In China’s eyes, the newest superpower battlefield sits between 12 and 60 miles above the Earth’s surface in a thin-aired layer of the atmosphere it calls “near space.”
Lying above the flightpaths of most commercial and military jets and below satellites, near space is an in-between area for spaceflight to pass through – but it is also a domain where hypersonic weapons transit and ballistic missiles cross.
China has paid close attention to the US’ and other countries’ developments in the region, which has been hailed by Chinese military experts as “a new front for militarization” and “an important field of competition among the world’s military powers.”
In addition to developing high-tech vessels such as solar-powered drones and hypersonic vehicles, China is also reviving a decades-old technology to utilize this area of the atmosphere – lighter-than-air vehicles. They include stratospheric airships and high-altitude balloons – similar to the one identified over the continental United States and shot down on Saturday.
China maintains the balloon is a civilian research airship, despite claims by US officials that the device was part of an extensive Chinese surveillance program. As analysis of recovered parts from the downed device gets underway, a senior State Department official said Thursday that the balloon “was capable of conducting signals intelligence collection operations” and was part of a fleet that had flown over “more than 40 countries across five continents” – a claim China has flatly rejected.
While questions remain about that incident, an examination of Chinese state media reports and scientific papers reveal the country’s growing interest in these lighter-than-air vehicles, which Chinese military experts have touted for use toward a wide range of purposes, from communication relay, reconnaissance and surveillance to electronic countermeasures.
Chinese research on the high-altitude balloons dates back to the late 1970s, but over the past decade there’s been renewed focus on using older technology equipped with new hardware as major powers around the world have bulked up their capabilities in the sky.
“With the rapid development of modern technology, the space for information confrontation is no longer limited to land, sea, and the low altitude. Near space has also become a new battlefield in modern warfare and an important part of the national security system,” read a 2018 article in the PLA Daily, the official newspaper of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
And a range of “near-space flight vehicles” will play a vital role in future joint combat operations that integrate outer space and the Earth’s atmosphere, the article said.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping has urged the PLA Air Force to “speed up air and space integration and sharpen their offensive and defensive capabilities” as early as 2014, and military experts have designated “near space” as a crucial link in the integration.
Searches on CNKI, China’s largest online academic database, show Chinese researchers, both military and civilian, have published more than 1,000 papers and reports on “near space,” many of which focus on the development of “near space flight vehicles.” China has also set up a research center to design and develop high-altitude balloons and stratospheric airships, or dirigibles, under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a top government think tank.
One particular area of interest is surveillance. While China already deploys a sprawling satellite network for sophisticated long-range surveillance, Chinese military experts have highlighted the advantages of lighter-than-air vehicles.
Unlike rotating satellites or traveling aircraft, stratospheric airships and high-altitude balloons “can hover over a fixed location for a long period of time” and are not easily detected by radar, wrote Shi Hong, the executive editor of Shipborne Weapons, a prominent military magazine published by a PLA-linked institute, in an article published in state media in 2022.
In a 2021 video segment run by state news agency Xinhua, a military expert explains how near-space lighter-than-air vehicles can surveil and take higher resolution photos and videos at a much lower cost compared to satellites.
In the video, Cheng Wanmin, an expert at the National University of Defense Technology, highlighted the progress by the US, Russia and Israel in developing these vehicles, adding China has also made its own “breakthroughs.”
An example of advances China has made in this domain is the reported flight of a 100-meter-long (328 feet) unmanned dirigible-like airship known as “Cloud Chaser.” In a 2019 interview with the Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper, Wu Zhe, a professor at Beihang University, said the vehicle had transited across Asia, Africa and North America in an around-the-world flight at 20,000 meters (65, 616 feet) above the Earth.
Another scientist on the team told the newspaper that compared with satellites, stratospheric airships are better for “long-term observation” and have a range of purposes from disaster warning and environmental research to wireless network construction and aerial reconnaissance.