March 16, 2023

IntelBrief: What the Chinese Spy Balloon Revealed About The U.S.

U.S. Navy via AP

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Following the downing of a large suspected Chinese surveillance balloon in early February, the U.S. downed three more smaller, later found to be unrelated.
  • The domestic response in the United States, socially and politically, was likely observed closely by adversarial governments and intelligence agencies.
  • The U.S. media attention surrounding the incident, coupled with political gamesmanship from some members of Congress, clearly revealed how almost any event can devolve into another divisive political issue in the U.S.
  • The heightened, hyper-partisan rhetoric and political maneuvering surrounding the incident may be a broader signal of U.S. reactions to more serious and imminent threats, such as a natural disaster or legitimate military conflict, potentially providing U.S. adversaries with a strategic advantage.

On May 1st, 1960, then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) shot down a U.S. high-altitude spy plane, a U2 piloted by CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers. The U.S. initially denied Soviet claims the plane was used for intelligence gathering, suggesting instead that it was weather plane that had gone off course. Photographs of the pilot and wreckage of the plane (that the CIA had wrongly assured the White House would not be substantial or valuable) quickly forced the U.S. to acknowledge the obvious, leading to a diplomatic rift and disrupting a multinational summit in Paris, France. Two years later, the U.S. and USSR would conduct their first ‘spy swap’, with the U.S. trading Rudolph Abel, a Soviet intelligence officer held by the United States, with the USSR for Gary Powers and a detained American student. There is no shortage of ‘spy scandals’ involving the U.S. either getting caught spying on another nation or exposing another nation spying on the U.S. Several are truly damaging, such as FBI agent Robert Hanssen or CIA officer Aldrich Ames betraying the United States by selling extremely sensitive information to the Soviets. The USSR so thoroughly ‘bugged’ the U.S. Embassy in Moscow as it was being constructed from 1979 to1985 that the entire building was essentially dismantled and rebuilt; the Embassy finally opened in 2000 after all the surveillance devices embedded in pre-poured concrete and everywhere else were removed.

Many incidents involving espionage and intelligence are used as a pawn in political gamesmanship, rather than a consistent approach in defense of the nation, with whatever U.S. political party that is out of power using the event to hammer the current administration. The incidents are usually met with over-the-top hysteria and outrage as well as some warranted discourse and accountability for expensive, avoidable mistakes and vulnerabilities. The history of the Cold War, in particular, is filled with such incidents. Cries of being ‘weak’ in the face of adversaries are always being shouted on Capitol Hill. However, the current discourse over the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon (‘spy balloon’) is altogether different. On February 4th, 2023, the U.S. shot down a large surveillance balloon off the coast of South Carolina; this was after two days of growing outrage and political posturing, characterized by partisanship and hyperbole. Numerous elected officials posted photographs of themselves with rifles, threatening to shoot down the massive balloon that was at that time 60,000 feet in the air, since they claimed the Biden administration was too weak to act.

The spy balloon was likely launched in late January 2023 from Hainan Island, a province off the southern coast of China. When the balloon was initially observed, the Biden administration downplayed concerns before adopting more aggressive measures to block electronic signals collection from the large apparatus underneath the balloon. The balloon was first sighted in Montana, lingered near sensitive U.S. nuclear missile sites, and eventually drifted to sea off the coast of South Carolina where it was shot down. The Biden administration stated that the balloon was part of a larger, military-linked aerial surveillance program targeting more that 40 countries. For its part, the Chinese government has continue to deny the balloon had anything to do with espionage, claiming it was a civilian weather balloon gone off course and that the U.S. was using the incident to wage “information warfare” against China. The incident underscored the growing tensions, both politically and increasingly economically, between the two countries.

The U.S. media attention surrounding the incident, coupled with political maneuvering from some members of Congress, clearly revealed how almost any event can devolve into another divisive political issue in the U.S., even those security which might have received bipartisan responses. Loud segments of the population, particularly online, claimed that because the Biden administration waited until the balloon was over the ocean to shoot it down, it was proof that the United States was fading as a great power. Some politicians used the event to engage in fearmongering, claiming that the balloon could have been carrying chemical or biological weapons.

There were in fact credible concerns about shooting down the balloon over populated areas, given the size of the structure. Yet, some, including lawmakers, have pressed the Biden administration and military leaders at the Pentagon to explain why the balloon was not shot down earlier when the object was over sparsely populated areas in Alaska and the risk to a larger population minimal. Further, some have also asked whether the U.S. detected the slow moving but large object before it entered U.S. territory/air space. The administration initially stated it had detected the object but that it was also recalibrating its air defenses to better detect slow moving balloons since the object wasn’t the type of high-speed ballistic threat the system was designed to detect. This ‘recalibration’ resulted in the U.S. shooting down three more unidentified objects of concern (one in Alaska, one in coordination with the Canadian government, and one over the Great Lakes region of the U.S.). The White House stated that the three objects were likely tied to private scientific research and had no connection with the Chinese balloon; they were, however, at much lower altitudes, making them possible dangers to commercial aviation.

Although the issue surrounding the “spy balloon” has quickly faded from the headlines, the potential intelligence gained by U.S. adversaries should not be underestimated. Moreover, the heightened, hyper-partisan rhetoric and political gamesmanship surrounding the Chinese balloon incident may be a broader signal of U.S. reactions to more serious and imminent threats, such as a natural disaster or legitimate military conflict. Any incident, no matter how serious or banal, is viewed by many Americans, and especially by the politicians in Congress, through the zero-sum lens of hyper-partisanship, potentially providing U.S. adversaries with a strategic advantage and opportunity to exploit divisions.