Spy Balloons Nothing New, But Increased Vigilance Is

A Chinese surveillance balloon floats over Billings, Montana on Wednesday, February 1, 2023.. Credit: Wikipedia.

The intrusion by Chinese spy balloons into North American airspace is apparently nothing new. But their more publicized detection and interception is, thanks to increased vigilance on the part of NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) and the Canadian/US governments.

That’s the opinion of Colonel (Retired) Pierre Leblanc. Now Principal at Arctic Security Consultants (arcticsecurity.ca), Colonel Leblanc commanded Canadian Forces Northern Area (Yukon, Nunavut and Northwest Territories) from 1995 until his retirement in September of 2000. He also ran NORAD’s North Warning System while at Raytheon Canada — the line of northern radar stations running from Alaska to Labrador — from 2014 to 2016.

According to Colonel Leblanc, the detection and interception of a high-altitude Chinese balloon apparently loaded with signal monitoring equipment, solar panels for onboard power, and a limited ability to manoeuvre, shows “a stiffening of attitude” by Canadian and US authorities. He applauds this change. “I’m one of the people citing China as a much more dangerous adversary than Russia over the long term.” At press time, it was still unclear who launched subsequent balloons shot down over North America.

As for why China is deploying high-altitude spy balloons when it also has spy satellites in orbit? 

Even with advances in camera performance, satellites deployed in orbits as high as 36,000 kilometres above the Earth cannot capture visual images in that same detail as balloon-mounted cameras at 60,000 feet. Meanwhile, the military and other signals that the Chinese want to eavesdrop on “become very, very weak at 36,000 kilometres,” he told SpaceQ. In contrast, “the balloon is operating at a much lower altitude and moving very slowly, so it can pick up a lot of electronic signals as it’s transiting across the US. So when it goes over a missile site, it would listen on all frequencies, and as soon as one frequency transmits, it would record it.”

Balloons can also circumvent radar systems that are programmed to highlight fast moving objects, while ignoring reflections from stationary objects like the ground. Unless the operators program their systems to point out very slow-moving objects as well as fast, balloons can be missed.

Meanwhile, although the notion of Chinese high altitude spy balloons is news to the general public, it is old news for the Pentagon. After all, “it was reported that there were three such incidents during Trump’s tenure,” Colonel Leblanc said. “So somebody knew of those incidents back then.” He added that the US media has reported that the launch of the most recent spy balloon was detected by the Americans when it happened, and that they were tracking its path prior to entering North American airspace.

Looking ahead, Colonel Leblanc doesn’t necessarily expect the recent rash of balloon downings to continue in North America. It all depends on how many new spy balloons China decides to deploy in the weeks and months ahead. But he does expect NORAD to pay more attention to slow-moving radar targets going forward. 

“We’re going to be more vigilant,” Colonel Leblanc concluded. “You can tweak the radar to have higher sensitivity, and presumably that’s already been done everywhere.”

About James Careless

James Careless is an award-winning satellite communications writer. He has covered the industry since the 1990s.

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