A U-2 pilot with the Chinese spy balloon as it flys over the central U.S., Feburary 3, 2023. (via DVIDS)
With the incident of the Chinese spy balloon that flew from Alaska through the continental U.S., from January 28 to February 4, greater amounts of attention has been paid to China’s high-altitude inventory. These low-cost systems allow the PLA to conduct precision surveillance on static facilities and slow-moving targets such as military bases, radar installations, and naval formations. They gather intelligence primarily from SIGINT, electronic signals, from weapons systems as well as communications between personnel. Chinese high-altitude balloons pose a threat to national security as left unchecked, they would be able to gather vital intelligence on vital strategic U.S. assets, such as the ICBM bases in the Midwest. The April 2023 Pentagon leaks revealed that U.S. intelligence agencies had known of up to four other Chinese spy balloons, two which flew over the continental U.S. in previous years, one which flew over a U.S. carrier strike group, and another which fell into the South China Sea. These classified documents also contained more information about the capabilities of these balloons, including synthetic aperture radar, which could generate a 3-dimensional map of terrain without using any optical sensors, as well as the ability to generate upwards of 10,000 watts using its solar panels, allowing to operate an extensive amount of surveillance equipment. Although these aircraft do not pose any kinetic threat, they can gather intelligence and serve as spotters for Chinese missile strikes on the continental U.S. or in the Indo-Pacific.