What are surveillance balloons like and why do some countries use them to spy even though they have satellites?

The balloon was sighted over the city of Billings, in the state of Montana

News of the detection of a Chinese spy balloon floating in the US sky has left many wondering why Beijing would want to use a relatively unsophisticated tool to monitor the US mainland when it has satellites.

The capabilities of this particular balloon are unclear, but experts say it is more of a “signal” from the Beijing government than a security threat.

The balloon was seen floating over the state of Montana on Wednesday, days before a visit to China by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The trip was postponed this Friday.

The Chinese government acknowledged on Friday that the balloon was its property, saying it was a civil aircraft used for meteorological research that was diverted from its route due to bad weather.

“Beijing is probably trying to send a signal to Washington: ‘While we want to improve our ties, we are also always ready for sustained competition, using any means necessary,’ without severely inflaming tensions,” analyst He told the BBC. Yuan Ming.

“And what better tool for this than a seemingly innocuous balloon,” he added.

long-standing technology

Balloons are one of the oldest forms of surveillance technology. The Japanese military used them to firebomb the US during World War II. They were also widely used by the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

More recently, the US has reportedly been considering adding high-altitude balloons to the Pentagon’s surveillance network. Modern balloons typically float between 15 and 23 miles above the earth’s surface.

The US Department of Defense said Thursday that the Chinese balloon was “significantly above where civilian air traffic passes.”

China expert Benjamin Ho said more sophisticated surveillance technology is available to Beijing.

“They have other means to spy on the American infrastructure, or whatever information they wanted to get. The balloon was to send a signal to the Americans and also to see how the Americans would react,” said Ho, coordinator of the China program at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

It may even be the case that China wanted the US to detect the balloon.

“It is possible that getting discovered was the main point. China could be using the balloon to demonstrate that it has a sophisticated technological capability to penetrate US airspace without risking serious escalation. In this sense, a balloon is quite an ideal choice,” said Arthur Holland Michel, of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

The advantages of balloons

However, some experts point out that balloons can be equipped with modern technology, such as spy cameras and radar sensors, and there are some advantages to using them for surveillance, the main one being that they are less expensive and easier to use than drones. or the satellites.

The balloon’s slower speed also allows it to loiter and monitor the target area for longer periods. The movement of a satellite, on the other hand, is restricted to the speed of its orbit.

The balloon’s flight path near certain missile bases in Montana suggests it was unlikely to have gone off course, He Yuan Ming said.

On Friday morning, the balloon was moving east “over the central continental US” at an altitude of about 18.2 kilometers, according to Air Force Brigadier General Pat Ryder.

The military added that US officials are monitoring the object and reviewing “options” but that it does not pose a military or physical threat to people on the ground.

Although fighter jets were alerted, the US decided not to shoot down the object due to the dangers of falling debris, authorities said.