Why would China use a spy balloon when it has satellites?


Why would China use a spy balloon when it has satellites?

By Kelly Ng

BBC News

News of an alleged Chinese spy balloon floating over the US has left many wondering why Beijing would want to use a relatively unsophisticated tool for its surveillance of the US mainland.

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

“And what better tool for this than a seemingly innocuous balloon?”

The balloon’s anticipated flight path near certain missile bases suggests it is unlikely it has drifted off course, He Yuan Ming said.

But China expert Benjamin Ho said Beijing had more sophisticated surveillance technology at its disposal.

“They have other means to spy out American infrastructure, or whatever information they wanted to obtain. The balloon was to send a signal to the Americans, and also to see how the Americans would react,” explained Dr Ho – coordinator of the China programme 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’s possible that being spotted was the whole point. China might be using the balloon to demonstrate that it has a sophisticated technological capability to penetrate US airspace without risking a serious escalation. In this regard, a balloon is a pretty ideal choice,” said Arthur Holland Michel from the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

Nevertheless, the experts point out that balloons can be fitted with modern technology like spy cameras and radar sensors, and there are some advantages to using balloons for surveillance – chief of which is that it is less expensive and easier to deploy than drones or satellites.

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



The Washington Post

In a world of drones and satellites, why use a spy balloon anyway?

By Victoria Bisset

Updated February 4, 2023 at 4:46 p.m. EST|Published February 4, 2023 at 9:53 a.m. EST

But it’s only in the past 10 years or so that military attention has returned to balloons, according to Michael Clarke, a visiting professor at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, “because they see how useful they are, or can be.”

“Balloons offer a few advantages over the use of satellites or drones,” James Rogers, an academic at Cornell and the University of Southern Denmark, who advises the U.N. Security Council on the transnational threat of drones, said in an email.

“Not only are they cheaper than launching satellites into space, but by operating within the bounds of the earth’s atmosphere, closer to the surface, they can obtain better quality images,” he added. The latest generation of balloons are high-tech in their own right, “envisaged as systems that can fly up to 90,000 feet” high, “deploy their own drone systems” and detect incoming missiles.

Balloons can soar above the range of most planes, Clarke said, and their slow speed means they aren’t always picked up by radar. Additional technology or paint can help to conceal them further.

Balloons also have an advantage over satellites because they are more maneuverable, according to Malcolm Macdonald, a professor and space technology engineer from the University of Strathclyde in Scotland. “The motion of a satellite is very predictable, a balloon (or other aircraft) offers the chance for an unexpected overflight, to catch those you are observing by surprise,” Macdonald said in an email. “You might hope to get something you might not see, or hear, from space.”

Satellites can provide high-resolution imagery, Clarke said — but balloons can stay over one area for longer periods than satellites, if the weather permits.

There’s also the cost benefit: A satellite may cost up to $300 million over its lifetime, according to an estimate from 2020; even the most high-tech balloon would be cheaper.

Macdonald, the professor from the University of Strathclyde, said that “a balloon is very difficult to see on radar, although the sensor bay underneath will be more visible.”



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