Threat Inflation: What We’re Getting Wrong about the Spy Balloon

While the incident raises important issues, much of the related discussion has been misdirected.

February 16, 2023
US Navy sailors recover debris of the Chinese balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, February 5, 2023. (US Navy via REUTERS)

The shooting down of an alleged Chinese spy balloon by an American F-22 Raptor on February 4 brought to an end one of the silliest episodes in modern international espionage history — or did it?

The balloon may be gone, but many questions remain about what, exactly, it was doing and if an apparent spy balloon campaign represents a new threat to the West. Unfortunately, while the entire incident raises important issues, much of the discussion about its implications has been misdirected.

Let’s start with the most obvious issue: Given China’s sophisticated intelligence-gathering capabilities, the use of balloons is somewhat baffling. Some reporting suggests that there may be some advantages to “near space” intelligence collection covering low-altitude and surface targets. Unlike satellites that are constantly in motion, balloons can hover over an area, such as a military facility. This, in theory, could provide useful information that could fill gaps in China’s espionage. Even if it is true that the balloon is civilian, as China claims, this would not preclude espionage; China has been accused of using scientific research (such as its Arctic icebreakers) for intelligence gathering. However, the fact that the United States seems to have determined quickly that the balloon did not represent a serious national security risk suggests any collection was likely minimal.

Nevertheless, the balloon’s trip over North America, and three other floating objects also shot down, has created something of a spy panic. In Canada, law makers have questioned why they did not know about the craft until after it left Canadian airspace. More dramatically, former US House Speaker Newt Gingrich opined that the event “could be trial runs for low visibility deliver of devastating EMP [electromagnetic pulse] weapons.” Another Republican representative suggested the balloon could carry biological weapons. These claims are hyperbolic nonsense. Given the difficulty of deploying such complex systems, balloons seem ill-suited for trans-Pacific, near-space weapon functions.

Therefore, the spy balloon (which may be a part of a “broader suite of operations”) has once again raised the problem of espionage in the West — even as the discussion around it distorts the actual challenges Western governments presently face with China: a relentless campaign of cyber espionage and the challenge of managing tensions in an era of burgeoning great-power rivalry.

It’s important to put these challenges into perspective. Whatever intelligence spy balloons may gather, it’s almost certainly a fraction of what China can collect from its cyber espionage program, human intelligence networks and satellites. These espionage programs are pervasive and almost certainly far more damaging to Western economies and national security.

For example, the 2015 US Office of Personnel Management data breach compromised the highly detailed files of 22.1 million people, including government employees, individuals who underwent a security screening, and their friends and family. Federal Bureau of Investigation and UK Security Service officials argue that the Chinese government’s targeting of the private sector poses the biggest long-term threat to the United States’ and United Kingdom’s economic and national security. In November 2022, Canadian authorities arrested an employee of the country’s largest power company on espionage charges, allegedly spying for China.

A second long-term challenge highlighted by the spy balloon is how the West will be able to manage its relations with China as Washington, and increasingly its allies, focus on the Indo-Pacific. While the balloon panic is unhelpful, China’s choice to use a highly visible intelligence-collection device over the United States does raise serious questions. Either it was the result of a decision to send a very deliberate, bold and blatant message about its capabilities and intentions, or it was a serious error in judgment. Wherever the truth lies, none of this bodes well as an indicator of how China considers its relations with the wider world.

Perhaps most disturbingly, reports indicate that during the most recent series of balloon incidents, Pentagon officials were unable to reach their Chinese counterparts shortly after the balloon was shot down.

It would not be the first time Beijing refused to take such calls following international tensions, but given the furor over the incident, this raises key questions as to whether there would be clear lines of communication between the two countries in the event of a crisis. Such communication agreements were part of the bedrock of managing Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union in the twentieth century. While we live in very different times, it’s still essential that top officials speak to each other to prevent catastrophe.

Therefore, to burst the balloon, bursting the balloon may be the beginning rather than the end of managing the challenges ahead.

This article first appeared in Newsweek.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Author

Stephanie Carvin is an associate professor of international relations at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University. From 2012 to 2015, she was a national security analyst with the Government of Canada.