China’s hypocrisy over military surveillance stands out starkly

Hong Kong, February 14 (ANI): The more that the world learns about China’s fleet of high-altitude balloons that crisscross the globe, the more menacing does the extent of its military surveillance programs become. Its modus operandi includes not only balloons, but advanced satellites, drones, unmanned underwater vehicles and spy ships.

The balloon shot down off the coast of South Carolina on 4 February was a massive 60 meters in diameter, while the payload suspended beneath probably weighed over 900kg. An American U-2 spy plane flyby of the balloon revealed all manner of sophisticated sensors slung underneath it. Measuring the size of 2-3 school buses, or a regional jet, the payload bay incorporated multiple intelligence collection sensors and communication antennas, including those for signals intelligence. All this equipment was powered by 16 solar arrays.

The balloon was maneuverable to some degree, since it had propellers and rudders. Hopefully, much more will revealed as the USA gleans insights from the wreckage of the balloon’s sensors.

Despite all this evidence, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs sticks to its worn mantra that "the balloon in question is a Chinese unmanned civilian airship used mainly for meteorological research purposes".

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been flagrantly flying unmanned airships across American airspace, and that of numerous other countries, for at least several years. This is criminal behavior in terms of international law, for Beijing is violating the sovereign territory of others.

China’s spy balloon network runs deep, or should that be high? Balloons transited the USA at least three times under Donald Trump’s presidency, and Pentagon officials have stated that five Chinese balloons have circumnavigated the globe, conducting some 20-30 missions over the past decade. They claimed that balloons have collected information over more than 40 countries on five continents, and victims include India, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Taiwan has also reported that it encounters an average of one balloon incursion per month. However, these balloons are smaller and fly at altitudes of around 20,000 feet. Taipei contends they are weather balloons sent up by the PLA Air Force and Rocket Force to study weather patterns and gather data to aid military operations against Taiwan.

The US Pentagon has noted: "These balloons are all part of a PRC fleet of balloons developed to conduct surveillance operations, which have also violated the sovereignty of other countries." This fleet fits a recurring pattern of Chinese behavior that has been evident for years.

No Chinese company has put its hand up to accept responsibility for operating the balloon, despite Chinese claims that it belonged to a private firm. Of course, the line is so blurry between what is private and state-controlled in China, because of Xi’s promotion of civil-military fusion, that it really makes little difference.

The USA is leaning towards a private company that manufactured the high-altitude balloon on behalf of the PLA, but it has not yet fingered the culprit yet. The State Department alleged that the manufacturer has "a direct relationship with China’s military and is an approved vendor".

State-run entities heavily involved in making and selling airships are the Special Vehicle Research Institute (also known as No. 605 Research Institute) of AVIC, the East China Research Institute of Electronic Engineering of CETC, and Hunan Aerospace, a subsidiary of CASIC.

Zhuzhou Rubber ResearchDesign, based in Hunan, describes itself as China’s largest maker of weather balloons. It is a subsidiary of state-owned Chemchina. On its website it publicly admitted to being a proud supplier to the PLA, although that was quickly deleted after this incident escalated. On its website it states it has a "military rubber products research and production unit", and its weather balloons can reach 50,000 feet in altitude. The balloon destroyed by the American F-22A fighter on 4 February likely came from a launch site in northern China. Indeed, it is known that in 2020 the Chinese Academy of Sciences broke ground in Inner Mongolia for an experimental base dedicated to high-altitude balloons. The site at Siziwang Banner, some 140km north of the city of Hohot, is located at the coordinates of 4146’46.04"N and 11154’3.83"E. China has also sometimes launched balloons from Hainan Island.

It is a concern for the USA that it has been slow to respond to the threat of Chinese balloon surveillance. It indicates gaps in airspace coverage above the 50,000-foot level. Now that the USA is aware of the risk, it can be assumed that countermeasures will be introduced.

This is already evidenced in the shooting down of three further airborne objects over North America in the week following the first balloon’s interception. They were intercepted over Alaska, Yukon and Lake Huron respectively. The USA has declined to say what these objects are or where they come from, but they are not in the same size league as the original sensor-equipped balloon.

However, if their origins can be determined, it might show that China has not put all its eggs in the one balloon basket. Perhaps it has a variety of airships and balloons equipped with various types of sensors.

One thing is clear though, and that is that the PLA is keenly interested in high-altitude balloons. Balloons may be old technology, but when coupled with modern sensors and communications, they may be capable of giving China data that it would not otherwise collect by satellite. These balloons fly at between 60,000 and 80,000 feet, far higher than jetliners.

Balloons can loiter for hours, whereas satellites in low Earth orbits can only make intermittent passes. Nor do they have an infrared signature, plus their radar cross-section is minimal, which explains why it has taken the world so long to wake up to China’s spy balloons. Furthermore, balloons are far cheaper than satellites, and they can still be piloted to some degree, even if ultimately they are at the mercy of winds.

A number of PLA papers have been published studying the utilization of balloons, and these cast some light on why China has invested so heavily in them.

