China’s People’s Liberation Army plans to use high-altitude balloons to counter long-range U.S. drones, launch psychological warfare operations and gather intelligence, a review of Chinese military and technical writings reveals.
Beijing also reportedly test-fired a hypersonic missile from an airship in 2018, highlighting the military’s interest in multiple uses for lighter-than-air aircraft.
The U.S. decision to dispatch an F-22 to shoot down a Chinese surveillance balloon off the Carolina coast Saturday, after it traveled across the country from northern Montana, has focused new attention on the capabilities and threats posed by helium-filled, maneuverable craft.
Defense officials said little intelligence could be gained from sensitive military sites along the path despite the delay in knocking out the balloon. The maneuverable craft’s sensors fell into relatively shallow waters intact and are expected to be recovered.
The sensor package, which the Pentagon insisted was monitored and neutralized during the cross-country spying mission, could provide details on its multiple optical systems and its satellite communications links. Another Chinese surveillance balloon was detected recently over Central and South America, the Pentagon said without elaborating.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning denied to reporters again Monday that the balloons are used for spying, and Chinese officials said the Biden administration “overreacted” to the incident.
Yet a 2020 report by four Chinese technicians with the Aerospace Information Research Institute at the Chinese Academy of Sciences revealed key details on Chinese high-altitude balloon sensor capabilities and missions. The report said high-altitude balloons operating in so-called near space — 12 to 62 miles high — offer advantages over reconnaissance aircraft or satellites.
The pilotless, high-altitude balloons can conduct relatively cheap, sustained flights for “months or even years,” the report said.
“Compared with other air vehicles, the high-altitude balloon has long endurance time, which can achieve sustained and wider coverage for regional observation and detection,” the study said.
Intelligence balloons carry heavier loads than satellites, and their signal strength and observation range and accuracy from near space are significant. The balloons can be recycled at low cost and minimal risk, unlike satellites, the report said.
A Chinese military report from 2013 identified a major mission for military balloons: countering U.S. reconnaissance drones, including the Air Force’s long-range Global Hawk and the stealth Sentinel.
The Chinese balloon that was shot down on Saturday flew over Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, where 150 Minuteman III nuclear missiles are deployed. The balloon was not within surveillance range of the two bases for Global Hawk drones: Grand Forks Air Force Base in northeastern North Dakota and Beale Air Force Base north of Sacramento, California.
The report in the bimonthly journal Aerospace Electronic Warfare, published by Institute 8511 of China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp., said a near-space balloon could be valuable in detecting U.S. stealth drones by “looking downward.”
“It is very difficult to evade detection by a space-borne system or a near space system looking down from above,” the report said. “Space systems include early-warning satellites, early-warning airplanes, early-warning airships and early-warning balloons.”
The objective is to place electronic jammers on the systems. The report said satellite communication links with drones are “easily susceptible to jamming.”
High-powered jammers on the ground or placed on balloons can disrupt both uplink and downlink signals from drones.
The Chinese military is aiming to neutralize drones that carry synthetic aperture radar, electro-optical cameras and infrared cameras by using electromagnetic and optoelectrical jamming equipment.
A 2021 report on global counterspace capabilities by the Secure World Foundation stated that cyberattacks could be launched from weather balloons against ground stations that are used to communicate and control orbiting satellites. The report said multiple attacks on command and control links for NASA satellites from 2007 to 2009 were traced to China.
Adversaries could disrupt satellite operations by attacking land-based command-and-control systems or data relay stations.
“Techniques could include flyovers with manned aircraft, unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or weather balloons,” the report said.
China also has employed a high-altitude balloon to test a hypersonic missile — an ultra-high-speed maneuvering strike weapon that can evade current air and missile defense systems, according to a report Monday in the Financial Times.
A military division of Chinese state television revealed in September 2018 the use of a balloon as a launch platform for a hypersonic missile. It included video of a balloon that appeared identical to the one downed by the U.S. F-22 fighter over the weekend. The video showed a balloon with three kinds of weapons.
China’s military also plans to use high-flying balloons for information warfare.
A 2009 report by the Chinese National Defense University outlined the use of balloons for “psychological attack.”
“Psychological attack is an important means of information attack,” said the report, titled “Lectures on Joint Campaign Information Operations.”
PLA information warfare involves “soft-strike” and “hard-strike” methods to shock the enemy psychologically and invoke long-term fear “to achieve the goal of victory without battle,” the report said. Tools include propaganda aimed at influencing public opinion through leaflets, pictures, broadcasts, television, computer networks, audiovisual periodicals and the internet.
Other methods involve hologram image weapons, laser dazzlers, noise simulators, electronic whistles, “thinking control weapons” and virtual reality.
These arms, the theory goes, can be used to attack and intimidate the enemy and create fear and confusion to undermine war-fighting will and operational capabilities.
“Third is employing aerostat weapons to implement psychological attacks against the enemy,” the report said. “Aerostat weapons are lighter-than-air weapons such as balloons and kites and installing a delivery or dispensing device and noise-making equipment and dispense psychological warfare propaganda products so as to conduct psychological intimidation against the enemy.
“Employ high tech means to control the altitudes, directions and dispensing time-opportunities of the aerostat dispensing equipment will gain even better psychological warfare attack results.”
Jennifer Zeng, an online blogger, identified one manufacturer of Beijing’s surveillance balloon fleet as a Chinese company linked to the PLA. The China Zhuzhou Rubber Research and Design Institute Co. Ltd. is a government-owned military research institute, Ms. Zeng reported. She cited an archived website that Chinese censors have since deleted.
A document from the company revealed that China Zhuzhou Rubber is a designated research and production arm of the China Meteorological Administration and the Military Equipment Development Department of the Battlefield Environment Protection Bureau of PLA.
Another Chinese company linked to surveillance balloons is the Hangzhou LaserFleet Space Technology Co. Ltd., in Shenzhen, China. The company provides high-speed internet access for “stratospheric aircraft, tethered balloons, suborbital spacecraft, space stations and microsatellites.”