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C3S Ask The Expert #01: The Military and Commercial Capabilities of China's Spy Balloon Programme

Image Courtesy: Finanacial Times

Ask the Expert: #01/2023

Q: What are the Military and Commercial Capabilities of China's Spy Balloon Programme?

- Shri B. S Raghavan IAS (Retd.), Chief Patron, C3S

Replied by: Mr. Balasubramanian C, Senior Research Officer, C3S

Answer: The Chinese balloon that was shot down by the United States on February 4th, 2023, has brought the capabilities of China's Airship and balloon programs into focus. The twin advantage of these platforms stems from their capacity to operate at stratospheric levels while being low in cost.


By filling the capability gap between aircraft and satellites, stratospheric balloon platforms and airships offer critical advantages for a wide range of missions, including communications, data relay, surveillance, intelligence, and near-space applications.

Dual-use Capability:

These Chinese platforms have a dual-use capability. For instance, in civilian purposes, they can be used for meteorological research. However, they can also be used as a surveillance tool to collect signals intelligence and other information about a country's military operations and capabilities.

Commercial and Military Applications:

1. Situational Awareness and ISR - The ability to stay effective in a theater and provide a precise, effective, and total situational awareness solution through advanced signal processing and persistent surveillance with radar systems and stratospheric platforms. This provides dynamic intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions spanning land, sea, and air.

2. Communications - Ensuring communications and operational awareness, enhancing long-range communications using link nodes in a network, extending sensor ranges, and providing wireless internet access in harsh and austere environments.

3. Defense and Security - These platforms offer long-duration, reliable, cost-effective solutions for critical infrastructure protection and a variety of security missions. These include Border Management and Control, Counter-Terrorism, Counter-Smuggling, Trafficking, and Illegal Immigration, Maritime, and Port Security, Marine Environmental Protection (MEP), and Response and Recovery for Natural Disasters and Emergencies.

4. Scientific Research - Monitoring Atmospheric Conditions; Satellite Missions (cost-effective, independent means of getting a payload to the edge of space); Astronomical Observation; Geological and Maritime Studies.

In conclusion, the crucial factor in determining whether an Airship or Balloon is intended for commercial or military purposes is not the platform itself, but rather the type of payload it carries.

Date: 27/02/2023

(The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the views of C3S)

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