As Chinese military balloon sightings continue, we decided to write a second article to provide additional details on the threat and what is means. We begin with examining probable reasons why the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force (PLAAF) continue to launch balloons and what kind of a threat they are to our national security. Next, we briefly examine a basic question from a colleague about whether balloons could deliver biological weapons (BW). Finally, we provide additional details about the PLA three warfare strategies: media warfare, psychological warfare, and legal warfare (lawfare).
Why does the PLAAF continue to send balloons?
Why would the PLAAF continue to send balloons towards the US after the US shot down one of their biggest balloons and payloads on 4 February 2023?
The CCP is following Lenin’s edict: “You probe with bayonets: if you find mush, you push. If you find steel, you withdraw.”
The CCP saw the ineptitude of the administration’s reaction to the large balloon with its massive payload drift over the US including over national security sensitive sites such as nuclear missile and nuclear bomber bases, and the US Strategic Command’s headquarters near Omaha, Nebraska. What did the US do? Shoot down the balloon after the balloon had crossed the continental United States. Then the PLAAF sent at least three more balloons with probable spy payloads to fly over the US. In response to Lenin’s edict, the US did not do any counter-response other than shooting down additional balloons earlier in their flight paths.
What else could the PLA be doing with these balloons?
Each radar has a specific ability to detect certain types of objects at a specific distance. Radar cross-section (RCS) is a measure of how detectable an object is by radar. A larger RCS indicates that a radar can detect it more easily. Typically, stealth weapon systems are able to decrease their RCS so that they are not detected by adversary radars.
US-Canadian Radar Capabilities and Weaknesses
As the balloon drama continues like a bad SITCOM, the size of the balloon payloads decreased in size. The PLA could be sending balloons with different sized and shaped payloads to determine what the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) various radars can detect and cannot detect. IN other words, what are its strengths and weaknesses.
Air-to-Air Missile Capabilities and Weaknesses
Another concern is the PLA is assessing the ability of air-to-air missiles to target small objects. In the fourth balloon incident, the Air Force Times reported that “[t]he first U.S. missile fired at an unidentified aerial object over Lake Huron missed the target and ‘landed harmlessly’ in the water before a second one successfully hit, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Tuesday” [14 February 2023].
In other words, they are attempting to find weaknesses in the NORAD radar coverage and weapons capabilities against small objects. Once they know this information, they can calibrate future balloons and their respective payloads as well as other weapon systems to be invisible to NORAD’s capabilities. For example, the PLAAF could use the information they collect to develop stealth bombers to be invisible to NORAD radars making the US and Canada more vulnerable to an attack.
The PLAAF clearly is using these balloons as intelligence gathering platforms as we highlighted in our previous article. Next, we discuss the issue of biological weapons delivered by a balloon.
A question from a colleague: Could the PLA deliver a bioweapon from a balloon?
The short answer is it is possible, but unlikely. Even though the US examined means to disperse agents including with balloons, this does not translate to an effective and efficient capability to deliver BW agents, especially under a variety of weather and environmental conditions. Below are highlights of the BW program and the US tests conducted with balloons.
Cluster Munitions: The US tested, developed, and produced cluster munitions to disperse biological agents from a balloon in the early 1950s. Following the 1972 Convention on the Prohibition of Biological Weapons (CPBW), also called the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), the capability to disperse biological weapons was destroyed.
Drones (powered or unpowered): Drones deployed from a balloon could also deliver BW agents.
WWII: Japan, Balloons and Biological Warfare
According to Greg Goebel’s A History of Chemical & Biological Warfare, the “Japanese had even developed a technology that could have allowed them to conduct biological attacks on the United States, in the form of balloons that were released into the jet stream to float across the Pacific to North America.”
According to Deadly Cultures: Biological Weapons since 1945 (2006) by Mark Wheelis, Lajos Rózsa, and Malcolm Dando, “[i]n the final stages of the war in the Pacific some 9,300 Japanese balloon bombs had been propelled by the jet stream at high altitude to carry incendiary and antipersonnel agents over the Pacific to the North American mainland.” The imperial Japanese military did send thousands of balloons to attack the US, they did not employ biological weapons against the US—although they had tested biological weapons on the Chinese with the infamous Unit 731 (see Unit 731: Laboratory of the Devil, Auschwitz of the East (Japanese Biological Warfare in China 1933-45) by Yang Yan-Jun; Tam Yue-Him, 2018).
A cluster bomb would be the least sophisticated method to deliver a bioweapon.
WWII: UK, Cluster Bombs and Anthrax
According to the CDC, “[i]f anthrax spores were released into the air, people could breathe them in and get sick with anthrax. Inhalation anthrax is the most serious form and can kill quickly if not treated immediately.” During WWII, “the British work on anthrax, or ‘N’ as it was codenamed, as a bioagent led in 1943 to the design of an ‘N’ bomb suitable for mass production by the Americans. This munition weighed 1.8 kilograms (4 pounds). 106 of these ‘bomblets’ were to be packed into a 225-kilogram (500-pound) cluster-bomb canister and dropped over enemy population centers. The whole effort was protected by the highest level of secrecy, TOP SECRET: GUARD, which the Americans jokingly described as DESTROY BEFORE READING. An initial pilot batch of 5,000 N bombs was produced at Camp Detrick in May 1944, and medium-scale production at a rate of about 50,000 bomblets a month followed. The bomblets were turned over to the British, who stockpiled them.”
