• 02 March, 2024
Geopolitics & National Security
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The Battle of Balloon and Missing Stanislav Petrov

Cdr Sandeep Dhawan (Retd) Wed, 08 Feb 2023   |  Reading Time: 5 minutes

At the height of cold-war, on September 26, 1983, Soviet Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov was on duty monitoring the early-warning system codenamed Oko, or Eye. Its function was to detect the launch of an American nuclear attack. Its command centre was in Moscow inside a massive bunker beneath the secret city called Serpukhov-15.

The United States and the USSR were on high alert following the mistakenly shooting down of a civilian airliner by a Soviet fighter jet over the Japan Sea, three weeks earlier. To his horror sirens inside the bunker started to wail, indicating that Oko system’s satellites have spotted the launch of an American ballistic missile. Before he could recover from the initial shock Oko gave a warning for the launch of four more missiles in quick succession.

It was Petrov’s duty to confirm the incoming attack to the Soviet leaders. He was aware that the standard Soviet action would be to launch a retaliatory strike while the U.S. missiles were still in the air. He analysed that the U.S. should have launched many more missiles and not just five. Therefore, chances of this being a false alarm or a real strike were 50-50. He took a chance, didn’t report the strike, and averted World War III. Later investigations revealed that the Soviet satellites had mistaken the sun’s reflection in some clouds for the launch of American nuclear missiles.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis  of 1962, another Soviet submarine officer Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov had shown the presence of mind and a humane side to save the world from a nuclear war, by refusing to launch a ten-kiloton nuclear torpedo to target the giant aircraft carrier, the USS Randolf.

Moma, I Lost My Balloon

By now every human being on the planet is aware of the ‘Chinese Balloon Saga’ in some form or the other. China’s surveillance balloon first appeared in U.S. airspace in Alaska on 28th January. The Americans believed that the balloon would travel northwards. However, the balloon had a mind of its own. After two days it did something unexpected. It slowed down, and loitered over Canada, before heading south towards the U.S. state of Idaho.

In a week, the spy balloon traveled leisurely over various U.S. sensitive sites. It did surveillance, hovered, and maneouvered while all of America looked helplessly. The spy-craft passed over Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, which houses 150 intercontinental ballistic missile silos, U.S. Strategic Command situated at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, B-2 bomber’s home at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, and many other sensitive locations.

The Chinese balloon was eventually taken down by an F-22 fighter jet from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, on February 5, using a single AIM-9X Sidewinder missile, off the coast of South Carolina. However, shooting down itself is not that important. Important are these facts that emerged:

  • After the uproar in the United States, surprisingly the balloon gathered pace, while the jet stream blowing over continental America had not changed
  • Why was the spy-craft allowed to float across the U.S. freely and not brought down earlier
    • The reason given by the U.S. Administration was that they didn’t want casualties on the ground. However, the real reason for the water landing was to recover the craft as much intact as possible
  • Why was a US$400,000 AIM-9X Sidewinder missile used to bring down a balloon
    • After all, India employed a cheaper method. Indian Air Force’s Su-30MKI brought down a Pakistani balloon over Rajasthan in July 2018 by just spraying 97 rounds of bullets
    • The thought process in the U.S. was once again the same. Avoid damage to the spy-craft as much as possible. Spraying bullets was a cheaper option but could have damaged the payload

Some More Facts

The world is well aware that China has no qualm in breaking any international law, rule, or regulation. However, rules and regulations are existing to avoid China-style belligerence. Some more facts:

  • China has acknowledged that it was their balloon
  • As I write there is another Chinese balloon hovering over South America
  • Noteworthy Chinese balloon sightings:
    • Guam and Hawaii about 4 months ago
    • Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India — January 2020
    • Japan — June 2020 and September 2021
  • The United States acknowledges that the Chinese surveillance balloons have flown over its territory four times in the past. Three times under President Donald Trump and once under President Joe Biden before the latest one. However, how many times these balloons have gone undetected is anybody’s guess.
  • While there are no laws governing the location and altitude of a spacecraft or a satellite over a nation, all other crafts are governed by Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation, 1944
  • The United States was well within its rights to shoot down the intruder
  • The U.S. very smartly managed to crash the craft within 7 nautical miles radius of its coast. Once again it is pertinent to note that 12 nautical miles are the territorial water limit of any nation and the Chinese ships cannot enter that zone to recover the payload

