As China and the United States tussle over what Washington says was a Chinese surveillance balloon over U.S. territory, dozens of Chinese documents point to surging interest in using balloon technology for military purposes.

China’s Foreign Ministry has repeatedly described the balloon the drifted over the United States as an errant scientific craft, but Chinese military researchers have recently argued in publicly available papers that such aircraft should be further developed and deployed in specific missions.

One paper published last April by researchers in a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) institute focused on “special aircraft” said that one of the useful military applications of balloons was to test enemy air defences.

“[The balloon can] induce and mobilize the enemy’s air defence system, providing the conditions for the implementation of electronic reconnaissance, assessment of air defence systems’ early warning detection and operational response capabilities,” the researchers wrote.

That paper and several other articles by PLA-controlled publications also point to keen interest from the Chinese military establishment in studying how the United States and other countries used balloons militarily in the past, as well as a clear intent to close the gap in the field.

Recovery efforts

Balloons are also used for scientific purposes such as weather monitoring, including by the likes of the China Meteorological Administration.

The United States is working to recover debris after one of its fighter jets downed the balloon once it was over water off the South Carolina coast on Saturday. China condemned what it called an “over-reaction” and warned of possible retaliation.

A man in a baseball cap reads a newspaper posted up at a newstand in Beijing, China.
A man at a newsstand in Beijing reads a newspaper headline on Monday reporting on China’s protest against the U.S. shooting down of the balloon. (Andy Wong/The Associated Press)

While U.S. officials say that China has more discreet and sophisticated ways to gather intelligence on its rival, such as its network of spy satellites, the PLA paper also said the low cost of using balloons was one of the reasons China should further deploy them.

“In response to the growing threat posed by ground-based air defence systems to air attack forces, it is necessary to use cheap air balloons to create active and passive interference to effectively suppress enemy air defence early warning systems and cover air attack forces to carry out their missions,” it argued.

‘Shorten the gap’

The PLA paper appeared in Shipboard Electronic Countermeasure, a journal owned by a Chinese state-run shipping conglomerate that publishes articles on topics including signals-jamming and electronic warfare.

“In order to shorten the gap with foreign countries when it comes to air-drift balloons, and to prevent China from being attacked by such weapons, we should actively carry out … research on related operational issues to enhance our military’s offensive combat capability,” it said.

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Some regional security analysts say balloons could also gather data on the upper atmosphere useful for China’s missile programs, or be used for high resolution photography to supplement intelligence material available via satellites.

China’s Defence Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Chinese military units and state-run research institutes have bought high-altitude balloons and related technology in the past two years, a Reuters analysis of government tenders shows, though the documents are heavily redacted.

The Aerospace Information Research Institute, part of the official Chinese Academy of Sciences, is among state institutions to have shown interest in balloons, frequently publishing articles about high-altitude balloons on an official WeChat account.

While many of the articles focus on space exploration and balloon aerodynamics, others analyze how such aircraft have been deployed militarily in the past, with a particular focus on how other countries have defended themselves from threats posed by balloons and how they have been used offensively.

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