The China bubble that has engulfed America in recent times came as no surprise to Cheng Ming-dean. “This balloon has been visible for a long time!” the head of Taiwan’s Central Weather Bureau wrote on Facebook on Saturday, pointing to a photo of a similar balloon taken by an agency employee in September 2021.
With the US government pulling out and downing the balloon, global attention has now turned to China’s massive program for so-called lighter-than-air (LTA) vehicles – which Beijing has been increasingly using around the world, including for military purposes, after years of research. putting to use. and pilot project.
The Pentagon has said it has seen a second balloon over Central and South America, without elaborating, and stressed that China has been operating several surveillance balloons in recent years.
They’re all part of one [Chinese] A US defense official said that the fleet of balloons, developed to conduct surveillance operations, has also violated the sovereignty of other countries. “These types of activities are often carried out on the instructions of the People’s Liberation Army. Over the past several years, Chinese balloons have been previously seen in countries across five continents, including Asia, South Asia and Europe.
Last February, four clusters of high-altitude balloons were detected over northern Taiwan, which is home to most of the country’s population and some of its most important air defense sites. In the same month, the US Air Force scrambled fighter jets to intercept an unmanned Kauai Close BalloonA Hawaiian island that has a major missile-testing range.
A white orb was seen in India in January 2022, while another was seen in Taiwan in September 2021. The first public sighting was in June 2020 in the northern Japanese city of Sendai.
Taiwan’s armed forces last year confirmed a local news report that the February 2022 balloon swarm originated from the PLA Rocket Force, the missile arm of the Chinese military. In keeping with Taipei’s strategy to avoid public panic over Chinese military threats, the Ministry of Defense said the balloons posed no danger and were being used for meteorological observations.
But despite the clear overlap with Beijing’s explanation for the latest balloons, analysts dismissed the claim that these are harmless civilian craft.
Cheng, head of the weather bureau, said the Chinese instruments were fundamentally different from weather balloons in size, height and materials.
In the most surprising evidence of China’s military use of stratospheric balloons, Chinese media, including state broadcaster CCTV’s military channel, reported in September 2018 that a high-altitude balloon tested hypersonic missiles.
Video footage taken by CCTV and reposted on social media app Douyin at the time but has now been removed, showed a balloon flying over the US last week with what appeared to be three different types of balloons. Looked like weapons.
According to Chinese media reports and a related Chinese Academy of Sciences research paper, they were models of “wide speed range” hypersonic vehicles, which can fly both below and above the speed of sound.
China’s research on LTA vehicles is related to two institutes of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, one of which is specifically devoted to high-altitude balloons. But in line with Beijing’s “military-civilian fusion” policy, which calls for the development of civilian or commercial technology to be made available for military use when necessary, those efforts are closely coordinated with the PLA, its research institutes and the military-industrial complex. are associated with. Complex, and thus subject to confidentiality.
State media have rarely touted the achievements of the country’s LTA vehicle programs – for example, the launch of the Yuanmeng or Dream airships in 2015; The launch of the airship carrying the 5G base station in September last year; and the launch of high-altitude aerostats bound for research on the Tibetan Plateau from 2019.
Except for the 2018 missile test, Beijing has kept quiet about the stratospheric balloon flights over the US. Military analysts believe that the most likely reason is their focus on military applications.
“These balloons can certainly collect a lot of data needed for scientific research, but it is certainly useful for the PLA,” said Shu Zih-shiang, assistant research fellow at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research. Think-tank backed by Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense. “The data is useful for the Rocket Force, and the balloons are likely to be used for ISR as well,” he added, using the acronym for Military Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance.
The US Navy was beginning efforts to clear debris off the South Carolina coast on Saturday. The defense official said the US would learn more after analyzing the wreckage, but added that in-flight assessments of the balloon showed it had a “broad array” of espionage capabilities.
PLA balloons are doing much more than just spying on the country they are flying over. A focus in the Chinese military’s balloon flights in recent years has been to collect area data that could increase the accuracy of over-the-horizon and other radar systems used for targeting in wartime, according to a military official in another Asian country. Is.
Military analysts said data points such as atmospheric density will help the PLA develop software tools known as the Advanced Refractive Effects Prediction System, which are vital to advanced radars that aid missile, air and naval operations.
The military official, who did not wish to be named as he was not authorized to speak to the media, said, “Given the recent sharp increase in the frequency and range of flights of such balloons, they are now likely to escalate rapidly.” Are.”