How the West May Have Helped Build China’s Spy Balloons
Beijing has long pursued aerostat technology, even enlisting French and American firms to help.
China’s high-altitude spy balloons took Western politicians and publics by surprise, but they really shouldn’t have. Chinese strategists and industry have worked for more than a decade on 21st-century applications of the 18th-century invention—with some assistance from the West.
Aerostats—the word encompasses powered airships (“blimps”) as well as unpowered balloons—have long been associated with military applications, particularly information-gathering activities. They hold numerous advantages in persistence and cost, and thus many of the Chinese organizations that produce them are directly funded by China’s military industry.
China’s interest in aerostats dates at least to the Mao era. Their modern applications have been noted as far back as 2010, when the National Air and Space Intelligence Center reported that China considered aerostats desirable for their large surveillance area between 1,000 and 2,000 km, low radar profile, ability to persistently loiter above desirable locations, and for their relatively inexpensive operating costs.
Two years later, a seminal conference further illuminated Beijing’s visions for aerostat development. The event was held at China’s Northwestern Polytechnical University, one of China’s “Seven Sons of National Defense” with extensive ties to the PLA and defense industry. It drew a wide range of participants, including Beihang University (another one of the Seven Sons, and the home of an aerostat company recently sanctioned by the Biden administration), the Chinese Aeronautical Society, and the PLA Air Force Equipment Research Institute.
The main theme of the conference was “innovation, development, exchange, and cooperation” with the clearly military goal of deploying aerostats for “early warning, command and communication, and anti-submarine activities.” The conference was particularly interested in topics such as how to increase aerostat payloads, improve energy efficiency, and aerodynamics. It also encouraged participants to track aerostat developments internationally.
In 2020, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission concluded that the PLA envisions an overlapping network of satellites and near-space aerostats to provide redundant and persistent intelligence and targeting capabilities. The value of that persistence is illustrated by not just the balloons crossing over U.S. and other nations’ skies, but by China’s own aerostat makers. For example, the China Electronics Technology Group Corporation claims that one of its model aerostat systems can stay aloft for two weeks, while the Aerospace Information Research Institute, claims its Jimu-1 can operate for months some 20 kilometers up in the air.
Well before last week’s incursions and shootdowns of balloons in North American airspace, China had deployed multiple aerostats to its South China Sea installations in disputed territories. One was reportedly spotted at a Chinese base in Mischief Reef in 2019, and another was seen near the Philippines last year. These aerostats, believed to be solar-powered, float between 7 and 20 km above the Earth. In Chinese airspace, aerostats have been observed in Shandong, Tibet, and Xinjiang, all regions close to sensitive borders or territorial claims.
China’s long work in this space underlines not just the tactical challenges posed by aerostats, but the strategic ones posed by a nation that is a massive market. Soon after the incursions went public, the Biden administration blacklisted six Chinese organizations involved in aerostat development. However, U.S. and European businesses have also played a role in advancing China’s aerostat industry going back for almost a decade.
In 2015, the French company Flying Whales, which makes heavy-lift airships, sent leaders to sign a strategic cooperation agreement with China’s Special Vehicle Research Institute. One of the first Chinese organizations to develop aerostats and stratospheric airships for intelligence collection, SVRI is among the Chinese military’s premier aerostat suppliers. It is also nestled several tiers down in the massive defense conglomerate Aviation Industry Corporation of China, where it is known as AVIC’s 605th Research Institute.
SVRI's PLA links are hardly a secret. In a 2018 work meeting, SVRI Director Zhang Mingwen emphasized SVRI’s mission was to “strengthen the military and enrich the people,” and said that SVRI would serve the needs of China’s “military construction.” The company also employs multiple people who participate in China’s “511 Talent Project” for national defense engineering and collection. But while AVIC is on the U.S. government entity list for export control, SVRI and its immediate parent company are not.
Flying Whale’s agreement called for jointly carrying out “research, development, and production” to “improve the development and production capabilities of the aerostats of both parties.” A follow-up report by SVRI in 2016 envisioned the joint development of an airship that could haul a 60-ton payload—far larger and heavier than the 1-ton payload of the spy balloon that is making recent news. In 2018, SVRI’s parent company sent a team to France to learn about such heavy-lift aerostats.
This example of a Western aerostat company cooperating with PLA-linked organizations is, however, not unique. In 2018, the Texas-based company Nanoracks signed a partnership agreement with the China's Kuang-Chi Science company to produce the Traveler series of near-space balloons. In the words of Nanoracks, the Traveler balloon would have various uses “from ecological and terrestrial observation to satellite deployment and space research.”
Here too, the Chinese government’s military-civil fusion strategy connects such partners to Chinese military priorities (making it crucial for outside firms in China to better understand this strategy and these links). Although Kuang-Chi is technically a private company, it has reportedly received funding from the Chinese government’s military-civil fusion programs. And in 2015, Kuang-Chi signed a strategic cooperation agreement with the 7801 Research Institute, which is part of the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation. Known as CASIC, the giant military aerospace conglomerate is China’s largest producer of missiles. Soon after, Kuang-Chi joined CASIC’s Aerostat Industrialization Project in Hunan to produce “self-controlled airships, tethered aerostats, and near-space aerostats.” In 2020, the U.S. sanctioned CASIC for its role in China’s military space and missile programs.
China’s extensive work in aerostats, which led to the recent incidents in U.S. airspace, reveals two larger aspects of the larger competition that is reshaping global security. The first is the importance placed on long-term strategy and investments that bear fruit often decades later. The second is how fields that seem innocent enough can be developed to provide technologies for the Chinese military, and eventually used against the very same countries that nurtured China’s industry in the first place.
Thomas Corbett is a research analyst with BluePath Labs. His areas of focus include Chinese foreign relations, emerging technology, and international economics.
P.W. Singer is Strategist at New America and the author of multiple books on technology and security.
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