If there’s one thing that the past two weeks have taught us, it’s that the skies above us are a lot more crowded than we might suppose.
U.S. fighter jets, over that period have shot down, in rapid succession, one balloon and three other unidentified objects over North American airspace. The first of those was one the Chinese claimed was a wayward weather observation balloon, but which the U.S. said was being used for intelligence-gathering purposes.
The three remaining takedowns — over Lake Huron, over central Yukon and off the north coast of Alaska — have yet-to-be-determined origins. The Pentagon said objects like the initial balloon — high-altitude, slow moving and with a small radar cross-section — were difficult for NORAD’s radar to track. When those parameters were adjusted, NORAD began to find other unaccounted-for objects.
But at any given time, there are thousands of balloons floating overhead, used by scientists, hobbyists, commercial ventures, government agencies and — yes — intelligence services. The U.S. National Weather Service reportedly launches some 60,000 balloons every year, though those are designed to travel up into the stratosphere, some 30 kilometres up.
What else is up there looking down at us? The balloons, and any possible espionage associated with them, are only one layer of the aerial intelligence network of the world’s military powers.
Satellites — the view from orbit
From the furthest earth orbit, right down to near ground level, the world’s intelligence agencies use satellites, high altitude spy planes, reconnaissance aircraft, balloons and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) — drones — to collect images and electronic signals to build up a picture of what their enemies and allies are up to.
At the highest level, a dense cloud of satellites swarms the orbits of the planet, like a horde of angry bees. Many of those are commercial satellites, there to aid in telecommunications, global positioning systems, scientific studies and the like.
But each military power also has hundreds of satellites in orbit which can be used to spy on friends and foes alike. These are capable of much higher resolution than the satellite images you might see on Google Earth.
“There’s a whole series of satellites that are attached to the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which is basically our satellite running office for the United States military and spy communities as well. And they can read your license plate from space, they can look at your face,” said Rob Sanders, a national security lecturer at the University of New Haven and a retired U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG Corps) captain.
Not only is the resolution of some of those satellites eye-opening, but the sheer numbers of satellites up there are also staggering.
The Union of Concerned Scientists maintains a database of 5,465 satellites currently orbiting the earth.
It puts the number of U.S. satellites at 3,433, those from China at 541 and Russian satellites at 172. The U.K. slots in between China and Russia with 483 satellites.
The majority of those are commercial satellites. But when the list is filtered down to military satellites, the numbers are still remarkable.
The U.S. has 237 military satellites, of which 70 are operated by NRO. Almost half of China’s satellites — 238 — are military ones. And of Russia’s 172 satellites, 105 are operated either by its Ministry of Defense, or its Military Space Forces.
And experts say it’s safe to assume there are multiple spy satellites from all military nations that are not listed in that database.
The upshot of all that is that almost anything that goes on in open ground on almost every square inch of the earth can be seen in high-resolution by surveillance satellites.
Each military power is aware of the others’ satellites. Each tracks them and each takes precautions — like covering up or disguising sensitive equipment or resources — when they know an unfriendly satellite is about to pass overhead.
“I’ve lived in a barracks building in a country I won’t name that didn’t look like a barracks building. It looked like a storage warehouse in an industrial site,” said Sanders. “But there were hundreds of soldiers living in there.”
The data collected by those satellites can be collated, analyzed and used to anticipate enemy actions.
As an example, said Sanders, U.S. analysts would have been able to discern the imminent invasion of Ukraine by Russia not just by the movement of troops and equipment near the border — which Russia put down to a training exercise — but by the nature of other logistical movements as well.
The amount of fuel being moved, the stores of food being built up, the number and placement of medical units along the border all paint a picture for analysts as to whether they are seeing a training exercise or an invasion.
There are stories — perhaps apocryphal — of U.S. analysts examining reconnaissance photos of Cuba in the ‘60s and deducing the imminent arrival of Soviet forces based on the presence of soccer fields and the absence of baseball fields at newly-constructed facilities.
“Cubans play baseball. Russians play soccer,” Henry Kissinger is reported to have said.
As well, said Sanders, military satellites can hoover up SIGINT — signal intelligence — by intercepting data transmission, both from the ground to orbit, and between communications satellites in orbit.
But spy satellites have some downsides. For most spy satellites, you can only look at a particular spot at a particular time for a particular amount of time, as most observe just a portion of the earth at a time as it rotates below them.
When you need to observe something specific on your own schedule, you send a reconnaissance plane.
The granddaddy of these in the U.S. fleet is the U-2. It’s been flying reconnaissance missions since the Cold War, flying over the Soviet Union to spy on its military activity and even — it is rumoured — to see what was making the headlines of Russian newspapers.
It operates at extremely high altitudes, up to 70,000 feet, where the air is too thin for most planes and the curvature of the Earth becomes visible.
