BalloonTalk 2.0: What Are These Objects? US-China Relations and The Balloon Industrial Complex
Also: balloon AI export controls, China’s focus on “near space,” and advice for aspiring weapons nerds
William “Balloon Guy” Kim returns for a roundup of the past few days of news around the Chinese spy balloon and unidentified-object shooting. We share our favorite theories of what on Earth is going on and what this all means for US-China relations.
Also in this installment: a much-needed NORAD primer, cost estimates for the latest shootdowns, and the state of China’s balloon industrial complex.
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Blown Out of Proportion?
Jordan Schneider: Let’s do the first object first: what more have we learned about the Chinese spy balloon?
William Kim: A lot of information has come out since we previously spoke. When we were first talking, I don’t think pictures of it had emerged yet. And this was a very big balloon — they said the size of a regional airliner, or three buses, in excess of 2,000 pounds.
It was flying at around 60,000 feet, which is actually at the low end of the spectrum for a high-altitude balloon; they can go much higher than that. That is one of the weird things that was surprising to me — there’s just no way the Chinese could have thought that this would stay hidden. You fly this over Montana, and we’re going to notice — people are taking pictures of it with their cell phones.
The other interesting thing they’ve said is that it was equipped with propellers and a rudder for control. Last time I was talking about how there is technology for these things to work without needing any onboard propulsion. But here that appears to have not been the case — they were using more crude methods to steer this balloon.
It may just be that there is indeed a “balloon gap” which favors the United States, that China just doesn’t have the technology that companies here are working with. Another theory I have is — because it was such a large payload and payload decreases with altitude — they might not have been able to have it moving up and down to catch winds.
And another thing that’s been confirmed by the US government: it was a signals-intelligence balloon — meaning it would collect radar communication signals, that sort of thing. And that’s definitely something where a balloon could be quite useful, even compared to satellites: you’re within the atmosphere and below the ionosphere (which refracts those signals). That, possibly, could have been why it wasn’t meant to be inconspicuous in any way — it might have been designed to provoke some reaction and gather intelligence that way.
Or another theory — though I find it a little less likely — is that it was designed to do this surveillance from just outside US airspace, and that it really did malfunction. The United States does something similar: we’ll fly aircraft near China, not over China, to collect this kind of stuff. Although I do find that theory a little less likely given that it didn’t have very advanced steering.
Jordan Schneider: This is really one of the mysteries: this thing was so big. The Biden administration has said, “We looked back at our data and saw that there were Trump-era overflights.” But I can’t imagine that those were as big as this one, because it doesn’t seem plausible that something of this size and magnitude would not have just been spotted — I mean, there are lots of Americans, and people look up on occasion. I mean, at least paint it blue!
William Kim: There are things you can do that would make even a large object difficult to detect on radar — like we do with B-21s and F-35s. They didn’t seem to do any of that here.
Jordan Schneider: Let’s go one more level in depth about what a signals-intelligence balloon could do.
William Kim: Full disclosure: I’m not an expert on signals intelligence.
Understanding the electronic emissions of your opponent is extremely valuable. When it comes to warfare and intelligence collection, you want to know what their radars are like, what their communications are like, if you want to jam them — it’s good to have this kind of information ahead of time.
Why would you send it on a balloon? I think this is one of those areas where balloons would have certain advantages over satellites: again, just being closer, being inside the atmosphere — as I said, the ionosphere is part of the upper atmosphere that’s been ionized by solar radiation, which can refract those signals a little bit. One of the papers that I was reading suggested that this is where balloons would have an advantage — and I believe they were referring to some test or demonstration that they did in field exercises where something like eighty percent of their signals intelligence was coming from balloons.
And then on top of that, if you send up an F-22 and the F-22 is using its radar on the balloon, then the balloon can learn things about the F-22’s radar. In this case the Pentagon said they took measures to mitigate whatever intelligence they could have gotten from it. But it’s absolutely something where, depending on how disciplined we were on our end, they could have learned a lot.
Jordan Schneider: It’s interesting thinking about how much the US government already knew about this all, and was tracking and focused on it — and then all of a sudden, a Chinese balloon blows off course across the middle of America, and it can no longer be this counter-espionage sophisticated thing; we just have to deal with it, and it becomes a national news story.
Or, they just got really surprised, and now we’re looking back at past records. And I think exhibit one of the second theory — that this was not necessarily something that the US government was tracking — is all these other things that America has decided to shoot down over the past seventy-two hours.
Will, what the hell is going on with that?
William Kim: To your earlier point, apparently this stuff has been happening for a while. There are at least three instances in the Trump administration that we didn’t know about at the time, and then we found out through intelligence later. So they can be made a lot harder to detect, as evidenced by this.
