Geopolitical Insights

SITREP – Chinese Surveillance in the U.S.

February 3, 2023

What has Happened:

  • The U.S. military has been monitoring a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that has been hovering over the northern part of the U.S. (near a U.S. strategic missile base) for the past few days.
  • Today, the Pentagon said that the balloon “violated U.S. air space and international law” and rejected China’s earlier claim that the balloon is a “civilian airship” used for research.
  • Officials have assessed that shooting down the balloon would be dangerous as it would create a “significant” debris field.
  • U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed his upcoming trip to China in response to the flying of the balloon over the United States.

Why it Matters:

“As a previous Director of Operations for the U.S. Northern Command, I view the balloon as a message from China confirming that we are entering a new Cold War. The timing just before Secretary of State Blinken’s scheduled visit to China and the visibility of the method of surveillance used over the U.S. is not by accident. The world will watch how the Biden administration responds. The ongoing tech war and economic competition with the CCP is clearly moving in a new direction towards heightened military risk. It is easy to see how the “no limits” partnership between China and Russia is keeping the U.S. off balance as the free world’s leader. Throw in Iran and North Korea and we see the increased U.S. geopolitical challenges and the need for strong world leadership more than at any time since the end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union.” – General Robert Walsh

Balloons can loiter over a target, and you can hang any sensor you want underneath. They travel on the air stream. You always try to achieve “layering” in intel. Balloons work and we’ve used them (just not at 70,000 feet). Until the late 1970s, C-130s equipped with outstretched mechanical arms used to collect intel film that had been shot from a satellite and then dropped and tethered under a balloon. This balloon is huge (3 buses in size). The balloon should have been shot down, but this is a policy issue not an intel issue. The Intel Community can determine what China is collecting by observation.” – General Spider Marks

“We must assume that this is not just a “weather balloon” off course as the Chinese claim, particularly considering the location where it was hovering (near U.S. strategic weapons). This is not an isolated incident and I suspect that we will see more of this in the future from China and other actors as it is a cheaper and easier way to do surveillance compared to satellites. Additionally, many of these more sophisticated balloons can communicate up to satellites so getting the information sent back around the world can happen very quickly.”Admiral Danelle Barrett

We should not be surprised by any actions taken by the Chinese government. However, we must also ensure that we don’t jump to any conclusions. We need to apply our due diligence to understand the origins, capability, and if possible, intent of this platform. Then we can talk about risk, mitigation, and courses of action.” – General Robert Ashley