In 1960, that meant that, to the U.S., the U-2 was undetectable by the Russians and out of range of its surface-to-air missiles.
Until it wasn’t. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.
On May 1 of that year, a Russian missile took down a U.S. U-2 over Soviet territory. The Americans, knowing only that the plane had not returned from its mission, issued a statement: A weather plane had gone missing during a flight over Turkey, said then-President Dwight Eisenhower’s White House.
But the U-2’s pilot, Francis Powers, had survived the shootdown and been captured by the Soviets. Then-Premier Nikita Khrushchev revealed that he had Powers in custody and angrily denounced the U.S. at a long-planned summit meeting in Paris.
An embarrassed Eisenhower suspended reconnaissance flights over Russia and cancelled a planned high-stakes visit to Moscow, where he might have been able to broker an arms-control treaty. Tensions between the two Cold War rivals ratcheted up another notch.
Operating at lower altitudes — in the 30,000 foot range — and tailored toward electronic surveillance are aircraft like the E-3 Sentry, a reconnaissance and command plane in use by the U.S., the U.K., NATO, France and Chile. Its primary characteristic is the large disc mounted on the body of, initially, a Boeing 707. That disc, called a rotodome, provides the E-3 with surveillance radar, command and communications abilities and electronic surveillance abilities, with which it can intercept and monitor data transmissions.
Balloons — low-tech espionage (sort of)
As high tech as something like the E-3 is, there’s still something to be said for going low-tech, said Arne Kislenko, professor of History and International Relations at the University of Toronto.
Compared to satellites and planes, balloons are relatively inexpensive and being slow-moving, can linger over a site for observations. That and the difficulty of spotting them on radar — at least on this most recent occasion — means there is still some use for low-tech spy platforms.
Aside from potential surveillance on sites of interest, a relatively non-threatening platform like a balloon can teach an observer a lot about its adversary, said Kislenko.
“It potentially identifies a lot as an asset for spying. It can take pictures and all of that sort of stuff. But it serves a second purpose: as a passive probe, which means to gauge the response of the enemy,” he said.
“If it takes a long time for the enemy to detect you, or to scramble and deal with it, then it’s kind of indicative of what they’ve got in terms of defence systems.”
That, he said, is a holdover from the Cold War, when such probes were part and parcel of each side’s modus operandi.
What’s interesting, he said, is the possibility that the reason the three later objects shot down by the U.S. were undetected prior to NORAD’s adjustment of its radar parameters, is that they were unexpected; old-fashioned and low-tech enough that NORAD wasn’t really looking for them — the aerial equivalent of writing an invisible note with lemon juice.
But that’s not a whole scale failure of U.S. intelligence, merely a matter of recalibration, he said, something U.S. intelligence agencies are unquestionably scrambling to do immediately.
There’s a third payoff from a probe like the Chinese balloon, said Kislenko, and that is that it causes some public panic, or at the very least, discourse.
“You’ve seen that over the last week with everybody asking questions, ‘Are we safe? What defence systems do we have?’ It even gets defence officials to start to wonder whether they’re at the top of their game.”
Sometimes, in espionage, he said, revealing the spy is part of the spy operation.
The drones — unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)
As far as reconnaissance platforms go, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) — popularly known as drones — cover all the bases other than the orbital ones. They range in size from behemoths like the RQ-4 Global Hawk, a 15-metre, high altitude, long-range drone operated by a team of three, to the RQ-11 Raven, which is hand-launched by a single person and operates close to the ground.
Although they’re considerably more expensive than balloons, they’re less so than satellites and reconnaissance planes, and they don’t run the risk of putting pilots in danger. And they can be outfitted with various surveillance packages to capture imagery or electronic signals. Some, like the Predator, can be outfitted with weapons as well.
All military powers have the same platforms: satellites, spy planes, balloons and drones and perhaps a few others that remain classified. But it’s the technological sophistication of the data-gathering instruments — the sensors — that separates the powers from each other and that, said Kislenko, is why that technology, even more so than the platforms, remains highly classified.
It also explains China’s strident objections to its balloon being shot down and retrieved from the Atlantic Ocean by the U.S. Whatever surveillance package was on board that balloon, meteorological or otherwise, will be reverse-engineered and will teach U.S. analysts something about Chinese capabilities. The same is true of the three other objects shot down in the last week, and their owners.
But for Kislenko, the more pressing question is not what, but who?
“Aerial reconnaissance has always been top secret and it’s always been cutting edge. It’s kind of where you put a lot of your acumen into — your technological and fiscal acumen,” he said.
“(But) I’m more interested not in the actual thing, but who’s doing it and why? Is it the Chinese? The first one looks to be the case. But you can’t discount that the other ones are technology from somewhere else. And your list of candidates is growing.
“It could be the Russians, messing with your public opinion because of the war in Ukraine. It could be North Korea for all we know.”
JOIN THE CONVERSATION