A spy balloon is literally a helium-filled balloon that is flying quite high in the sky, more or less where we fly commercial airplanes. It has some sophisticated cameras and imaging technology on it. It’s collecting information through photography and other imaging of whatever is going on down on the ground below it.
Over the past few months, there have been numerous sightings and reports of various unidentified, floating objects in the sky. Closer inspection revealed that the objects were, in fact, balloons which were seemingly harmlessly floating around. However, a different mystery emerged. Who do these balloons belong to? Why are they staying airborne for such extended periods of time? Are they indeed harmless?
The stakes were raised when some of these balloons were shot down by the United States Air Force over American and Canadian territories for violating sovereign airspace, and it was apprehended that the balloons originated in China as part of the Chinese surveillance and espionage programmes.
While Beijing has denied that the balloons were anything of the kind, maintaining that its balloons are only civilian research crafts or weather balloons, suspicion has continued to grow in the minds of the general public that the truth may not be quite so innocent, and there may indeed be good reasons to worry.
Chinese weather agencies, like all-weather agencies around the world, utilize weather balloons to gather atmospheric data for weather predictions and research. These weather balloons are comparable to other types of weather balloons that are widely used; they consist of a huge balloon filled with helium or hydrogen that lifts a tiny bundle of meteorological sensors into the atmosphere.
At different heights, the weather balloon’s equipment may measure temperature, humidity, pressure, wind speed, and direction. This equipment gathers data, which is then broadcast back to ground stations where it is used to enhance weather forecasting and monitor the earth’s atmosphere.
Hundreds of weather balloons are launched regularly from China’s vast network of weather stations and launch sites in the recent past.
China has been using helium-filled balloons equipped with cameras and other surveillance equipment to monitor and gather intelligence on its neighbouring countries, particularly India. These balloons are said to be able to stay airborne for extended periods and cover large areas, providing real-time information to Chinese military and intelligence agencies.
As it can be seen from the image below, these balloons are visually, entirely different and in size too, they cannot be compared.
China has a significant military presence in the Tibet Autonomous Region, which borders India and has been a focal point of tensions between the two countries. Reports suggest that some of the alleged helium balloon spy operations may have been launched from this region.
It is also worth noting that China has a number of other military and intelligence assets in the region, including drones, satellites, and ground-based sensors. It is likely that any balloon-based surveillance operations would be part of a broader intelligence-gathering strategy rather than a standalone effort.
While there are several methods that can be used to control helium balloons, their control is still limited when compared to other aerial vehicles like drones or aeroplanes. These are several methods for controlling helium balloons:
Tethering: A cable can be used to tether helium balloons to the ground or other stationary objects. The altitude and location of the balloon may be partially controlled by varying the length and tension of the rope.
Ballast: By adding or removing ballast, which alters the weight and buoyancy of helium balloons, they can also be controlled. The balloon rises when weight is released while it rises when weight is added.
Propulsion: To help maintain their movement and direction, some helium balloons are outfitted with small propellers or other methods of propulsion.
It’s important to bear in mind that these control options are restricted when compared to those offered for other kinds of aerial vehicles. As helium balloons are very sensitive to wind and weather, it can be challenging to move and control them. Moreover, balloons are limited in speed and are unable to perform sharp turns or manoeuvres.
In a study on China’s military capabilities published in 2020, the US Department of Defense emphasised China’s advancement of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and other cutting-edge technology that may be utilised for information gathering and monitoring.
The study, however, made no mention of using helium balloons for espionage. In general, the US government hasn’t made any specific claims about this issue in public, despite reports that China uses helium balloons for espionage.
Concerns over India’s national security have been raised by recent reports of Chinese spy balloons entering Indian airspace. Balloons which have the endurance and stealth to gather information from half the world away can surely pose a much bigger threat to its next-door neighbour. However, India can take away a number of lessons from this experience:
Enhance border surveillance: The incident shows how India’s border surveillance system has to be improved. To successfully monitor its borders, India must invest in cutting-edge surveillance technologies like drones, satellite imagery, and radar systems.
Create strong cybersecurity measures: China’s use of spy balloons underscores the significance of strong cybersecurity measures. To stave off cyberattacks and data breaches, India has to upgrade its cybersecurity infrastructure.
Encourage the development of indigenous technology. Since India faces security risks because it depends so heavily on imported technology. India must encourage the development of indigenous technologies in industries like cybersecurity, aerospace, and defence.
Work together with allies: In order to establish a coordinated response to security concerns from China, India must work together with its allies, including the United States, Japan, and Australia. India will be able to boost its own military capabilities and make advantage of the military capabilities of its allies as a result.
Enhance defence spending: India has to spend more money on defence to improve its military prowess. India will be able to stave off security challenges from China and other adversarial neighbours as a result.
It remains an incontrovertible fact that sovereign nations like China remain committed to their defence and espionage programmes in the ostensible efforts to bolster the security of their own borders or to match their ambitions, territorial or otherwise. To this end, new technologies, innovations and techniques are constantly birthed and applied to leverage the greatest possible advantage that can be wrung out through gathering information. It is beholden upon us to remain committed to the defence of our nation from all possible threats, and the existence of these balloons does not change that prerogative in any way. As we can see, effective defence remains within our technical capabilities and it is only a matter of taking the necessary planned steps to ensure that the security of India is maintained.
Group Captain MJ Augustine Vinod (retd) Vishist Sewa Medal, was commissioned into the Fighter stream in June 92 and retired in 2019. He has flown Mirage 2000, MiG 21, Kiran HPT 32 and Airbus A320 aircraft. He has over 3500 hrs of flying experience on these aircraft.
You can tweet him @mjavinod