China wants to dominate the ‘near space’ battlefield. Balloons are a key asset

In China’s eyes, the newest superpower battlefield sits between 12 and 60 miles above the Earth’s surface in a thin-aired layer of the atmosphere it calls “near space.”

Lying above the flightpaths of most commercial and military jets and below satellites, near space is an in-between area for spaceflight to pass through — but it is also a domain where hypersonic weapons transit and ballistic missiles cross.

China has paid close attention to other countries’ developments in this region, which has been hailed by Chinese military experts as “a new front for militarization” and “an important field of competition among the world’s military powers.”

In addition to developing high-tech vessels such as solar-powered drones and hypersonic vehicles, China is also reviving a decades-old technology to utilize this area of the atmosphere — lighter-than-air vehicles. They include stratospheric airships and high-altitude balloons — similar to the one identified over the continental United States and shot down on Saturday.

China maintains the balloon is a civilian research airship, despite claims by US officials that the device was part of an extensive Chinese surveillance program.

While questions remain about that incident, an examination of Chinese state media reports and scientific papers reveal the country’s growing interest in these lighter-than-air vehicles, which Chinese military experts have touted for use toward a wide range of purposes, from communication relay, reconnaissance and surveillance to electronic countermeasures.

Near-space ambitions

Chinese research on the high-altitude balloons dates back to the late 1970s, but over the past decade there’s been renewed focus on using older technology equipped with new hardware as major powers around the world have bulked up their capabilities in the sky.

“With the rapid development of modern technology, the space for information confrontation is no longer limited to land, sea, and the low altitude. Near space has also become a new battlefield in modern warfare and an important part of the national security system,” read a 2018 article in the PLA Daily, the official newspaper of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

And a range of “near-space flight vehicles” will play a vital role in future joint combat operations that integrate outer space and the Earth’s atmosphere, the article said.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping has urged the PLA Air Force to “speed up air and space integration and sharpen their offensive and defensive capabilities” as early as 2014, and military experts have designated “near space” as a crucial link in the integration.

Searches on CNKI, China’s largest online academic database, show Chinese researchers, both military and civilian, have published more than 1,000 papers and reports on “near space,” many of which focus on the development of “near space flight vehicles.” China has also set up a research center to design and develop high-altitude balloons and stratospheric airships, or dirigibles, under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a top government think tank.

One particular area of interest is surveillance. While China already deploys a sprawling satellite network for sophisticated long-range surveillance, Chinese military experts have highlighted the advantages of lighter-than-air vehicles.

Unlike rotating satellites or traveling aircraft, stratospheric airships and high-altitude balloons “can hover over a fixed location for a long period of time” and are not easily detected by radar, wrote Shi Hong, the executive editor of Shipborne Weapons, a prominent military magazine published by a PLA-linked institute, in an article published in state media in 2022.

In a 2021 video segment run by state news agency Xinhua, a military expert explains how near-space lighter-than-air vehicles can surveil and take higher resolution photos and videos at a much lower cost compared to satellites.

In the video, Cheng Wanmin, an expert at the National University of Defense Technology, highlighted the progress by the US, Russia and Israel in developing these vehicles, adding China has also made its own “breakthroughs.”

An example of advances China has made in this domain is the reported flight of a 100-meter-long (328 feet) unmanned dirigible-like airship known as “Cloud Chaser.” In a 2019 interview with the Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper, Wu Zhe, a professor at Beihang University, said the vehicle had transited across Asia, Africa and North America in an around-the-world flight at 20,000 meters (65, 616 feet) above the Earth.

Another scientist on the team told the newspaper that compared with satellites, stratospheric airships are better for “long-term observation” and have a range of purposes from disaster warning and environmental research to wireless network construction and aerial reconnaissance.

Other players, other uses

It’s also clear that China is not alone in seeing new uses for a technology that’s been leveraged for military reconnaissance as far back as the late 18th century, when French forces employed a balloon corps.

The US has also been bolstering its capacity to use lighter-than-air vehicles. In 2021, the US Department of Defense contracted an American aerospace firm to work on using their stratospheric balloons as a means “to develop a more complete operating picture and apply effects to the battlefield,” according to a statement from the firm, Raven Aerostar, at the time.

“This isn’t just a China thing. The US, and other nations as well, have been working on and developing high-altitude aerostats, balloons and similar vehicles,” said Brendan Mulvaney, director of the China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI), a research center serving the US Air Force.

“They are cheap, provide long-term persistent stare for collection of imagery, communications and other information — including weather,” said Mulvaney, who authored a 2020 paper that detailed China’s interest in using lighter-than-air vehicles for “near-space reconnaissance.”

China also appears acutely aware of the potential for other countries to use balloons to spy.

In 2019, a documentary series on China’s border defense forces produced by a state-owned television channel featured an incident where the PLA Air Force spotted and shot down a suspected high-altitude surveillance balloon that “threatened (China’s) air defense safety.”

The documentary did not provide further detail about the time and location of the incident, but a paper published last April by researchers in a PLA institute noted air-drift balloons were spotted over China in 1997 and 2017.

Other experts have pointed to the potential use of balloons in data collection that can aid China’s development of hypersonic weapons that transit through near space.

“Understanding the atmospheric conditions up there is critical to programming the guidance software” for ballistic and hypersonic missiles, according to Hawaii-based analyst Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center.

Chinese state media reports show China has also used balloons to test advanced hypersonic vehicles. In 2019, state broadcaster CCTV’s military channel showed footage of a balloon lifting off for what it described as maiden testing of three miniaturized models of “wide-range aircraft,” which according to Chinese media reports, can fly at a wide range of speeds, up to five times the speed of sound.

Balloon blind spot

US intelligence officials believe the Chinese balloon identified over the US in recent days is part of an extensive, Chinese military-run surveillance program involving a fleet of balloons that has conducted at least two dozen missions over at least five continents in recent years, CNN reported on Tuesday.

Beijing on Thursday said the assessment was “likely part of the US’ information and public opinion warfare” against China. It has maintained that the device identified over the US is civilian in nature, and linked it to “companies,” though it declined to provide more information on which entity manufactured the balloons.

Both the self-governing island of Taiwan and Japan have acknowledged past, similar sightings, though it is not clear if they are related to the US incident.

A US military commander on Monday acknowledged that the US has a “domain awareness gap” that allowed three other suspected Chinese spy balloons to transit the continental US undetected during the previous administration.

An FBI team is working on understanding more about the equipment reclaimed from the balloon shot down over the sea — including what kind of data it could collect and whether it could transmit that in real time.

CASI’s Mulvaney said that whether the balloon itself is characterized as “dual use” or “state-owned,” data collected would have gone back to China, which is now receiving another kind of information from the incident.

“At the end of the day responses and (tactics, techniques, and procedures) from the US and other countries on how they react, or fail to — all of that has value to China and the PLA.”

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