But apparently, the US has gotten better at tracking these things: there’s reporting that the intelligence community has developed some way of tracking them, but only got it within the last year.
And then it has also been reported — and this was confirmed yesterday — that NORAD has adjusted the filters on their radars so that the computer doesn’t filter out things that might have gone unnoticed.
Jordan Schneider: I just love the idea of there being a dial and they’re just like, “Oh man, these are all just seagulls. Don’t give me extra work.” And now they turn it down, and all of a sudden these spy balloons show up — but there’s still someone that has to go through and cross out the seagulls.
William Kim: Yeah — I mean, there have been three shootdowns in as many days.
NORAD and the US government have been careful to not call them balloons. They’ve been repeatedly calling them “objects.” The way they’re describing them sounds a lot like balloons: they’re saying things like, “We don’t see any propulsion,” “it’s floating,” and all this other stuff where I’m just like, “Okay, that sounds a lot like a balloon, guys.”
Chuck Schumer said that they’re probably balloons — and he would be receiving information that isn’t public; I’m sure he has been briefed on this.
I would be willing to bet that they are balloons — but they also haven’t been recovered yet, and we’ve got people out in Alaska and northern Canada searching for them. It may be a little while before they actually confirm whether these are balloons or not.
Jordan Schneider: So you’re on “team manmade,” Will?
William Kim: Oh yeah. These probably aren’t aliens. But if they are, they chose a hell of a time to show up.
Jordan Schneider: Three-Body Problem: maybe it’s just the Earth-Trisolaris Organization trying to throw us off their tracks.
‘Balloon Guy’ Floats His Hypotheses
Jordan Schneider: What’s your hypothesis? That NORAD turned down the filters and all of a sudden found these things in the past few days?
William Kim: One thing to know right off the bat: even assuming they are balloons, we don’t know where they’re from — we don’t know if they’re Chinese or Russian or someone else. There’s a recent article talking about the Russians’ balloon capabilities.
I have three hypotheses. Number one is that this is just a very routine thing: this stuff happens all the time, and we just turned down the radar sensitivity — and then suddenly they showed up and we started shooting them down.
Jordan Schneider: Wait — when you say, “normal thing”: jets shooting down stuff is not a normal thing.
William Kim: “Normal thing” meaning stuff flying over America. Perhaps the Chinese were sending spy balloons several times a week before and they just went under our nose — and only now we’re saying to shoot them down.
The second hypothesis I have is that the Chinese are trying to probe our defenses to see what would get through — for instance, if there are certain air vectors that might not be covered very well. The object that was shot down over Alaska was smaller, described as the size of a small car; they said it was lower signature. The most recent one they shot down over Lake Huron — they lost track of it for a little bit: they had been tracking it over Montana, and then at one point they were unable to locate it for a time before picking it up again over Lake Huron; that’s why they shot it down there and not somewhere else. So that’s theory number two.
My third hypothesis is that the Chinese looked at this and said, “Oh, this would be a good way to get the US to waste air-to-air missiles.” Each one of these shootdowns involves multiple planes at a time; it’s expensive to fly these planes. The airframes have only a certain number of hours they can fly before they start having structural issues.
To be sure, I think that theory is the least plausible at this point, just given that we’ve gone a couple of days without another one, and you would have to send quite a few over a long period of time for it to have a real effect on the US Air Force. I think it’s more likely that it’s either just routine surveillance being discovered or some kind of attempt to test our balloon defenses.
Jordan Schneider: Right — that strikes me as particularly far-fetched, just given that, from a diplomatic standpoint, over the past few months the Chinese government has been reaching out, trying to play nice and reset relations.
So to have a rogue corner of the PLA dispatching a balloon armada to completely change the trajectory of US-China relations and also waste the US’s missiles in preparation for an invasion of Taiwan — that sounds pretty out there.
William Kim: When I first suggested the idea, I said that I think it would require US-China relations to get even worse than they are now, if not an outright war — but war is a scenario I think you need to consider.
For instance, if there is a Taiwan war, you would want to think about the potential for this to become a cost-imposing strategy in which they send $100,000 balloons that we then shoot down with $400,000 missiles.
Tying Down China’s Balloon Industry
We next discuss:
Costing out what it takes to shoot down a balloon
China’s focus on “near space” as a key military and R&D domain;
Recent US sanctions on companies affiliated with China’s spy balloon programs and the possibility of AI balloon export controls;
What these shootdowns portend for the future of US-China relations;
Balloon Guy’s timeless advice to aspiring weapons nerds.