Beijing’s military adventures are nothing new

The Japanese effort failed; The balloons were completely inaccurate. For the same reason, the Americans ended their flirtation with the balloon bomb.

But surveillance was different. The Eisenhower administration began an experiment in which more than 500 balloons were flown over the United States as part of the 1954 Project Moby Dick.

It was top secret. It was also “the least credible surveillance strategy of the Cold War,” according to the American website Atlas Obscura.

In a photo provided by the US Navy, sailors recover the downed Chinese surveillance balloon on February 5 off the coast of South Carolina.

In a photo provided by the US Navy, sailors recover the downed Chinese surveillance balloon on February 5 off the coast of South Carolina.Credit:NYT

Believe it or not, the US has decided to move forward. In January 1956 it launched Project Genetrix. In an effort to peer into the Soviet Union using aerial cameras and electronic sensors, it sent out a total of 516 balloons to drift through Eastern Europe, the USSR and China, carried by the prevailing winds. Yes, US spy balloons scanned and photographed China 67 years ago.

They were equipped with cameras and a pioneering photographic film that could withstand the cold and radiation at high altitude as the balloons attempted to capture footage of military installations and nuclear tests.


Only 44 of the 516 were recovered. And yet Genetrix was not judged a failure. Its cameras captured 13,813 photos covering an area of ​​8 percent of Sino-Soviet territory and spotted, among other things, a large nuclear facility at Dodonovo in Siberia.

Smithsonian Institute aerospace historian Curtis Peebles wrote in his 1991 book The Moby Dick Project: Reconnaissance Balloons Over Russia that the cost per square mile “$48.49…was significantly lower than the cost of US map coverage, then or now”.

The Soviets also learned something from the experience. When her lunar mission Luna 3 took humanity’s first photographs of the moon’s mountainous dark side three years later, she used film the Soviets had taken from downed US balloons.

Today’s Chinese balloon project is an updated version of the American one. The first balloon the US shot down had some sort of rudder that allowed limited control.

And The Washington Post US officials reported that some of the balloons are equipped with electro-optical sensors or digital cameras capable of capturing high-precision images. You can broadcast to satellites to send results instantly.

FBI special agents process footage recovered from the balloon off the coast of South Carolina.

FBI special agents process footage recovered from the balloon off the coast of South Carolina.Credit:AP

Even today, balloons have advantages over spy satellites. You can linger longer and get much more focused images much faster than a satellite. Two other pros – they’re so cheap they’re expendable, and it turns out the US couldn’t readily discover them for years.

Chinese party-owned media last week derided America’s air defense system as a mere “decoration” that had failed to detect repeated intruders.

Aside from the obvious similarities between China’s balloons and their US forerunners, there are two other factors. One is nuclear. Just as Genetrix was spying on Cold War nuclear activity, Beijing’s balloon was spotted near a US nuclear launch site two weeks ago.


The other is the UFO factor. When Americans experimented with Project Moby Dick in the 1950s, they triggered a wave of UFO sightings in the US Southwest and a flurry of conspiracy theories. This time, the Chinese balloons have unleashed a new generation of UFO conspiracy theorists.

In other ways, there are key differences between the two missions, which are seven decades apart. When the US launched their balloons, the Soviets caught them in the act within weeks. The Soviet Air Force shot down most of them, and Moscow urged Washington to halt the program. Eisenhower did so less than a month after beginning.

And this time? Beijing’s balloons went undiscovered, or at least not understood, by Americans for years. And when the Pentagon caught on and asked for emergency communications with China’s Defense Ministry, Beijing refused to answer the phone for several days. This does not bode well for future crises.

A final observation. It was China that first used balloons for military purposes. The Han Dynasty chancellor Zhuge Liang used them for signaling purposes in the third century. Beijing is well aware that it is an old technology, albeit updated. Why bother?

Even as China pushes billions of dollars into technology frontiers to surpass the US in quantum computing, quantum communications, hypersonics and other fields, it is also using ancient technologies. The reason is simple. It seeks every possible advantage over America. And find some.

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Callan Tansill

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