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What’s up with spy balloons?

| February 16, 2023 1:00 AM

Spy “balloons” (which can look like ordinary weather balloons, easy to hide in plain sight) are one of the worst-kept secrets in the spy business. While China has a reputation for deploying more than most (over at least 40 countries), governments have used aerial intelligence-gathering devices to spy on one another for more than a century.

We do it, they do it. An open secret, to a point, but there are rules. According to international law, a sovereign nation’s airspace is supposed to be inviolable without permission to cross it, but how much international tradition and mutual need unofficially allow it to be violated before taking action, only insiders know.

We shot down a Chinese balloon this month, then three more of similar ilk and unknown origin (no scary payloads aboard). China says that’s an overreaction to a weather goof; the U.S. says they violated international law.

One off-course ocean-monitoring balloon, maybe. But four in less than two weeks?

Spy balloon history begins with the Civil War, when both sides used manned balloons to gather military intelligence — a practice the U.S. repeated in WWI. Balloon spying is an international tradition. France used them in its war against Austria in 1859. In WWII, Japan used balloons to drop bombs (a few reaching the U.S.).

During WWII, Americans used blimp-shaped balloons (K-ships) in Europe for observation and, occasionally, attacks. We flew them over the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Ours were a constant and controversial presence in Afghanistan for years. We also use them to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border.

Some might call them a national security tool. Others, an international relations problem.

Today’s surveillance balloons are unmanned with video cameras, guidance equipment and high-tech sensors for close-range monitoring, University of Colorado aerospace engineering professor Iain Boyd told The Conversation news site. Why we still use them in this sophisticated age of satellites is simple: They take clearer pictures because they can move more slowly and get closer. They’re also capable of detecting electronic signals and intercepting communications, David DeRoches, a professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., told Al Jazeera.

Plus, they’re much cheaper than an orbiting satellite to create, deploy and operate. Some even communicate with satellites, which still handle the vast majority of international surveillance as they cover far more territory much faster.

How many of the balloons and other unmanned aerial vehicles Americans see in the sky are nonthreatening? Nearly all. Among balloons and drones for weather, commercial and other civil sensing purposes, cause for alarm is rare. The National Weather Service alone releases about 50,000 weather balloons each year. The Pentagon tests theirs from time to time, such as 25 released in 2019 over six midwestern states, according to FCC documents. The Pentagon also told a congressional panel in May 2022 that military personnel had encountered 400 unidentified aerial objects since the '60s (no official evidence of aliens). Shooting down what’s unfamiliar is probably military policy.

These days, much of what we see airborne is civilian-generated. Drones and similar UAVs have seemingly endless commercial uses, from deliveries and land surveys to agricultural data-gathering for farms and ranches, to movie sets. Some are just literally airborne trash from things which busted apart higher up, says the Pentagon.

That we’ll see more of them in the sky for all these purposes as years go by is a safe bet.

So why are seeing so many at once this month, concerning enough for the military to shoot? Does it signify something new? Experts in news interviews acknowledge all possibilities, including the fact that — yes, before this month — the U.S. and U.K. both have been developing more sophisticated equipment to better detect unidentified aerial objects, in an effort to ramp up both governments’ ongoing surveillance efforts, according to the British weekly New Scientist.

Maybe this new equipment is simply doing its job. Reports confirm we are looking up more, so maybe we’re finding what was already there, spy or space trash. Then again, maybe China’s rattling unarmed sabers to make a point, reflecting deteriorating U.S.-Sino relations. Could be both.

Next time: Who owns airspace?

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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email sholeh@cdapress.com.