According to PLA Daily, China’s Military Balloon Program is perfect since balloons are less expensive and easier to control than airplanes or satellites, can carry greater payloads and cover a wider area, and are more difficult to detect, making them a silent killer.
Years before a huge white Chinese spy balloon caught America’s eye, a leading Chinese aerospace expert was closely monitoring the course of an unmanned airship traveling across the world.
The white blimp was enormous, weighed many tonnes, and measured 328 feet (100 meters) in length—about 80 feet longer than a Boeing 747-8, one of the biggest passenger aircraft in the world. Despite its size, it only appeared as a blinking red dot on a real-time map.
Wu Zhe, the ship’s main architect, said to the official newspaper Nanfang Daily, “Look, here’s America.” The airship was traveling at roughly 65,000 feet in the air when he pointed to a red line, indicating that the voyage was breaking a world record for 2019.
The “Cloud Chaser” airship had been traveling across three continents and three oceans, including what appeared to be Florida, for little under a month. The airship was circling above the Pacific Ocean when Wu had his interview in August; it was just days away from completing its mission.
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Wu, a seasoned space researcher, has been instrumental in helping China advance in the race for what it refers to as “near space,” or the atmosphere between 12 and 62 miles above the planet. In the regime’s quest for military supremacy, this area—which is too high for planes yet too low for satellites—had been deemed suitable for exploitation.
In his more than three decades working in the aerospace industry, Wu, an expert in aircraft design, has helped the Chinese government create its own fighter jets and stealth technology, winning at least one award for his work in the military.
He once served on the scientific advisory committee for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General Armaments Department, a now-defunct organization in charge of outfitting the Chinese military. He was the vice president at Beihang University in Beijing, a prestigious state-run aeronautics school until he voluntarily gave up the title for teaching and research in 2004.
Wu has connections in the aircraft industry, according to public documents, and he has shares in numerous aviation companies. He serves as the chairman of Eagles Men Aviation Science in Beijing, one of the six companies the US has identified as being responsible for the balloon penalties, along with its Shanxi branch.
Both Beihang and the Harbin Institute of Technology, which is known as “China’s MIT” and was Wu’s alma mater, are on a U.S. trade blacklist; Beihang for supporting Chinese military rocket and unmanned air vehicle systems, and Harbin for exploiting American technology to help Chinese missile programs.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has long fought for supremacy in the domain of near space, which Chinese experts believe is suitable for a range of uses, including the development of hypersonic missiles and high-altitude balloons.
An aerostat with an electronic surveillance system may intercept a lot of data coming from a great height and transform it into a valuable intelligence resource.
“If you’re flying a balloon that is 100,000 feet up in the air, you’ve got … visibility on the ground of hundreds and hundreds of miles over several states, because it’s up so high,” remarked Art Thompson, a co-founder of the aerospace firm Sage Cheshire Aerospace in California. Thomspon has spent the last three decades working in the aerospace sector. He worked on the B-2 stealth bomber and served as technical director for the Red Bull Stratos project, which set records for the largest manned balloon and highest balloon flight.
“Whether it’s phone data, radio data, transmissions from aircraft, as to what the airplanes are, who owns it, all that data is available,” Thompson said.
Aerostats, a technique that was used by the French as lookouts as early as the late 1700s, have significant strategic relevance for the Chinese military. In a 2021 piece for PLA Daily, the Chinese military’s official publication, two regular columnists claimed that balloons are less expensive and easier to control than airplanes or satellites, can carry greater payloads and cover a wider area, and are more difficult to detect. They use less energy, which enables them to linger in a specific location for a longer time. Furthermore, they frequently escape detection by radars, making it simple for them to defeat an adversary’s air defense system or be labeled as UFOs.
It does seem to have happened. Three Chinese surveillance balloons that flew above the United States during the Trump administration and one after Biden assumed office, according to Biden administration officials, were able to be retroactively detected.
Since discovering multiple alleged Chinese balloon invasions in recent years, Taiwan and Japan have both threatened to shoot down any suspected foreign objects in their airspace.
