GEOPOLITICS: Col. Jeffrey McCausland | Chinese Surveillance Balloon  + CALL REPLAY - MadMadWorld 2022 NEW 2.0

Last week the Pentagon admitted it had tracked a high-altitude surveillance balloon belonging to China over the continental United States at altitudes higher than commercial air traffic. While the Pentagon said it did not pose any physical or military threats — and it certainly didn’t after an American F-22 Raptor shot it down Saturday afternoon with a Sidewinder missile over the Atlantic Ocean — it did raise concerns about the possibility that it was able to collect sensitive information.

The Chinese government, which protested the destruction of the balloon, claimed it was a “civilian airship” used for weather research. They initially apologized, said its appearance in U.S. airspace was an “unintended entry” and stated that their communications with American officials would continue. This was a bit of a surprise. In past, incidents such as this would have more likely been followed either by an outright denial or insistence that China had a right as a great power.

Still, concerns grew in recent days, as the balloon was seen lingering near a number of key sites: Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, where the country has a third of its land-based nuclear weapons deployed in more than 150 missile silos; Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska, the home of U.S. Strategic Command, which is in charge of the country's nuclear forces; and Missouri's Whiteman Air Force Base, home to the B-2 stealth bomber, which can drop conventional as well as thermonuclear weapons.

Despite lawmakers raising concerns that the Chinese may have collected sensitive information about the country’s nuclear stockpile and weapon systems, multiple Biden Administration officials and military leaders said the U.S. had taken immediate steps to protect against that upon discovery of the balloon. This was likely cyber, microwave, electronic warfare, or laser attacks to blind surveillance cameras and interrupt the transmission of information.

Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of U.S. Northern Command, told reporters Monday that the U.S. had, in part, waited to destroy the balloon because they were gathering intelligence on the inflatable's capabilities.

"This gave us the opportunity to assess what they were actually doing, what kind of capabilities existed on the balloon, what kind of transmission capabilities existed," he said, "and I think you’ll see in the future that the timeframe was well worth its value to collect over."

The Navy is now leading a recovery operation off the coast of South Carolina with remnants of the balloon being analyzed at the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia. Through that analysis, officials said they are learning further about the technology and China’s surveillance practices.

Geopolitical fallout

This crisis has enormous geopolitical effects. Secretary of State Blinken was preparing for an important trip to China to meet with his Chinese counterpart — the first by a U.S. Secretary of State since Mike Pompeo’s in 2018 — at a moment of rising tensions between Washington and Beijing. His trip was postponed indefinitely.

The goal for the trip was to cool tensions between the two powers, but expectations for the trip were never high. Few imagined breakthroughs on key issues like Taiwan, trade or human rights. The essential goal was to ensure the relationship between the two countries did not deteriorate further. It seemed that in President Joe Biden’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Bali a few months ago that Beijing indicated a desire to reduce tensions. Now the balloon issue has exploded both on the international scene as well as within domestic American politics.

It created a firestorm in Washington as Republican leaders are demanding answers from the Administration. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy and others have demanded the Pentagon provide a thorough briefing for congressional leaders from both parties about the balloon, its discovery, and decision-making around its destruction. The White House did report that President Biden directed it be shot down on Wednesday, but the Pentagon had recommended against this until the balloon floated over U.S. territorial waters. They feared that falling debris might endanger Americans. Further investigation clearly seems warranted, and many questions are still unanswered. When did North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) really detect the balloon over U.S. airspace and is the fact that it appeared to linger over a portion of one of America’s three ICBM fields have any significance? What specific actions did the U.S. military take using cyber or electronic warfare to neutralize the balloon from gathering and transmitting military intelligence?

It also raises questions about decision-making in China and the coordination of policy. It is surprising that Beijing would use a balloon like this to gather military intelligence since it would most certainly be detected and China’s ability to conduct surveillance using satellites is believed to be second only to the United States. Furthermore, the Chinese leadership must have known this could jeopardize the impending visit by Secretary Blinken.

