In early February the US Air Force shot down a Chinese surveillance balloon off the South Carolina coast. The use of such spy balloons started in 1794 by the French during the French Revolutionary War to observe the movement of British, German and Dutch forces during the Battle of Fleurus. The French won.
The early history of spy balloons
Sixty years later they were used during the US Civil War. The Union Army deployed seven military balloons, inflated by a portable gas generator, that were able to reach an altitude of 1,000 feet to stay out of range of rifle fire. During World War I dirigible balloons, engine powered and steered by propellers, achieved greater heights to observe wider areas. During World War II barrage balloons were used as a low-level defensive aid. After the war President Eisenhower proposed a concept of mutual aerial observation, but it was rejected by Russia in 1953.
The first high altitude balloons, reaching 60,000 feet, were used by the US forces during the early days of the Cold War to spy on Russia during an intelligence programme designated Project Generix. The Soviet MiG pilots realised that the balloon gas cooled at night so they became denser and floated down to a lower altitude where they could be shot down.
The U2 stratospheric spy plane was developed to replace the balloons but was countered by the shooting down, by missile, and capture of Gary Powers. Reconnaissance satellites then appeared. But high-altitude balloons that can download their intelligence either direct to the ground or via satellite, have remained an option for military operations ever since.
Click on Spy Balloons to learn more on the history of spy balloons to the current day.
Open skies treaty
In 1989 President George Bush re-opened the concept of mutual aerial observation to be agreed in an Open Skies Treaty. Its objective was to prevent misunderstandings and limit escalation of tensions about the prospect of military action. This would be achieved by allowing states to gather information about military forces and activities of concern. All aircraft used by participating states for this purpose had to be certified that their sensors complied with treaty requirements. A long period of negotiations between NATO and the Warsaw Pact followed and the treaty did not become effective until January 2002.
You may think that agreeing how, when, where and with what you are going to spy on each other is a tall order. Well, so it proved to be. Eventually, allegations were made by both Russia and the United States that the other side were violating the provisions of the Treaty by denying access to particular areas or upgrading sensors without certification. In May 2020 President Trump, in typical style, got his Vice President Mike Pence to announce that the US would withdraw from the treaty his own nation had both conceived and signed, six months later. A response from Russia was inevitable and they formally withdrew in June 2021.
What happened then?
I can only speculate. But if one source of intelligence is denied you seek another or revert to an alternative option. Having used spy balloons extensively in the past, the United States would be alert to the probability of them being used again by threat nations such as Russia and China. When Russia’s “special military operation” failed to achieve a quick solution, they turned to Iran to supply them with cheap drones and, maybe, turned to China to act as a proxy to support them with an alternative option.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, a year ago, Russia has persistently hinted at the threat of possible use of nuclear weapons. They would need to know how prepared the United States is to retaliate. The Americans tracked the Chinese spy balloon across their land from west to east until it was offshore, but within its territorial waters, and shot it down on February 5th. Three smaller, lower-level balloons were shot down over Canada, off the coast of Alaska and Lake Huron as they “were a potential risk to aircraft.” Or they may have been decoys?
On 13 February NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg gave a press conference saying that spy balloons are part of an increasing surveillance pattern by Russia and China to monitor NATO military activities. Five days later North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile followed on 20 February by four strategic cruise missiles at a target area 2,000 km away to demonstrate its ability to launch a nuclear attack. They called for the United States to stop deploying strategic assets, such as aircraft carriers, to the Korean peninsula and to halt military drills with South Korea. On Saturday 25 February the fast attack submarine USS Springfield arrived in Buson, South Korea from its base in Guam “on a port visit.” A US Navy nuclear powered aircraft is expected it to join it in mid-March.
Whilst these incidents appear to be unrelated, they are indicative of the cat and mouse diplomatic game played over the threat of use of nuclear weapons. Further cooperation between Russia and China can only lead to a new Cold War. Now, more than ever, we need to return to the concept of Open Skies to defuse the risk of inadvertent of weapons of mass destruction and concentrate on their eventual, total elimination.
My next article will focus on recent developments in airships that will help combat global warming provide we change some of our trading practices and leisure habits.