CHINA TAKES WORLD BY STORM WITH BALLOONS AND DRONES
On February 4, a US Air Force jet downed a huge Chinese surveillance balloon over the water off the coast of South Carolina. Launched from its home base on China’s Hainan Island on January 28, the balloon drifted across the Pacific into North American airspace over Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, and then from there crossed Canada and the American heartland. It was shot down a week after it entered Alaska. Hainan Island off the southern coast of the South China Sea is known for the Langpo Naval Base, one of the world’s biggest underground submarine centers, and the Wenchang Space Launch Site the Chinese Liberation Army (PLA) boasts.
The balloon, measuring 200 feet in diameter, was shot down shortly after it exited the continental US. An analysis of its debris collected by the US Navy and the FBI has yet to begin, but the US government has labeled the craft as a spy balloon after retrieving key electronics, including sensors.
Typical of Chinese officials who are reluctant to admit their wrongdoing despite
being confronted with evidence, Xu Xueyuan, chargé d’affaires at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, angrily refuted the action by the US government. In the Opinion column of the Washington Post dated February 17, Xu complained:
“The airship, which was being used for civilian meteorological research, unintentionally entered U.S. airspace because of the westerlies and its limited self-steering capability…(but) the United States labeled it as a ‘spy balloon’ of the People’s Liberation Army, and shot it down, though it posed no real security threat.”
On the same day, top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi had this to say about the US action during a talk with Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference: “The US has ignored the basic facts and overacted by abusing military force and hyping up the event, and this almost hysterical act of the US has shown that its prejudice and ignorance towards China has reached a preposterous level.” Wang’s reaction was characteristic of the diplomat, who is widely viewed as being highly arrogant.
Wang reportedly kneels down and bows his head every time he delivers documents to Xi Jinping. In light of his alleged fear of Xi and his implicit obedience to him, I wonder if he wouldn’t have any problems with his boss for asserting that the balloon was launched strictly for civilian meteorological research. How they get along with each other is really none of my business, but Wang’s assertion obviously runs counter to Xi’s aggressive preaching of the merits of military-civil fusion (MCF) as a critical national strategy. He has frequently stated that all intelligence any Chinese entity, civil or military, collects belongs to the state and must be shared with the PLA.
The spirit of MCF has long existed in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Unrestricted Warfare: China’s Master Plan to Destroy America, a 1999 bestseller by PLA officers Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, clearly spells that out.
Air Balloons as “Formidable ‘Assassins’”
The book discusses the importance of fundamentally transforming the traditional concept of warfare, explaining that unrestricted warfare is all about removing barriers between domestic organizations in all fields, including politics, economy, and culture, and utilizing all available knowledge and intelligence in a concerted effort to win a war. No matter how powerful its enemies may be, Xi’s China believes it can achieve victory by adopting “asymmetric tactics” because “the weaknesses of our enemies will then be found and be taken advantage of… by correctly coming to grips with—and implementing—the principles of asymmetry.” The CMF strategy constitutes the foundation of the PLA’s way of fighting and the very nature of the CCP, as Xi defines it.
Utilization of air balloons by the PLA is commonplace. The PLA Daily has carried a significant number of articles on the military use of balloons. An article in the army organ in December 2021 titled “Usefulness of Balloons on Battlefields” noted: “Air balloons will become formidable ‘assassins’ in the future, like submarines once did before.” This is how China views the usefulness of air balloons.
Three Chinese balloons have been spotted over Japan in the past three years—over Satsumasendai in Kagoshima Prefecture in November 2019, Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture in June 2020, and Hachinohe in Aomori Prefecture in September 2021. Each silently floated in the sky above strategically important facilities, including satellite launch centers, Self-Defense Force bases, and US bases. One should not forget that, launched out of its home base off the South coast of China, it would have been impossible for these balloons to cross into Japanese airspace without first drifting over Taiwan.
And yet the Chinese insist that they cannot control the balloons’ flight paths, claiming that they go wherever air currents take them. But Tadashi Narabayashi, a specially appointed professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, has exposed their lies: he noted that this time the Chinese balloon, which eventually was up in the air more than ten days, suddenly took an unexpected northern turn over the Pacific during an early part of its flight about 1,000 miles south of Japan, heading for Alaska. Observed Narabayashi:
“The Chinese have formulated an ‘earth winds map’ by scrupulously researching stratospheric air currents that encircle the earth and their velocity. I believe they’ve accurately figured out when and where they should put their balloons on particular air currents in order to put them on the exact spot above a specific target point.”
How can they do that? Narabayashi explained:
“Chinese spy balloons are double-structured, with a smaller balloon hidden inside a larger balloon. They fill the inner balloon with helium gas, which is released via a compressor to inflate the outer balloon, enabling it to rise as its volume increases. Reverse the process and the balloon goes down due to deflation. By thus manipulating the altitudes, they can put their balloons on designated currents to guide them to intended destinations.”
That explains why the spy balloon this time could make its way to the skies over a number of vital US military facilities before being shot down, including: Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, where the U.S. stores a portion of its nuclear ICBMs, among other things; Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Nebraska—home of the U.S. Strategic Command in charge of the country’s nuclear forces; and Missouri’s Whiteman Air Force Base, home to the B-2 stealth bomber, which can drop conventional as well as thermonuclear weapons.
21 Century War
Spy balloons are far cheaper to build and maintain than satellites. Because they float slowly, the Chinese can collect intelligence that satellites ordinarily cannot. This is an example of China’s astute use of “asymmetrical warfare.”
To win a 21-century war, air balloons and drones are seen as having a much more vital role to play than conventional weapons. In the February 16, 2023 issue of Foreign Policy magazine, Faine Greenwood, a drone expert and assistant researcher at Harvard Humanity Initiative, shares his views on Chinese-made drones that are playing a major role in the Ukrainian war.
Chinese drones are small, inexpensive, and surprising easy to handle for beginners, notes Greenwood. Equipped with night vision cameras and thermal sensors, drones are small but lethal weapons in the battlefield, able to pinpoint locations and kill the enemy by dropping bombs from above. They also give a broad view of the situation on the ground from their location high in the sky. For these reasons, drones are said to have become an indispensable part of the newsgathering apparatus of war correspondents. No wonder Russia and Ukraine want Chinese drones so badly.
Greenwood writes that extensive research she conducted on the use of drones in the year-long war in Ukraine shows that 59% have been produced by a single Chinese manufacturer—Shenzhen DJI Sciences and Technologies Ltd. in Shenzhen Province.
DJI says it does not sell its products “for combat operations,” and that, because of that policy it does not sell its drones to either Russia or Ukraine. But drones actually do find their way to both countries. Greenwood explains: “Today, a small army of volunteers from both Ukraine and Russia raises funds from sympathetic people on social media (often using crypto), uses the cash to buy consumer drones second-hand from civilian sources, and then transports the aircraft through the border into the war zone.” The majority of small consumer and DIY (do it yourself) drones flying over Ukraine today appear to have been sourced and paid for not by governments, but by donors on the internet.
Whether during peacetime or wartime, China shrewdly maneuvers to secure profits, utilizing balloons and marketing drones. That is how China operates. We must take to heart the fact that China is the greatest security threat to us and never let our guard down.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 1,038 in the February 23, 2023 issue of The Weekly Shincho)