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  • Anirudh Prakash

Chinese Spy Balloon Incident: The Push for an ‘Iron Shield’ Aerospace Defense

by Anirudh Prakash

Reference: US military pilot takes selfie with the Chinese spy balloon from the cockpit of the Lockheed U-2 Dragon Lady

On February 3, 2023, the infamous high-altitude Chinese “spy balloon” sighted across North America tantalized the American psyche. And after seemingly endless days of public demands for answers, US intelligence concluded that the spy balloon was part of a broader surveillance effort aimed to gather information of militaries overseas. Although similar U-2-like incidents have been identified by previous presidential administrations, none have made an effort in passing bipartisan legislation on counter-surveillance against the US’ adversaries. This exemplifies America’s frail current aerospace defense strategy and how the US homeland will continue to fall prey to these adversarial threats if no robust counter-surveillance framework is enacted. For the Biden administration to deter belligerent encroachments of US air sovereignty, a refined aerospace defense strategy that involves modernizing the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and investing on enhanced counter-surveillance technologies must be enacted to leave US national security immune from future surveillance threat.

Since 2000, there have been more than 100 reported instances of Chinese espionage directed at US national security interests. Fifteen years ago, theft was reported on F-35 designs that enabled the Chinese air force to develop its own look-alike stealth fighter with Chinese technological characteristics. In July 2021, the US and NATO allies accused the PRC of using contract hackers to launch a global cyberspace campaign that includes ransomware, cybertheft, and rank extortion. The Chinese spy balloon is but another trespass on the US’ national security, and beyond that, a malicious international campaign aimed to gather information on the capabilities of the US military and its foreign counterparts.

The Biden administration managed to shoot the balloon down on February 4th, but punches have continuously been traded between Republicans and Democrats regarding the effort for its interception. Many of the Democrats defended the Biden administration’s intelligence community for working together to snipe down the balloon carefully and intentionally. Republicans, however, jabbed the Democratic assertion and accused the US Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) for not destroying it immediately after it reached Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. This brings us to NORAD’s current strategy and how, despite it being the first line of homeland defense, there are numerous holes in its modern framework.

USNORTHCOM’s current strategy has always thrived under a theory that underscores how a globally integrated fight requires a capable and persistent defense at home. The USNORTHCOM’s commander, General D. VanHerck builds upon this theory of success with his command’s very own four strategic principles. They are Global Integration, All-Domain Awareness, Information Dominance, and Decision Superiority. Out of all these tenets, the US military has been successful in only three – the pillar that lacks the most is All-Domain Awareness (DA), a layered-sensing grid that provides persistent battlespace awareness across all warfighting domains. Although DA has been a trademark for North American security, its flaws have deeply affected the current capabilities of USNORTHCOM and NORAD.

American military officials have argued for DA to have been the central fault behind why three surveillance balloons were left undetected by the Trump administration. Many Trump administration officials have insisted that they were not aware of balloons transiting the US while Trump was in office. However, immediately after these past surveillance balloons were discovered during the Biden administration, the president increased the vigilance and assets deployed for detecting Chinese efforts to spy on the United States. Yet regardless of the modifications, the domain awareness gap continues to be an area of concern for the Pentagon when it comes to airspace and maritime warning. In fact, it was General D. VanHerck who mentioned to Congress that as NORAD commander, it is his responsibility to detect threats coming near North America but neither were able to be subverted. This domain awareness rupture was the primary impediment of the Biden administration’s effort to intercept the spy balloon and hence, should be resolved immediately.

The key to improving aerospace defense lies in modernizing NORAD with more advanced technology. First, additional over-the-horizon radars can be constructed to curate an air defense system with a 360o vision, even spotting objects over the Aleutian Islands of Alaska and Eastern Canada. Second, the defense community can work collectively to develop an AI-integrated sensing grid encompassed with an amalgamation of quantum computing, machine learning, and phased array scanners that can detect any incoming unidentified surveillance aircraft that encroaches allied airspace quicker than before. In addition to implementing these technologies on its own, the US government can also capitalize on big money investments with defense corporations’ enhanced counter-space/surveillance technologies. Companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin can redevelop airborne warning and control systems (AWACS) with an augment of phased array radars, which can allow Navy and Air Force pilots to identify and intercept high-altitude threats more efficiently. With these enhanced counter-surveillance technologies, the United States will have an iron dome built across its airspace.

Although these counter-surveillance deterrents seem excellent, three caveats are likely to impede their development. The first is the cost; with the United States experiencing its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, the Pentagon may worry that spending tens of billions of dollars on these technologies may not be a good bet. In addition to cost, training military personnel to operate this million dollar equipment will require more than several months of time. Last, many worry that if the United States begins a full-scale effort to procure counter-surveillance technologies, an arms race may ensue, causing its adversaries (i.e. China, Russia, Iran) to develop their own with better enhancements.

Regardless of the obstacles mentioned, augmented counter-surveillance technologies are a gold standard for the Pentagon’s aerospace defense strategy. Over-the-horizon radars, a fine-tuned NORAD, and redeveloped airborne and early warning systems will give the military and defense agencies the tools they need to deflect imminent high-altitude threats from encroaching the air sovereignty of the United States. Even if the US’ adversaries attempt to gain intelligence on sensitive state secrets, their balloon-like efforts will nonetheless burst.

Listen very carefully Mr. President. The drumbeats of great power competition are crescendoing and the nation’s adversaries are resorting to unconventional measures designed to offset our military’s capabilities. We have seen this play out in the Cold War and do not intend to have this resurge. If we continue sleeping over “spy balloon” infiltrations or delay interception efforts, not only will our airspace be prone to uninvited guests, but the current state of US-China relations will inflate and burst greater than any balloon would.

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