These balloons’ value in battle has also been praised by Chinese military researchers. The potential of balloons to conduct electromagnetic interference, drop weapons to attack enemies, screen for missiles, planes, and warships in lower space, act as a communication channel during a conflict, and deliver food or military supplies over great distances have all been explored in newspaper articles and academic papers.
“In the future, balloon platforms may become like submarines in the deep sea: a silent killer that invokes terror,” military columnists wrote for the state-run PLA Daily.
Those claims, in Thompson’s opinion, are not exaggerated. Contrary to popular belief, a balloon’s slow motion can actually work to its advantage.
“It’s virtually invisible on radar,” said Thompson. While people may be concerned about an intercontinental missile flying over, which would take several minutes, a balloon could transport one discreetly without being detected.
“Now when you decide to release that missile, it doesn’t take several minutes—it takes only a matter of seconds,” he added. “We can’t respond fast enough … It would hit us before we’d know what happened.”
“It’s a scary scenario. It’s funny that one of the oldest technologies is potentially also very dangerous.”
In this field, Zhuzhou Rubber is just one player. Several stratosphere aircraft-related patents have been filed by Dongguan Lingkong Remote Sensing Technologies, including ones for a maneuverable stratospheric balloon and a lightweight, high-strength aerostat material. Wu is the director of the Dongguan city research institution, which is owned by Beihang University and the statutory auditor of Dongguan Lingkong.
In the past, China Electronics Technology Group Corp. (CETC), a sizable state-owned corporation whose 48th research institute was subject to U.S. sanctions as a result of the balloon incident, took pride in having assisted China in closing the aerostat technological gap.
The business displayed a huge white blimp in 2010. According to a Chinese state media story reposted on the State Administration of Science website, it could detect details of things as small as a book over an area of more than a hundred square miles using high-definition surveillance equipment that continuously scans the ground.
Their most recent, the JY-400 balloon, which CETC’s 38th research institute presented in 2021, can satisfy both military and civilian demands and can carry payloads for spying on and disrupting communications as well as detecting missiles, according to claims in Chinese media. The sources described Russian media as expressing surprise at how quickly China was outcompeting their nation, referring to it as “China speed.”
The JY-400 balloon’s striking visual resemblance to a U.S. military concept known as the “Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System” caught Thompson’s attention.
This system, developed for the Army in 1998 by Raytheon, offers 360-degree surveillance to monitor threats such as unmanned aircraft, cruise missiles, and other low-flying aircraft. A synthetic aperture radar was mounted to the bottom of the dirigible. The U.S. Army started sponsoring it in the 2010s but eventually stopped in 2017, two years after one of the program’s two blimps broke apart and severely disrupted Pennsylvania’s electrical grid.
The only distinction between the two, according to Thompson, is that one has Chinese writing on it. If you put the two side by side, “you’d think they’re made by the same company,” he added.
According to Thompson, it’s probable that the Chinese modified specific components, such as the materials and size, to fit their requirements after copying the designs of American airships.
The Epoch Times’ questions weren’t immediately answered by CETC or Raytheon.
Wu’s Cloud Chaser airship took off close to Hainan, an island province at the southernmost corner of China that U.S. officials have noted serves as the headquarters for Chinese surveillance balloon operations.
The regime has conducted illegal data gathering on U.S. defense strategies and sowed discord among American citizens through cyberattacks and disinformation efforts, which is just one of China’s several spy campaigns against America.
According to Su Tze-yun, head of the Center for National Defense and Security Studies in Taiwan, those sanctioned by the United States are just the “tip of the iceberg” in comparison to China’s extensive espionage effort.
But there are many obstacles for Western countries trying to stop the covert operation. Su pointed out that the dictatorship could readily import or steal Western technologies while avoiding detection by using front firms as a cover. Any private enterprise might be unwittingly aiding the regime’s military advancement under the civil-military fusion policy, making it more difficult to draw the line and enforce sanctions. But he added that it at least highlights the need to stop Chinese organizations from acquiring US businesses.
According to Su Although Western nations are also working on developing balloon technology, China’s efforts stand out.
“Democratic countries are bound by law from infringing other nations’ airspace,” he added. “This is why the same technology, once it’s in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party, would become a threat.”