Opinion

Spy balloons further roil the international environment

In the satire "Don't Look Up", a Leonardo DiCaprio obsessed with saving people from the threat of a comet colliding with the earth, tries to capture the attention of people who are more concerned with their mobile devices and gossiping on social networks. People are not looking up at the sky.

Those who do are the US national security and defence officials who have found a huge balloon wandering lost in the stratosphere, one of the layers of the atmosphere where commercial aircraft do not fly, but instead fly in the troposphere at a lower altitude.

On 2 February, the Pentagon detected a balloon flying over the state of Montana and, through satellite imagery, verified that it had been drifting on air currents for days and would have passed over the Aleutian Islands (Alaska) and then across Canada. 

US military intelligence officials indicated that it was a balloon made in China and then called it a "spy balloon" and Beijing protested that it was not a spy balloon, but rather a scientific and atmospheric collection balloon.  The Chinese government also acknowledged that there was a second balloon "swept by the winds" touring Latin America. 

On 3 February, the White House, in protest, decided to cancel at the last minute the official trip planned by Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, for 5 February. Since 2018, no US Secretary of State has set foot on Chinese soil, and it was expected to be a preparatory visit for a meeting between President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. 

Also on Blinken's agenda was the search for a framework agreement to continue pressuring Russia to lay down its arms, withdraw troops from Ukraine and bring Putin to a dialogue and negotiation table sponsored and pressured by China itself. 

Not only was the trip cancelled, but China sent a diplomatic note complaining about the espionage allegations, and to add fuel to the fire, Biden himself ordered several F-22 Raptor fighters to take off to shoot down the balloon with an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile.

"China expresses its strong displeasure and protests against the use of force by the United States to attack an unmanned civilian aircraft. It was a clearly disproportionate reaction in grave violation of international practices," according to a statement issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

Lloyd Austin, head of the Pentagon, argued that his country has every right to protect itself and the security of its territory and its citizens.

"We took a deliberate and legal decision in response to China's unacceptable violation of our sovereignty, and it is unacceptable from any point of view," said the US Defence Minister. 

In recent days, the US has been paying special attention to its airspace, redoubling its efforts to monitor it and has even located several unidentified flying objects that, at the time, the US press speculated might be UFOs

The words of Glen VanHerck, commander-in-chief of the Norad Defence Squadron, pointing to the "extraterrestrial" origin of the unidentified flying objects - a total of three - flying over the United States, Alaska and Canada, sparked a flurry of speculation, to such an extent that White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre herself denied their alien origin.

To date, there has been no explanation for the unidentified flying objects detected by the US radar system, which is more sensitive than ever to identify anything that moves within its security zone, as a consequence of the irruption of the Chinese-origin balloon at the beginning of February.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio has called for more "aggressive" surveillance of US airspace, both in terms of detection and interception measures.

"I'm sure this has been going on for years and we see how in the last 72 hours several unidentified aircraft have been operating over the restricted airspace of the United States; only this time we've seen them on radar," the Republican lawmaker said. 

At the same time, Biden tried to calm the furore over Chinese aerial espionage by assuring that the latest downed objects were not linked to Beijing and affirmed that he would talk to Xi Jinping about it

"We still don't know exactly what these three objects were, but nothing at this point suggests that they were related to China's spy balloon programme or that they were surveillance vehicles from any other country," he said.

For sure, amid growing global tensions between the two powers, China and the US, and with issues as stark as Russia's invasion of Ukraine, it is unclear whether this is also part of the new narrative in the current tensions and whether there is a deliberate provocation to confront the two nations. How much spying is involved with these balloons? It would be very obvious espionage, almost an obsolete practice, in the age of digital age and operating satellites that spy more covertly. 

But Ukraine has also reported sightings of several balloons over its territory: "It is likely that the balloons were Russian. We believe it is a new Russian intelligence-gathering tactic to obtain data on Ukrainian air defence systems; and also a way to force us to spend valuable air missiles and ammunition," acknowledged the Ukrainian Defence Ministry.

Days later, China reported that "an unidentified flying object" had been detected over Shandong province, near the Bohai Sea, according to the Qingdao Marine Development Bureau.

It is indeed a very sensitive time to be raising hell about flying objects of strange provenance, the balloon sensitivities have the Second World War as a reference point.

It is perhaps one of the least known attacks against the United States and was perpetrated by Japan, almost at the end of the Second World War: it was an operation carried out with 6,000 hydrogen balloons with explosive and incendiary charges (10 metres in diameter and 20 metres high) under the FU-GO operation with the intention of dropping and exploding over American territory; mainly over the most wooded western part with the aim of unleashing incessant fires. 

As a result of one explosion, a total of six US civilians lost their lives and according to the Pentagon, less than 10% of the balloons entered US territory. The operation was considered a failure for a Japan already defeated by atomic bombs

For example, Andrew Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies believes that it was a weather balloon carried by the winds, while maintaining that China has other instruments for gathering military intelligence.     

Ra√ļl Gonz√°lez, a Spanish military expert from IDITESDE, believes that there is also a simplistic narrative that is repeated over and over again for convenience, as was used against Iraq

"There is a narrative in the films and it is always the same arguments of good and evil to convince people; and often there is disinformation or even saturation of that information... whether they are weather balloons or spy balloons, here the balloons do not serve only one purpose but several purposes. The question is why now at a particular moment in history attention is being paid to this. There are many interests here to misinform and manipulate public opinion," Colonel Gonz√°lez pointed out. 

Whether it is to stir up confusion, to further inflame the international atmosphere or even to further tighten the noose of disagreements in Washington and Beijing, what is certain is that these provocative manoeuvres are part of a war strategy from which we do not seem to be free in the short term.