Spy balloon capabilities and features

The United States conducts similar reconnaissance against China and other nation but primarily relies on satellites for both photo intelligence as well as electronic eavesdropping. We also employ long-range aircraft equipped with side-looking radar and signal intelligence-gathering capabilities. These reconnaissance flights occur in international airspace while conducting surveillance over Chinese territory. Chinese fighters have routinely “buzzed” our reconnaissance aircraft and even forced one down over Hainan Island in 2001. What actions might China take against future American reconnaissance flights?

Experts said that the balloon was likely traveling at altitudes of 70,000 feet or higher. This is far above commercial air traffic, which normally flies at 45,000 feet or less. At this altitude it would make shooting it down more difficult. Maximum altitude for an F16 or F22 is around 60,000 feet which means that the engagement required a missile launched at that altitude.

Gen. VanHerck, who also commands NORAD, said the balloon was carrying a payload that was similar in size to a regional jetliner. The payload “probably weighs in excess of a couple of thousand pounds,” VanHerck said. The height of the balloon was equal to a 20-story building.

Despite its size, detecting a balloon like this by NORAD’s radars is more difficult than widely believed. Even though the balloon was very large, the radars are designed to detect large metallic objects such as incoming missiles or aircraft that are traveling at high speeds. A balloon is normally non-metallic and could even be treated with non-radar reflecting material. The fact that it moves slowly and not at a ballistic trajectory makes it more difficult to detect using these radars.

The NORAD commander has now admitted that his organization did not detect three previous balloons that violated U.S. airspace during the Trump Administration. He described this as a “domain awareness gap” that NORAD must now figure out.

The many unknowns

It is possible that, if it was a military mission, it was designed to conduct surveillance over specific areas. Modern balloons are much more steerable than in past, and this balloon clearly lingered over several sensitive sites which may have been useful for intelligence gathering. Officials report that it had some motorization, though it was still dependent on the winds.

While a low earth orbit satellite can take pictures, it cannot stay over any one location long enough to evaluate changes on the ground that might occur due to a military exercise or conduct extended signal intelligence gathering. It is also possible the Chinese were testing the American air defense response at the altitudes the balloon was traveling to ascertain how quickly it could be identified and what actions the U.S. would take.

It could also have been a test of American leadership. As the U.S. and China continue to disagree over a range of issues, President Xi Jinping may be attempting to see what weaknesses there are in an organized American response. Consequently, it will be incumbent on the Biden administration to maintain a firm line with the Chinese in the aftermath.

But tensions continue to rise throughout the region. As this crisis unfolded, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was negotiating with the Philippines for expanded U.S. access to Filipino military bases, including two on the northern island of Luzon. That will put U.S. forces in closer proximity to Taiwan, which is only 200 miles away. The U.S. Marines are also reopening a base on Guam and Japan announced that it is increasing its military spending to 2% of its GDP — that will make it the third largest defense budget in the world and a larger regional challenger to China.

Beijing will have undoubtedly noticed these developments, and it remains upset over the economic sanctions the U.S. has already imposed. Congressional leaders will likely demand even more aggressive actions be taken against China in the aftermath. Furthermore, U.S. Strategic Command recently reported to Congress that China now has more intercontinental ballistic missile launchers than the U.S. This is a startling announcement that could result in calls for a dramatic increase in American nuclear capabilities. If diplomatic measures cannot be found to arrest growing tensions, then further crises between the world’s two leading superpowers with the potential for hostilities are sadly inevitable. 


Listen to our Washington chief J.T. Taylor and Hedgeye's geopolitical advisor Col. Jeffrey McCausland as they span the globe with a focus on renewed hostilities and violence in Israel, the war in Ukraine approaching the one-year mark under more frequent and lethal sieges, and heightened tensions with Turkey impacting NATO. McCausland and Taylor also covered where U.S.-China relations are headed now that the Chinese spy balloon is at the bottom of the Atlantic along with angst building on a number of issues on and off Capitol Hill.  

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