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Roses are red, and so are balloons…except when they are not!

By Phil Briscoe
14 February 2023

By Phil Briscoe

If you see something streak across the sky this Valentine’s Day, don’t expect it to be an arrow from Cupid’s bow. It is more likely to be a missile from an F-16 fighter jet locked on target to take out a balloon...

Almost 40 years since Nena topped the charts with the anti-war song 99 Red Balloons, our news is now dominated by a story previously only imagined in her lyrics and quite clearly “There’s something here from somewhere else.”  Putting the colour of the balloons aside, the song tells the story of balloons that are identified as UFOs before competing fighter jets take to the sky and it escalates to full-scale conflict with cities reduced to ashes.

Back to modern reality, military experts have taken to the airwaves to insist that nothing is ruled out with these UFOs, including (in another light-hearted reference back to the early 80s) extra-terrestrial contact. However, the diplomatic language has been focused on an origin much closer to home with US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, cancelling a planned trip to China, accusing them of “unacceptable and irresponsible” behaviour.

As the first balloon is recovered from the sea and the US military start to examine the “sensors”, we are left to ask why this has suddenly happened in 2023.

Weather balloons are not new and have been used around the globe for about 130 years. Estimates vary, but it is likely that between 1,500 and 2,000 balloons are launched every day from all over the world and can reach an altitude of around 25 miles. China claimed the first balloon sighted this week was such a weather balloon that had blown off course.

Although the US authorities cite previous incidents of balloons flying over the country, they have now changed the way in which they interpret radar and sensor data, which has resulted in reclassifying them as surveillance balloons – or to quote Nena again, “Back at base, sparks in the software.”  White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan added “We enhanced our capacity to be able to detect things that the Trump administration was unable to detect.” As a result, we don’t really know whether this is a new strategy on the part of China, assuming they are surveillance rather than weather balloons, or if it has been going on largely undetected for many years. Either way, it was clear this week that “The President is on the line.”

Territorial airspace is easily defined at ground level where the 12 nautical mile buffer of territorial waters falls under sovereign airspace. However, the upper limits are not completely settled by international law. In practice, this is generally the maximum operating height of commercial and military aircraft which has recently been defined as the 60,000 feet (18,000 metres) flying altitude of Concorde. The Montana balloon was spotted at 60,000 feet, so at what point was it in international airspace and at what point was it in US airspace.

China has hit back by accusing the US of illegally flying balloons over other countries, including more than 10 in Chinese airspace last year.  This has been denied by Washington, although the looming argument will be around the definition of Chinese airspace. The US regularly undertakes aerial surveillance around the Pacific region, including in areas that China claims as its own, in Filipino and Malaysian waters, as well of course as Taiwan. The almost inevitable next step now is that when China shoots down a surveillance aircraft around Taiwan, they will compare it to the events of the last week.

So, to use the First World War language that warned of a shelling attack, has the balloon now gone up? 

Despite the stern words between Washington and Beijing, and efforts to restrict trade in key areas such as semiconductors and chips, the fact is that the volume of trade between the two nations is at a record level, hitting $690 billion in 2022. Yes, additional legislation will follow, and more measures will be introduced to try to ensure that the Chinese military machine does not benefit from American technology or investment dollars, but this is not yet quite the new cold war that some politicians describe. Speculation that the Chinese monitoring balloons might well contain American technology would also be an embarrassment - if we were ever to find out the truth of course – and a reminder of how close the two economies are interconnected.

Some would say that the balloons are just the latest proxy for disagreement between the two nations. Last month it was TikTok being banned across Washington because of security concerns and links to China, and rest assured there will be other avenues for similar disagreements to follow. 

Back in this country, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has confirmed that Typhoon military jets are on standby, and he will do “whatever it takes” to keep the country safe from the threat of balloons. As you enjoy a half term trip to the theme park with the kids, spare a thought for that Peppa Pig balloon when it inevitably breaks free from little fingers to head to a stratosphere increasingly congested with diplomatic wrangles. As Nena sang, think of that and “..let it go.”