militaries, wants to “try all the options,” said Bates Gill, the author of a recent study, Daring to Struggle: China’s Global Ambitions Under Xi Jinping.
“My sense is the People’s Liberation Army is pretty unrestrained these days,” said Mr. Gill, the executive director of the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis. “Not in the ‘Wild West,’ corrupt sense of the past, but in the sense of how it experiments and pushes the envelope.”
Such boldness may explain the recent balloon flights in the United States and Taiwan, which did not go entirely unnoticed. In September 2021, residents of Taipei, the capital of the island, made anxious calls to weather officials to ask about a pale, tiny dot they were seeing high above them.
Cheng Ming-dean, the head of Taiwan’s Central Weather Bureau, checked a close-up photograph of it and told people to relax: It was just a balloon. The large balloons were seen twice in late 2021 as well as in March of last year. Four clusters of smaller balloons were also spotted early last year.
“Back then, I don’t think Taiwan was paying particular attention to this kind of thing,” Mr. Cheng said in an interview.
Now, as some smaller states — particularly those the United States describes as allies and partners — confront this new potential threat of surveillance, their options may be limited.
Shooting down balloons is likely to be difficult and expensive for many air forces, said Chang Yan-ting, a retired deputy commander of Taiwan’s Air Force. Over 30 years ago, he was a jet pilot sent up to inspect three balloons that were believed to be Chinese. In the end, he decided that they posed no threat, and would have been too hard to bring down, anyway.
“It’s very difficult; these balloons don’t give a radar reflection,” he said in an interview. “Look at the United States: It went to enormous efforts to send F-22s, its best fighter jet, and used its most advanced missiles to strike it — did you see? A bit like using a cannon to shoot a small bird.”
To be clear, the core of China’s digital intelligence collection system remains an armada of more than 260 satellites dedicated to intelligence and surveillance. The balloons, however, may offer some advantages over satellites because they can hover over areas and may produce clearer images, according to U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
The Chinese military is aware of such advantages. In modern battlefields, too, “maintaining constant aerial surveillance has become an urgent task,” a Chinese Liberation Army Daily report said in 2021. With satellites and planes alone, the report said, “it is hard to achieve full-time, full-scope, fixed-point early warning and surveillance from the air.”
If the Chinese Strategic Support Force was responsible for the recent balloon mission over the United States, the force’s relative newness and fragmented background may help to explain how the operation went ahead with seemingly little calculation of the trouble it could create, said Mr. Gill, who has studied the force. It was formed as part of a sweeping military reorganization that Mr. Xi launched in 2015, absorbing parts of the air force, navy and army.
Poor internal communication between the Chinese military and civilian government, and even inside the People’s Liberation Army and Strategic Support Force itself, may have contributed to the problem, Mr. Gill said.
“It’s a really good example of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing in China,” he said.
The recent attention on China’s balloon program may discourage the Chinese military from deploying new ones for a while. But the research will likely forge ahead.
Military scientists, especially at China’s National University of Defense Technology, have worked on new materials, designs and navigation tools to make balloons more nimble and long-lasting. They have filed patents for innovations such as a “three-dimensional flight path tracking method for an unmanned airship,” and articles in the Chinese military’s newspapers indicate it pays attention to balloon developments in the United States, France, Israel and other countries.
One lecturer from the National University of Defense Technology, wrote last year in the Liberation Army Daily that China could try to develop smart high-altitude balloons that are able to escape the more turbulent lower atmosphere and catch the steadier wind currents of the upper atmosphere, enabling them to surf long distances helped by small motors.
“With their many advantages,” another article in the same newspaper said last year, “balloons seem to be ushering in their springtime of development.”
Chinese researchers have also speculated about using high-altitude balloons to carry and launch missiles from near space, where they would be harder to detect, to earth.
In 2018, China’s state broadcaster said that researchers had tested a balloon platform that they said could be used to launch hypersonic weapons — which can fly at several times the speed of sound — from midair. But Chinese reports about the country’s military advances are prone to exaggeration. That report noted that the test used scale models, and it is debatable whether China’s other military balloon capabilities always live up to the swaggering claims.
Technical shortcomings may help explain the untimely appearance of the Chinese balloon over the United States — just before the Secretary of State, Antony J. Blinken, was to fly to Beijing. He canceled that trip.
“It may have been bad timing,” Mr. Su, the Taiwanese military researcher, said. “It’s become relatively easy to control the direction of balloons, but controlling their speed is a different matter.”
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