The little-noticed program that led to a Chinese spy balloon drifting across the United States this month has been discussed in China’s state-controlled media for more than a decade in articles extolling its potential military applications.
The reports, dating back to at least 2011, focus on how best to exploit what is known as “near space” – that portion of the atmosphere that is too high for traditional aircraft to fly but too low for a satellite to remain in orbit. Those early articles may offer clues to the capabilities of the balloon shot down by a U.S. jet fighter on Feb. 4.
“In recent years, ‘near space’ has been discussed often in foreign media, with many military commentators pointing out that this is a special sphere that had been neglected by militaries but now has risen to hotspot status,” reads a July 5, 2011, article in the People’s Liberation Army Daily titled Near Space – A Strategic Asset That Ought Not to be Neglected.
The article quoted Zhang Dongjiang, a senior researcher at the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, discussing the potential applications of flying objects designed for near space.
“This is an area sitting in between ‘air’ and ‘space’ where neither the theory of gravity nor Kepler’s Law is independently applicable, thus limiting the freedom of flight for both aircraft that are designed based on the theory of gravity and spacecraft that follow Kepler’s Law,” Zhang was quoted as saying.
He noted that near space lacks the atmospheric disturbances of aeronautical altitudes, such as turbulence, thunder and lightning, yet is cheaper and easier to reach than the altitudes where satellites can remain in orbit.
“At the same time,” he added, near space is “much higher than ‘sky,’ hence holding superb prospects and potential for intelligence collection, reconnaissance and surveillance, securing communication, as well as air and ground warfare.”
Zhang suggested that near space can be exploited with “high-dynamic” craft that travel faster than the speed of sound, such as hypersonic cruise vehicles and sub-orbital vehicles, which “can arrive at target with high speed, attack with both high speed and precision, [and] can be deployed repeatedly.”
But he said near space also can provide an environment for slower vehicles, which he called “low-dynamic” craft, such as stratospheric airships, high-altitude balloons and solar-powered unmanned vehicles.
These, he said, “are capable of carrying payloads capable of capturing light, infrared rays, multispectral, hyper-spectral, radar, and other info, which can then be used to increase battlefield sensory and knowledge capability, support military operations.”
They also “can carry various payloads aimed at electronic counter-battle, fulfilling the aim of electronic magnetic suppression and electronic magnetic attack on the battlefield, damage and destroy an adversary’s information systems.”
Four years after the PLA Daily article, images were published in the military pages of Global Times, a state-controlled outlet, of two small-scale stratospheric vehicles identified as KF13 and KF16.
The vehicles were developed by the Opto-Electronics Engineering Institute of Beijing Aeronautics and Aerospace University, China’s main aeronautical and aerospace research university, according to an explanatory note published alongside the model shown in the Global Times. The institution is now known as Beihang [Beijing-Aero] University.
The explanatory note said a key feature of the vehicles was their unmanned and remote-control dual capability. Work was being done in Beijing and Shanghai, as well as in Shanxi province, on seeing the vehicles evolve from concept to production, according to the October 2015 article.
Other images of near space objects that surfaced the same month featured variously shaped aircraft whose features and functions included high-functioning surface materials, emergency control mechanisms, precise flight control technology, high-efficiency propeller technology, high-efficiency solar technology and ground operation integration technology.
An image of a blimp-like near space flying object called the Yuan Meng, literally “fulfilling dream,” was also posted to the internet in October 2015. It was described as having a flying altitude of 20-24 kilometers, a flight duration of six months and a payload of 100-300 kilograms.
Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Washington, told VOA that China’s interest in the exploitation of near space actually began long before the PLA Daily article.
“Since the late 1990s, the PLA has been devoting resources for research and development for preparing for combat in ‘near space,’ the zone just below Low Earth Orbit (LEO) that is less expensive to reach than LEO [itself], and offers stealth advantages, especially for hypersonic platforms,” he said in an exchange of emails.
In addition to round balloons such as the one shot down by U.S. aircraft on Feb. 4, he said, “the PLA is also developing much larger blimp or airship stratospheric balloons that have solar powered engines driving large propellers that enable greater maneuverability.”
Fisher said Chinese state-owned conglomerates such as China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) “have full-fledged near space programs like their Tengyun to produce very high-altitude UAV and hypersonic vehicles” for the purpose of waging combat in near space.
Tengyun literally means “riding above clouds.”
In September 2016, Chinese official media reported that Project Tengyun, initiated by CASIC, was expected to be ready for a test flight in 2030. The so-called “air-spacecraft” is designed to serve as a “new-generation, repeat-use roundtrip flying object between air and space,” a deputy general manager of CASIC told the 2nd Commercial Aeronautical Summit Forum held in Wuhan that month.
Another four projects proposed by CASIC also bore the concept of “cloud” in their names: Feiyun, meaning “flying cloud,” focuses on communication relay; Xingyun, meaning “cloud on the move,” would enable users to send text or audio messages even “at the end of the earth or edge of the sky”; Hongyun, meaning rainbow cloud, would be able to launch 156 satellites in its first stage; and Kuaiyun, meaning “fast cloud,” would be tasked with formulating a near space spheric network.
While China’s openness about its near space ambitions may be debatable, the speed with which it has made advances in related R&D appears to be indisputable.
“Throughout my career that was focused on the PLA, I do not recall anything about the PLA having a balloon program, let alone to have balloons operating over U.S. territory,” U.S. Navy Captain (retired) James Fanell, who retired as [a former] director of intelligence for the U.S. Pacific Fleet in 2015, told VOA in a written interview.
U.S. official now say they are aware of at least 40 incidents, however, in which Chinese surveillance balloons have passed over countries on as many as five continents. Those presumably included an incident last December in which a high-altitude airship was photographed near the northern Philippine Island of Luzon bordering the South China Sea.
“The object would look to be a teardrop-shaped airship with four tail fins. It’s not entirely clear from the images whether it might have a translucent exterior or a metallic-like one,” wrote Joseph Trevithick, deputy editor of The War Zone, a specialized website dedicated to developments in military technology and international security.
“Overall, the apparent airship’s general shape has broad similarities to a number of high-altitude, long-endurance types that Chinese companies are known to have been working on,” he wrote, including “at least two uncrewed solar-powered designs, the Tian Hang and Yuan Meng, with external propulsion and other systems intended primarily for operations at stratospheric altitudes, both of which have reportedly been test flown at least once.”
Fisher said the United States would be well advised to emulate China in enhancing its capabilities in near space.
The American aerospace company Lockheed Martin “tested a technology demonstrator in 2011 [but] there has been no further development of operational stratospheric airships for the U.S.” since then, Fisher said.
“The PLA is correct to invest in stratosphere balloons and airships; the U.S. must do more to develop these assets as well.”