The Chinese have been dispatching intelligence-collection balloons for years. The Pentagon official said Saturday night that five Chinese balloons have circumnavigated the globe, and China has conducted 20 to 30 balloon missions globally over the past decade.
The balloons don’t appear to gather much more intelligence than could Chinese satellites in low Earth orbit. Balloons can hover longer over collection targets like the ICBM field in Montana that was overflown a few days ago, but they’re not stationary, and their signals-collection ability isn’t radically different from other systems available to the Chinese, the Pentagon official said.
A balloon provides better granularity in its images. And it’s possible that the mission was an attempt to trigger U.S. radar or electronic-warfare signatures, which would be valuable in a future conflict, the official said, but any such collection would have limited value. As for speculation that the balloon was scattering smaller spy devices — microdrones that could observe secret targets, say — the official said there was no evidence of any such dispersion.
The secrets part of the story should be clearer if the Pentagon recovers the intelligence-collection pod that the balloon was carrying, as officials expected on Saturday would be possible. The pod apparently fell into the Atlantic largely intact, the official said, and it should provide a useful opportunity to examine and reverse-engineer Chinese intelligence and communications systems.
Thus, from an intelligence standpoint, Pentagon officials believe that the strange week-long balloon voyage was ultimately of more benefit to the United States than to China. By waiting until the balloon was over U.S. territorial waters, the Biden administration was able to maximize the likelihood that the pod could be recovered while minimizing the risk that Americans would be injured by falling debris. [Continue reading…]