As It Happens·As It Happens Q&A

'They're telling us: We're watching,' military analyst says of suspected Chinese spy balloon

In a world with drones, planes and satellites, why would a government use a balloon for surveillance? The old-fashioned spy technology still has plenty of advantages, says military analyst Cedric Leighton, retired U.S. Air Force intelligence officer.

China says a weather research airship blew off course, but U.S. and Canada are wary

A balloon flies at high altitude.
A high-altitude balloon floats over Billings, Mont., on Wednesday. The U.S. is tracking the suspected Chinese surveillance device. (Larry Mayer/The Billings Gazette/The Associated Press)

In a world with drones, planes and satellites, why would a government use a balloon for surveillance?

The old-fashioned spy technology still has plenty of advantages, says military analyst Cedric Leighton, retired U.S. Air Force intelligence officer. 

Whether the Chinese balloon spotted floating over North American airspace on Friday is, in fact, a tool for intelligence gathering is not clear. China's foreign ministry says it's a civilian airship used for weather research that was blown off course.

Leighton, founder of Cedric Leighton Associates, says it could, in fact, be both. But whatever it is, its presence is only going to increase tensions with China. 

Here is part of Leighton's conversation with As It Happens host Nil Köksal. 

Can you just give [us] a sense of the size and scale of this spy balloon that's in the air?

It's about the size of three regular-sized city buses. And now as far as its weight, we don't really know exactly. But there seems to be a payload on board, which indicates that there are some elements of concern if it were to be shot down or if it were, for some reason, to fall out of the sky. So there are some probably significant instruments associated with it.

It is a manoeuvrable balloon. So it's not just subject to the vagaries of the jetstream or other winds. The possibility exists that it can be used for some pretty significant surveillance capabilities.

I wanted to ask what kind of sites — sensitive sites, as it's been reported — this balloon is floating above?

We know about it being in Montana. And, of course, before that, it was in Canada. And we don't have much detail on exactly where it flew in Canada, but there were several military bases in both the United States and Canada that it could have flown either over or near.

Plus, in the United States, you have the missile installations — the ICBM, or intercontinental ballistic missile sites, that are in Montana and in North Dakota. Those areas could very well have been overflown by this balloon, and they would certainly be of interest to the Chinese.

Plus, the bomber bases that the U.S. maintains in these areas on the northern tier of the United States, that becomes another area that intelligence specialists would be looking at, especially Chinese intelligence specialists.

Editor's Note: Canada's Department of National Defence has not confirmed whether the surveillance balloon flew over Canadian airspace, and Defence Minister Anita Anand's office declined to comment.

WATCH | Reaction to high-altitude Chinese balloon over U.S.:

Eyewitness, expert react to suspected spy balloon spotted over U.S.

2 months ago
Duration 1:36
Defence expert John Parachini calls the reports of a suspected Chinese spy balloon over U.S. airspace 'untimely' ahead of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken's upcoming trip to Beijing.

China, though, already has sophisticated spy satellites looking down over the United States. Why would they want to send this kind of device?

Right now, we believe the altitude of this balloon is somewhere around 60,000 feet. That's above commercial air traffic. It is also, of course, significantly below what spy satellites would be flying at.

What that indicates is that it has … potentially greater loiter time over a target area. And since it's manoeuvrable, it could be used to gather signals that might be difficult for a satellite to gather.

If it has imagery capabilities on it, then because it's closer to a particular area, depending on the resolution of the camera, it's possible that it could do a better job picking up certain things as compared to a satellite.

You mentioned the dangers of shooting it down. And I believe U.S. President Joe Biden has said that that is not what's going to happen. But what can they do?

They can make sure that they're not doing anything that a surveillance balloon of this type could potentially pick up. They would want to minimize their radio traffic. They would want to minimize their cellphone communications, and keep them to basically inane everyday conversations as opposed to important official conversations.

In the physical realm, you know, it could mean doing everything such as concealing certain things that we don't want the Chinese to see. Like, for example, if they are passing over an airbase and there are bombers on the ground at one of the landing strips there, cover them up or move them. 

WATCH | Pentagon calls it a 'surveillance balloon': 

'This is a surveillance balloon': Pentagon official

2 months ago
Duration 0:46
Pentagon Press Secretary Brig.-Gen. Pat Ryder says 'very close assessment' confirms the object spotted over sensitive military sites in Montana is a Chinese surveillance balloon.

You mentioned it's manoeuvrable. Just describe that for me. It's remote controlled?

Our understanding is that it is remote-controlled to a degree. So it can be moved. For example, it could take the jet stream to come over Canada and the United States. But then within that particular … bandwidth, if you will, of winds … it could be steered to a certain location.

There is probably a remote operator somewhere in China moving this balloon to get a better look at certain areas that they're interested in. That's at least the theory. Whether it's that sophisticated or not, we don't yet know. But that's certainly a possibility.

How common is the use of spy balloons like this?

We've been told officially and publicly that this has happened at least twice, supposedly affecting overseas areas such as Guam and not so much the continental United States.

Now, in years past, balloons were very common. In fact, before the advent of the airplane in the American Civil War, it was all about balloons when it came to aerial observation. But in the modern age, countries have really relied on satellites. Airplane aerial reconnaissance is basically taking the place of the balloon in many cases.

A gray-haired man smiles.
Cedric Leighton is a military analyst and retired U.S. Air Force intelligence officer. (Submitted by Cedric Leighton )

The Chinese government is saying today that this balloon was for civilian research and that it just went off course. What do you think is really happening here?

The Chinese could be right. It's theoretically possible that that was the case. 

However, if past practice is any guide to what they're doing, the United States is certainly convinced at an official level that this is actually a surveillance platform for the Chinese. So they're not buying the idea that this is just a weather balloon.

It could be both, because the altitude that it flies … is in the stratosphere. So that is the normal altitude for weather balloons to take.

But they would have notified the U.S. that they were entering their airspace. And surely China knows that they're going to notice this, right? So what's the end game here beyond just potentially collecting surveillance?

They're telling us: We're watching.

I would say that in terms of the endgame for this specific situation, I think what we're looking at here is a lot of diplomatic back and forth. The secretary of state of the United States, Secretary [Antony] Blinken, has cancelled his trip, or at least postponed his trip, to Beijing that he was going to take in the next few days.

It seems that, you know, this is just another element in the increasing tensions between the United States and the People's Republic of China — tensions which started in recent times with Taiwan and the situation there and the possibility of a Chinese invasion over Taiwan.

It could also indicate what the Chinese are willing to do in order to gather information and to, in essence, prepare the battlespace for a future conflict between themselves and the United States, or the United States and Canada.

Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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