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Spying by balloon? ‘Sometimes, the old ways are the best’

Chad Fish via AP
In this photo provided by Chad Fish, a large balloon drifts above the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of South Carolina, with a fighter jet and its contrail seen below it, on Feb. 4, 2023. The balloon was struck by a missile from an F-22 fighter just off Myrtle Beach, fascinating sky-watchers across a populous area known as the Grand Strand for its miles of beaches that draw retirees and vacationers.

In the James Bond movie “Skyfall,” the gamekeeper pulls a large, knife from his belt as evil doers approach and declares “sometimes, the old ways are the best.” In our 21st century world of spy technology, we sometimes forget that.

And with China’s recent floating balloon escapade, we are reminded that even 18th century tech works to collect information.

The ‘red’ balloon

As an old spy, I must admit not being very surprised by the whole business. High altitude balloons have been used since the beginning of the Cold War to collect information. 

As for the information gathered by a balloon, well, there is something to be said for low and slow.

First of all, let me remind you that our 1950s-built U-2 spy planes are hardly supersonic. And neither are our surveillance planes used by the military to collect information. You want people to see you and take action — to see what they do.

Second, and no offense to the satellite supporters out there, low- and high-earth orbit satellites can pick up a lot – but hardly everything. They also travel on a regular time basis. If you know when they are going to be there, you can engage in what’s referred to as “denial and deception” — hide your stuff, or whatever work you are doing, at the right times. You got a balloon lolling around at 20 miles up, drifting along at up to 60 miles per hour… well, you get lots of time to collect data. And, frankly, they are a bear to shoot down. We got lucky on this one.

Third, you are not just taking pictures from up there. These collection units are big, about the size of a bus. Any number of sensor packages can be part of the array collecting and passing back information. They sniff the air for chemical traces. Scan the ground with various spectral type radars to see what’s below, picking out our mobile communications sites — maybe even sizing up some farmland for purchase by Beijing. It’s a supermarket of information.

Fourth — and this one is for the budgeteers — these things aren’t all that expensive. Price a satellite and a launch vehicle some time: NASA space shuttles used to be $60 million a ton. Space X became a bargain at around $2.4 million a ton. How many helium-filled balloons can you buy for that?

Rabbit season v. duck season

And, of course, in this most political time, shooting down the balloon has become a macho contest of who can be tougher and when.

The fact is these balloons and attached instruments weigh tons. They are also toxic little suckers, filled with all kinds of chemicals to keep them from freezing, steer them around, etc. And when things fall from 90,000 feet, it’s not like a cartoon splat. You get a debris field, sometimes for miles. Objects augur into the ground. Houses and people can get hit. That takes a long time to re-assemble. Think Pan Am 103 at Lockerbie, Scotland

So, popping the balloon over the ocean was likely the best solution possible. Sadly, the experience of the 1986 Challenger space shuttle explosion showed that an ocean recovery allows you to contain the site better and collect the debris with less damage.

What goes up…

There will, of course, be Congressional hearings and military reviews and op-eds (like mine) galore — you know, enough hot air to fill hundreds of balloons. To what avail? I’m not sure.

The obvious news is we are in a conflict with China. They spy on us. And we spy on them. Spies spy. And they use whatever means they can, as will we.

So, everyone, take a deep breath. There is more spying to come. 

But a warning — just because it is the third decade of the 21st century does not mean the old ways of spying are gone.  Sometimes, the old ways are the best.

Ronald A. Marks is a former CIA officer who served as Senate liaison for five CIA Directors and intelligence counsel to two Senate Majority Leaders. He currently is a non-resident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center at The Atlantic Council and visiting professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

Tags China China spy balloon Chinese spy balloon government spying high altitude balloon Information Satellites Spy balloon spy satellite spy technology spying Surveillance Technology

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