When needed, the plan was to release the cluster bomb over a target. At a pre-determined altitude, the cluster bomb would release the bioweapon bomblets to maximize their effect. Targets could be military, cities and even agriculture.
Agricultural Biological Warfare
The US developed bioweapons that would destroy agricultural produce such as wheat, rye, and rice. According to the Historical Dictionary of Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Warfare, by Benjamin C. Garrett and John Hart (2007) “from 1951 to 1969, the United States launched full-scale production of three anticrop biological agents: the fungal organisms responsible for wheat stem rust (Puccinia graminis f. sp. Tritici, “Agent TX”), rye stem rust (Puccinia graminis f. sp. Secalis, “Agent SX”), and rice blast (Piricularia oryzae, “Agent LX”). Various munitions were prepared for possible use, first during the Korean War and later as a matter of strategic defense… The U.S. military also experimented with the E77 bomb, which was to be transported by an unmanned free balloon [author emphasis] and disseminate pathogenic anticrop agents … There is no evidence the United States ever used any anticrop biological agent. All stockpiles of agents and munitions were destroyed by February 1973.”
Glide Vehicles – Unmanned Aerial Vehicle / Drones
A more sophisticated method would employ a glide vehicle on the balloon that would extend the range of the munition from the balloon. For example, the glide ratio of the Australian Gannet Glider Drone munition is 10:1. The glide ratio of the US Marine Corps TACtical Air Delivery (TACAD) glider is 15:1. The TACAD is a “prototype for an unpowered drone that can fly huge distances to deliver up to 700 pounds (317 kilograms) of whatever you need with high accuracy.”
According to CNN, in 2019 the PLA’s “military channel showed footage of a balloon lifting off for what it described as maiden testing of three miniaturized models of “wide-range aircraft,” which according to Chinese media reports, can fly at a wide range of speeds, up to five times the speed of sound.”
If the PLA used a drone with a glide ratio between 10:1 and 15:1, then with the example of the PLA balloon at 60,000 feet (11 miles+), the unpowered drone could yield an effective range of between 40–165 miles from the balloon. Recall that the PLA balloon’s path was often within those ranges for several US cities and strategic targets. Unfortunately, bioweapons are also highly effective against agriculture.
Given the fact that the Japanese had the technology seventy years ago and the US had the capability in the 1960s, the option to deliver biological weapons via balloons appears to be a possible option that the CCP could pursue. The PRC and the US both signed the CPBW. The US decided that nuclear weapons were more reliable in terms of delivering the intended effects.
Lawfare, Psychological Warfare, and Media Warfare Update
In the first article we wrote on this subject and explored the PLA’s strategic use of hybrid warfare employing legal, psychological and media to effect political goals. We will briefly discuss them in the context of actions of the Administration in response to the intrusion and subsequent consequences.
Foremost is the continuing legal or lawfare effect of the balloon intruding in and transiting U.S. sovereign airspace, which is a violation of a respected norm of international. The intrusion into and passage through U.S. airspace is a direct challenge to this rule of international law and arguably could be a lawfare move to dilute the norm itself. However, more critical than the leeway of the balloon to enter and traverse U.S. airspace is the lack of messaging from the Administration to enunciate the violation of U.S. airspace and assert the violation. Instead, the Administration is relying on messaging of the non-kinetic nature of the balloon and safety to downplay the incident. This lack of messaging continues with the intercept of the objects subsequent to the intrusion where the Administration cites safety as the rationale for the interceptions instead of the potential violation of sovereign U.S. airspace. This not only brings into question the Administration’s commitment to defending the rule of international law at home and abroad but also its credibility enforcing norms in other domains and encouraging the creation of norms in other domains such as outer space.
PLA Psychological Warfare
The psychological effect of the intrusion has escalated from public anxiety to anger, which is being exacerbated by the intercept of three objects subsequent to the initial intrusion. While the origin of the objects in question is either unknown or not being disclosed, the original intrusion and lack of the Administration’s coherent messaging has escalated the public and political ire with these new incidents. In other words, even if these subsequent incidents do not originate from a PLA operation, the initial intrusion and the mediocre response to it have fostered a psychological environment among the public and political figures that casts the ability and willingness of the Administration to ensure national security into a questionable light. This in turn throws shadows of doubt to allies and adversaries abroad about the responsiveness and determination of the U.S. to respond to geopolitical threats.
PLA Media Warfare
The media aspect of the initial intrusion has evolved where media outlets who initially were reporting on the event have split into two camps based strongly on political leanings. The media, including social media and pundits, either downplay or overstate the significance of both the initial intrusion and the subsequent intercepts. The use of media to exaggerate and shape messaging of these events further obfuscates the significance of these events and influences both the legal and psychological aspects of the CCP’s hybrid warfare strategy.
The immediate physical threats posed by balloon warfare and the political effects of hybrid warfare in furtherance of great power competition further exacerbate the growing strategic threat of the CCP both from a military perspective and a geopolitical aspect. Without a sound national strategy to counter both the physical threats and hybrid warfare tactics of the PLA and the CCP, the national security and credibility of the US as a player on the world stage will continue to be eroded.
Vladimir Ilich Lenin edict: “You probe with bayonets: if you find mush, you push. If you find steel, you withdraw.”