Not the Balloon But the Relationship has Deflated

The Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng on  February 5, said that he has lodged a formal complaint with the U.S. Embassy over the “U.S. attack on a Chinese civilian unmanned airship by military force.” He further states that China will “resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese companies, resolutely safeguard China’s interests and dignity and reserve the right to make further necessary responses.”

Further, China hired the delusional Xu Xijin, erstwhile editor of Chinese mouthpiece ‘Global Times’ to justify their lies. Xu says— “Stratospheric airship is a new technology. It should be an airship tested by a Chinese private company, but it got out of control. Flying over the US is clearly not within its design. It is round, not boat-shaped, indicating that its mission does not include long-distance flying.”

While the Soviet leaders were brutal, they do not come anywhere close to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) cunningness. Some more facts:

  • The Chinese are calling the balloon’s purpose mainly atmospheric study. No one has asked them what is the meaning of — mainly
  • They have not disclosed the name of the civilian company to whom this balloon belongs to but at the same time sacked Zhuang Guotai, the head of the China Meteorological Administration. If it was a private company then why a civil servant has been fired?
  • The fact is that only three companies in China are in the business of such crafts, and all are state-owned enterprises:
    • Special Research Vehicle Institute
    • East China Research Institute of Electronic Engineering
    • China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation
  • Unfortunately, many western companies have been instrumental in China acquiring such technology. New Zealand had gone even one step further and given their airspace and other assistance.

Why Balloon

Now the question arises when China has all the means of surveillance, including satellites then why balloons?

  • A balloon at 15-20 kilometres above the earth’s surface could give better resolution picture
  • Cost a fraction of a satellite
  • Remain undetected
  • Remain stationary over the same place for a long period by utilising winds at different levels
  • One has to wait for the U.S. to recover the payload for further disclosures

In the End – A Chinese Strategic Victory

China couldn’t care less if the U.S. secretary of state Blinken cancelled his high-profile China visit. Chinese President for life Xi Jinping is high on his material success and well aware that American companies would continue to do business as usual. With the balloon episode in the foreground, China has achieved the following strategic aims:

  • China played psychological games and tested the American resolve to shoot down the balloon. It made use of American democratic procedures to provoke it to shoot down the balloon.
  • This shooting down gives China a license to be more belligerent against all foreign warships and planes in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and especially in the Taiwan Strait.
  • Initially, China would target unmanned vehicles. However, as the dateline of 2025-27 nears, Xi Jinping would become more reckless and dangerous, and the shooting down of manned military flights is not ruled out.

With this China has moved one more step closer to its aim of unification with Taiwan. The United States should not forget that China has conned them to take a major strategic shift on their behalf with just a balloon. Last but not the least — this is China and there is no Stanislav Petrov in PLA, waiting to save the humanity from next flash war.


Author
A veteran of the Indian Navy, Cdr Dhawan served in the Navy from 1988 to 2009. He was a Maritime Reconnaissance Pilot and a Flying Instructor. He is a geopolitical analyst and writes for various online websites and organizations.

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POST COMMENTS (22)

Cdr MCV Jose

Feb 15, 2023
Dear Sandeep! Very well articulated as always 👏 Xi's extension as president can only increase the authoritarian attitude of the government. He has already become a dictator and this doesn't auger well for the world and humanity. Keep writing 🙏🌹 Jose

Anand Malik

Feb 11, 2023
Very well articulated interesting post. Might is Right is an old proverb. China has in the past couple of decades made itself strong in all aspects- technologically, militarily, economically etc etc. The baloon trick may not necessarily be for any kind of unofficial clearance for offensive action in South China Sea. Since ages every strong kingdom used to resort to Int gathering to be better prepared for defensive as well as offensive actions for expansion of their territory .China is doing the same. This baloon was not a hot air baloon which can be controlled and China be accused of purposely using it, an aircraft, over foreign airspace against the rules. The purpose of the baloon for atmospheric study sounds justified excuse even though the world knows China’s intent. Your collection of info and ability of forecasting things that would happen in future is AWESOME.

