A huge balloon floating 65,000 feet above the United States has this week caused a diplomatic incident and ignited fears of a new spying war between East and West.
Yet the real information warfare today is far more sophisticated than balloons. Beijing and Washington are relying on sophisticated drone technology, rockets and high-tech cameras to gain information. Aerial survillance is getting smaller, lighter and higher, with new forms of surveillance being developed by private companies that will define modern espionage.
Aerial observation has long been crucial for militaries, allowing states to assess the capabilities of enemies and observe their positioning. This intelligence underpins not just any military action but also diplomacy.
Increasingly, states are turning to satellites for this intelligence. Orbiting the planet well above the atmosphere, satellites provide a more discreet alternative to balloons or military photographic flights. Spacecrafts can be positioned over any required spot within hours of the need arising.
Once confined to NASA or the fantasy of Hollywood blockbusters, high resolution satellite image technology is now commercially available and cheap. Some providers offer on-demand, high-resolution satellite images for prices as low as £40 each.
This technology is already being deployed on the battlefield. Commercial operator Maxar Technologies has become almost synonymous with overhead imagery of the Russo-Ukraine war.
Last week, the US sanctioned a Chinese company, Spacety, for allegedly providing imagery of Ukrainian battlefields to notorious Russian mercenary company Wagner.
US-based Planet Labs provides similar satellite services to Maxar, while defence companies such as L3Harris and Airbus have made some of their products commercially available.
Private contractors in the burgeoning space surveillance market are of growing importance. Space is increasingly viewed as an area to control, much as the mastery of the seas defined power in the 19th century and might in the air decided victories in the 20th.
President Donald Trump’s decision to create the United States Space Force as a new division of the military in 2019 was seen as almost a joke by many commentators at the time. Yet his successor has seen the value of the agency: Joe Biden authorised almost $25bn (£20.7bn) of spending for the Space Force in the 2023 defence budget.
The Space Force works closely with private industry, not least Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX, which has already conducted several launches so far this year including putting GPS satellites into orbit.
Full blown satellite intelligence is a relatively recent development, however. A more common alternative is the so-called high altitude pseudo satellite (HAPS).
A HAPS is a large drone mounted with cameras and a radio link that flies at very high altitudes to photograph large swathes of the ground.
Farnborough-based Zephyr, a startup bought by Airbus and now being spun back out into a standalone business, was one of the early developers of this technology during the last decade.
The sector enjoyed a brief boom in the 2010s as Big Tech companies Google and Facebook experimented with connectivity tech, although Google’s Loon mobile-mast-on-balloons project ended in ignominy after one broke loose and crash landed in Congo three years ago.
Zephyr’s drone has wings as wide as an A320 airliner but the whole craft weighs just 70kg. The aircraft is made from carbon fibre and Kevlar, making it both light weight and durable.
The cameras mounted on HAPS like this are hugely powerful. The Overpass HAPS, for example, “gives you visual capability down to 18 centimetres from 70,000 feet”, says the company’s chief commercial officer Chris McLaughlin.
An industry source warned that China appears to be pressing ahead with HAPS-style technology of its own, highlighting reports about construction of “a whopping great factory” dedicated to satellite drone production.
Yet despite the technological arms race between China and America, the row that erupted last week came about over a decidedly low-tech piece of equipment. The balloon in question consists of a gas-filled envelope carrying an underslung payload typically weighing a few hundred pounds.
Beijing claimed the white balloon that drifted 65,000 feet above the United States this week was a Chinese “weather gathering” station.
However, the White House was concerned by the flight path. The balloon reportedly flew close to nuclear missile silos in Montana and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said the balloon was being used “to surveil strategic sites.”
Spy balloons are “fairly old hat”, as one defence source put it.
Aerial surveillance between superpowers relied on conventional aeroplanes carrying cameras until the latter part of the 20th century, although some nations still operate traditional reconnaissance aircraft.
Aeroplanes such as the Lockheed U-2 Dragon Lady typically fly at heights of up to 70,000ft, continuing a tradition started in the Second World War by photographic reconnaissance pilots. When Soviet air defences shot down a U-2 in 1960, global attention swung towards satellites as a replacement.
Chartering a helicopter or fixed-wing aeroplane and its cameras, however, typically comes at a cost of thousands of pounds – and manned aircraft cannot always fly over areas that other surveillance technologies can reach.
Sources in the defence and aerospace industries suggested that China’s balloon itself is much less potent than what it represents: a direct challenge to the US. The fact that the White House launched a £330,000 missile designed for attacking fighter jets at the helium orb underscores how seriously the US took it.
“The US has identified the stratosphere as the new zone of contention,” said a defence industry veteran.
As well as the US, a Chinese balloon also hovered for several hours over the capital of Taipei last week.
Meia Nouwens, a senior fellow for Chinese security and defence policy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), says: “Chinese overseas activity has become bolder and more confident in recent years.”
However, Nouwens says the balloon incident is less important than it might seem at first glance.
“I don’t see this as a significant incident on its own,” she says. “There have reportedly been other Chinese balloons flying over the mainland US and it’s just the fact this one is visible, which has led to all the speculation and greater public scrutiny.”
What is undoubtedly true, however, is that the surveillance battle between Beijing and Washington is heating up. And while the low tech balloon may have caught attention, the real edge will be found using increasingly sophisticated technology and on increasingly far-flung frontiers.