Main Image Credit Floating by: an image of the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon over Billings, Montana. Image: Chase Doak / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0
While the flyover of the US by a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon caused much diplomatic furore, including the cancellation of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s China visit, the event itself is neither new nor particularly notable. A recurring response to surveillance balloons could, over the course of several years, reduce US resources and ultimately combat readiness levels.
The suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that was shot down at Myrtle Beach in South Carolina on 4 February has caused much furore and is linked to the US cancelling the first high-level diplomatic visit by a Secretary of State to China in five years.
The suspected surveillance balloon would not be the first to enter US airspace; however, this balloon stayed in the country’s airspace for a longer period of time than its predecessors. The immediate question was why China would deploy such a balloon, given that it owns an extensive space-based surveillance network of nearly 300 satellites – a number second only to the network of the US.
The main advantage of a balloon over a satellite is its ability to hover over a certain area – by inflating and deflating, it can stay over a specific area for longer periods of time than a satellite could. Satellites fly in predictable orbits and might even be able to capture a certain area multiple times a day, but they cannot simply stop and inspect an area. The satellites that can stay over a certain area are those in geosynchronous orbit – but at 36,000 km away, small details are lost given the lack of resolution. This leads to the second advantage of a balloon, that of better resolution (if the surveillance is indeed imaging-based) due to being closer to the ground. Lastly, balloons are cheaper than satellites and quicker to deploy, given that they do not need to be launched via a rocket. That being said, it seems unlikely that any potential imaging mission would have granted China much additional information to what was already available through its space-based capabilities.
On the other hand, a satellite has benefits over the use of balloons or other technology operating below the atmosphere, such as the U-2, a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft developed by the US during the Cold War. The shooting-down of a U-2 by the Soviet Union in 1960 had wide-reaching consequences for East-West relations, as it led to the cancellation of a planned summit in Paris a few weeks later. Satellites, meanwhile, do not infringe on another state’s sovereign airspace and operate almost unseen.
The particular detail about this incident which might carry weight if it were to reoccur is the weapon that was chosen to bring down the balloon
While the incident in 1960 caused a diplomatic spat during the heightened tensions of the Cold War, surveillance in the 21st century is an expected and everyday part of international relations. Additionally, the suspected surveillance balloon was not crewed, unlike the U-2, which saw its pilot captured and later released as part of a prisoner exchange in 1962.
As a one-off event, the flyover and ultimate destruction of the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon is not notable or particularly exceptional; one is reminded of Iran shooting down a US drone over the Strait of Hormuz in 2019.
The particular detail about this incident which might carry weight if it were to reoccur is the weapon that was chosen to bring down the balloon. Given their size, balloons are hard targets to destroy, as evidenced by the fact that the Canadian Air Force failed to take down a rogue weather balloon with 1,000 rounds of ammunition in 1998. While the air force on that occasion hesitated to use an air-to-air missile, an AIM-9 Sidewinder was used when the F-22 was chosen to bring down the target in this case.
The F-22 Raptor is an expensive platform to run and difficult to maintain, and the US has a relatively small combat fleet of around 120. The aircraft did not meet its mission capable goals or annual aircraft availability in any year from 2011 to 2019, and will soon be retired. Were China to launch balloons at regular intervals, and were the US to react in the same way repeatedly, the maintenance of this tactic could prove expensive and ultimately – if conducted over several years – could impact the readiness and stock levels of the US military.
While international reactions might change depending on what equipment is found aboard the balloon, the incident is unlikely to dramatically escalate tensions between China and the US
A different platform choice is unlikely to solve these cost and availability issues, given that 30 out of 49 US military aircraft did not meet their mission capable rate goals in 2021. One potentially optimal solution would be directed-energy weapons, which the US has researched and developed in recent years. But while the maintenance of equipment is one matter, the overall readiness of a force – including equipment but further extending to personnel and infrastructure – is important in this context and could be reduced over periods of time, were the incident to be repeated.
Carrying out surveillance in another country’s airspace is not in itself novel, nor does the act of shooting down the balloon set a new precedent. The incident was perhaps blown out of proportion due to the timing shortly before Antony Blinken’s visit, which was meant to find common ground between the two economic powerhouses and prevent a potential future escalation of tensions. While international reactions might change depending on what equipment is found aboard the balloon, the incident is unlikely to dramatically escalate tensions between China and the US.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Research Analyst and Policy Lead