In early 2020, the PLA Daily, the official newspaper of China’s military, published an article describing how near space "has become a new battleground in modern warfare". It commented, "In the future, balloon platforms may become like submarines in the deep sea, a silent killer that brings terror."Later, the PLA Daily published a piece on 24 December 2021 entitled "Balloons — why a tool that looks ordinary has been so valued in the military realm". The article discussed military tasks for balloons such as scouting, surveillance, communications relay (if satellites are knocked out, for instance), air defense and guiding airstrikes and missiles. In fact, China used a high-altitude balloon to drop three payloads, likely hypersonic glide vehicles, as part of a weapons test in 2018. According to the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post at the time, such weapons would offer the Chinese military an "unstoppable nuclear-capable weapon".

Another possibility for balloons is using them as a mothership for swarms of drones, or even to launch missiles. One can imagine that a stealthy balloon could rain down attacks on an enemy with unexpected speed.

An academic, former Senior Colonel Wang Xiangsui of the PLA Air Force, had actually predicted way back in 2014 that "airships that can stay in the air for long periods of time hold the best hope of becoming the core of a new generation of air defense systems". Wang concluded: "Compared with the F-22 fighter jet of the United States, which has achieved technical success but failed in cost and effectiveness ratio, the technology priceof airships is relatively lower, the effective load is larger, and they can achieve lasting endurance in the air. It is also a typical dual-use technology of the military and civilians, so it can become the best choice for China to build its domestic air defense system."However, China has gone far beyond this, for it is not using balloons defensively for air defense, but rather aggressively to scope out enemy defenses over foreign soil. Last week, the US Congress unanimously passed a resolution condemning China’s "brazen violation" of US sovereignty. The vote tally was 419-0 in favor.

China also refused to answer a phone call from US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, demonstrating that it uses such hotlines not for crisis management, but rather for strategic leverage over rivals. The USA had "not created the proper atmosphere" for dialog, Beijing complained.

If China has been circling the stratosphere with balloons, the world can also be certain that the PLA is actively conducting surveillance underwater too. For example, Indonesian fishermen discovered an unmarked sea glider near Selayar Island, on the fringes of the Makassar and Lombok Straits, on 20 December 2020.

The sea glider had been collecting oceanographic data. Pictures of the salvaged vehicle show it was a Chinese-built Haiyi, which has a 1,500km range and 60-day endurance. A sea glider is unpowered, using variable buoyancy for propulsion, and it can collect data such as water salinity, temperature, turbidity and chlorophyll and oxygen levels. Such data is invaluable to submariners.

The obvious conclusion is that the Chinese military or a state-run oceanographic agency was surveying the seafloor and collecting oceanographic data in Indonesian waters. To enter the Indian Ocean from China, PLA warships and submarines must pass through chokepoints such as the Malacca, Lombok, Makassar, Ombai-Wetar or Sunda Straits. This discovery underscored an emerging pattern, for Indonesian fishermen found another Haiyi sea glider in the Riau Islands in March 2019.

China has also expanded a Western Pacific underwater sensor network that had been established in 2014. A Xinhua article published in January 2016 described a "civilian" network of hundreds of buoys tethered up to 400-500m deep in the Western Pacific. These were to be upgraded from 2017, allowing them to feed data directly back to China via satellite. This network has obvious military oceanographic and communication uses.Furthermore, China has reportedly planted listening devices on the seabed near Guam (one in the Challenger Deep of the Mariana Trench, and another near Yap in Micronesia), with detection ranges of more than 1,000km. These have been operating since 2016 and, despite Chinese protestations that they are purely for scientific purposes, they could track submarines and intercept underwater signals being sent back to a command center. Even though it claims to be innocent, China is sometimes not ashamed to blatantly spyeither. Perhaps the most brazen act was discourteously sending spy ships to waters near Hawaii to spy on multinational RIMPAC exercises, even though Chinese warships had themselves been invited to attend. Fortunately, President Trump swiftly put a stop to PLA attendance at such exercises.

The PLA Navy also sends spy ships to monitor the Australian-US Exercise Talisman Sabre every two years. ANI asked about the presence of a Type 815 intelligence-gathering ship in the 2019 edition of the exercise, and Colonel Matthew Sieber of the US Marine Corps responded: "Look, this is a free and open Indo-Pacific region, and so we’re here to do Talisman Sabre and we’re going to continue to do the exercise."Australia and the USA did not indulge in histrionics about the PLAN vessel’s presence, but it would have influenced the running of the naval and perhaps air components of the exercise. One source confirmed to ANI that participating warships take countermeasures to avoid giving out actionable information to the Chinese.

Space is a busy sphere for China too. Last year, it successfully sent 62 rockets into space, and in doing so it put 45 defense-related satellites into orbit. This eclipsed the 30 military satellites put into orbit by the USA. China’s massive cyber hacking and spying efforts are legendary too.

Given that its balloon surveillance network has been exposed to the world, perhaps China will slow down or temporarily halt its balloon program, at least over North America. But only if it has a shred of decency.

China was getting creative with its military surveillance, but it has been caught red-handed with its fleet of modern-day Chinese lanterns. One can be sure, however, that the spying game will continue as before, and the competition is likely to be more intense than ever, whether in space, the stratosphere, air, land, sea, underwater or in the cyber sphere. (ANI)