Analysis: what an alleged Chinese spy balloon does in the United States

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The news that the Pentagon is monitoring an alleged Chinese surveillance balloon in US skies raises a number of questions – among them, what exactly it might be doing.

US officials said the balloon’s flight path, first spotted over Montana on Thursday, could take it to “a number of sensitive locations” but that they are taking steps to “protect against collection.” foreign intelligence”.

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But what is less clear is why Chinese spies would want to use a balloon rather than a satellite to gather information.

This isn’t the first time a Chinese balloon has been seen over the US, but this one appears to be acting differently from previous ones, said a US defense official.

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“It feels like it’s been ‘going out’ for a long time this time, [e é] more persistent than before. That would be a differentiating factor,” said the official.

On Friday, Beijing said the balloon was a “civilian airship” used mainly for meteorological research that deviated from its planned course.

The statement, made by a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, is the first admission that the blimp originated in China since the Pentagon revealed it was tracking the balloon on Thursday.

spying with satellites

The use of balloons as spy platforms dates back to the early days of the Cold War. Since then, the US has used hundreds of them to monitor its adversaries, said Peter Layton, member of the Griffith Asia Institute in Australia and a former Royal Australian Air Force officer.

But with the advent of modern satellite technology, which allows the collection of intelligence data from space, the use of surveillance balloons has gone out of fashion. Or at least until now.

Recent advances in making technology smaller and smaller mean that floating intelligence platforms may be making a comeback in the modern spy toolkit.

“Balloon payloads can now weigh less, and therefore they can be smaller, cheaper and easier to launch” than satellites, Layton reasoned.

Blake Herzinger, Indo-Pacific defense policy expert at American Enterprise Institutepointed out that despite their low speeds, balloons are not always easy to spot.

“They have very low signature and near-zero emission, so difficult to detect with surveillance technology or traditional situational awareness,” explained Herzinger.

And balloons can do some things satellites can’t.

“Systems in space are just as good, but they are more predictable in their orbital dynamics. An advantage of balloons is that they can be steered using onboard computers to take advantage of the winds and can rise and fall to a limited degree. This means they can remain in place to some extent.”

“A satellite cannot take long and many are needed to cross an area of ​​interest to maintain surveillance,” he added.

What could be spying?

According to Layton, the alleged Chinese balloon is likely collecting information from US radar and communication systems.

“Some of these systems use extremely high frequencies, which are short-range and can be absorbed by the atmosphere. It is possible that a balloon is a better collection platform for this particular technical collection than a satellite,” he said.

Retired US Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton, a military analyst at CNN agrees with Layton.

“They could be collecting intelligence signals, in other words, they’re looking at our cell traffic, our radio traffic,” Leighton told Erin Burnett of the CNN .

The intelligence data collected by the balloon can be relayed in real time via a satellite link to China, the expert added.

Analysts also noted that Montana and nearby states are home to US intercontinental ballistic missile silos and strategic bomber bases.

US officials say they have taken steps to ensure the balloon does not collect sensitive data. They decided not to shoot it down because of the risk to life and property from falling debris.

Furthermore, if the United States managed to bring the balloon down inside its territory without destroying it, then it could reveal some of its own secrets, Layton added.

But perhaps there are no secrets or espionage involved. This could just be an accident, with the balloon veering off course or the Chinese operators somehow losing control.

“There’s at least some possibility that this was a mistake and the balloon ended up somewhere Beijing didn’t expect,” Herzinger mused.

Source: CNN Brasil

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