Rajesh Dhawan

Feb 09, 2023
Very informative and nicely written

Cdr Deepak Singh

Feb 09, 2023
Good article. But no Aircraft can get to that height. Probably a Missile. Delivered by an Aircraft. Baloon intelligence is not a new factor. Japanese did it ?? Shared.

Keith Kenny

Feb 09, 2023
Excellent article, Sandeep. And I particularly like your closing observations. As CCP weaknesses come to the fore, they become more desperate and more dangerous. But patience with their manipulations and lies grows thin—even in China. World leaders may continue to seek their money, but they are now more aware of the cost. If the CCP must lie to protect China's 'dignity', they reveal how little dignity the CCP has left and how little they represent China. Liers have no dignity and must hide behind a mask. That appears to be the CCP's go-to. And when the world refuses to bow, the CCP loses face.

Raman Gupta

Feb 09, 2023
Enlightening piece, especially the Chinese aims achieved

Kuldeep Singh

Feb 09, 2023
An excellent paper which gives a clear view into future Chinese Plan as how they will deal the airspace over South China Sea. They surely have achieved leverage to tackle unarmed air crafts over their boundaries. Congratulations Cdr Dhawan for clarity of thoughts.

Ajay Date

Feb 09, 2023
Thanks for 'insightful' and Knowledgeble article. China's belligerence has to be contained. US losing its pole position is making China become more agressive.

Sam Samuel

Feb 09, 2023
A very well researched and written article. The world needs to be aware and more vigilant. Its not just about China vs USA.

Harbir Singh Chahal

Feb 09, 2023
Once again a very well written piece. Chinese under Xi are more sinister.

Dhirender Gaur

Feb 09, 2023
Valid observation once again! India has to move more proactively in innovation... Our Defense approach has been to adopt the new that is available in the market. We must innovate new defense paradigms to counter China.

BS PANAG

Feb 09, 2023
Very informative and we'll articulated approach on the good show Sandeep

BS PANAG

Feb 09, 2023
Very informative and we'll articulated approach on the subject.

Wendell Bruges

Feb 09, 2023
As always, this is in-depth research but presented in simple easy to understandable words.

Sanjay

Feb 09, 2023
Got a good insight in to this balloon episode. A well analysed article 👍

Ashish Popli

Feb 09, 2023
Once again....the author has delved into the past...drawn parallels...given a fresh perspective...stuck his neck out ..yet again. Love reading his perspectives which are more from analysis and research. Thanks for your continued China articles.

Sreenivas

Feb 09, 2023
If China is doing this to the most powerful military in the world wonder what they must have already done over India along the LAC. In India Mother's along the border states must be waiting for the balloon to be sent by China so that the child would eat his/her food! I thought only Indian intelligence was a failure but US and Canada well well another case of immigrants I guess! Well written and researched. I don't think wars between non European countries will ever be termed World Wars. WW3 has to involve those who once colonized ! That's how they have stolen the narrative! Keep going Sandy!

Raj Dutta

Feb 09, 2023
A well researched article with a logical conclusion.....Good show Sandeep.

Ranveer

Feb 09, 2023
A well researched and informative article. All stakeholders need to be vigilant. It does concern India too.

Arvind Pande

Feb 09, 2023
Very informative n indepth article. Hearty congratulations

Anil

Feb 09, 2023
Great job done

Hemant Kumar

Feb 09, 2023
Very well analysed. The Chinese are historically known to be untrustworthy and have never made any effort to gain/regain any nation's trust. Which means it wants to hold the world to ransom whenever it can. Very immature narrow minded thought process of its leadership. The world will kick it hard the moment it can. Sad that such an immature nation is part of the UN Security Council. And that is a blot on the planet.

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