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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6G1kFbUmUy0

The above video describes the U.S. detecting an alleged spy balloon and U.S. General Milley claiming that the balloon was a spy balloon, but that it did not collect any data over the continental United States nor send any data back to China.

Is there a precedent for a country sending a spy vehicle without doing any actual spying? Do countries have anything to gain from doing something like this? I feel it only has consequences with very little benefits. General Milley claims that the balloon was a spy balloon that didn't collect any intelligence.

This seems to be the very first alleged incident where a country has allegedly sent a spy vehicle without doing any actual spying. Am I wrong?

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  • I'm uncomfortable with the way this question is phrased. The possibility of "sending a spy vehicle" implies some degree of autonomy, as distinct from "sending a spy crew" in e.g. an overflying aircraft, so is such a recent possibility that there might simply have been no time for a precedent. It might be better expressed as "overflying with balloons etc.", which is less sensational but possibly more accurate. Sep 24, 2023 at 12:12
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    "didn't send any data back to China" doesn't mean they weren't trying to spy, it just means they weren't successful. Other potential explanations are malfunctions or active measures like jamming signals. Sep 24, 2023 at 21:51
  • @MadScientist (and upvoters of the above comment) Take a moment to thoughtfully watch and listen to the video the OP provided. It states important details that are likely better than random and unfounded conjecture. According to the video, "one leading theory is [the spy balloon] was blown off track" and "the sensors had never been activated while over the continental United States". What the video does not make clear is the intended target of any spying activity or what was learned from the recovery of the payload besides that it was never activated over the continental USA. Dec 31, 2023 at 5:57
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    @MadScientist However, please note that now (within just the last several days), new information has been released that is contrary to the report provided in the OP's video. This new data indicates that the spy balloon likely did make connections to/from China via a "U.S.-based company". This is a currently unfolding event, so more details are likely to follow. So far, I haven't seen any explanation as to why the U.S. military was so confident, just a few months ago, that the exact opposite was the situation. Dec 31, 2023 at 6:18

7 Answers 7

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When talking about covert operations, there are all sorts of possibilities:

  • The vehicle could be a test of the delivery mechanism, to see if it can carry a payload across borders without raising suspicions
  • The vehicle could be a distraction, timed to draw attention away from some other incursion
  • The vehicle could be psy-ops, primarily meant to unnerve or anger the government or its people or waste government resources, not collect information
  • The vehicle could be a dud, for one reason or another unable to collect the information it was meant to collect

Further, the general in the video could be lying for any number of reasons: e.g., to preserve government pride, to reassure the public, to convince the opposing nation that the spy device was more successful than it actually was, etc.

Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive…

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    One possible reason for the lie not considered is that the device was spying, but since it fell into the target's hands, the targets of the spying were able to learn of the capabilities of the vehicle and develop means to protect information that was being spied upon. Now, if the target says "we were spied on and they saw our [insert data sources]", the people spying will see that and assume that countermeasures are in place and make something new... However, if you play dumb, the people doing the spying will waste time and effort on an existing technology that has been countered.
    – hszmv
    Sep 22, 2023 at 10:23
  • Various countries and groups seem to enjoy firing ineffective weapons in the direction of their opponents, to annoy, antagonise, demoralise, affect policy, or just provoke a reaction, e.g. North Korea, and Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip. Sending spy drones could be the same kind of thing.
    – Stuart F
    Sep 22, 2023 at 13:37
  • @hszmv I think that is covered by the "convince the opposing nation that the spy device was more successful than it actually was". I suspect the US already knew the balloon was there and were fine with it - either knowing it was ineffective or were gathering information from it, the story getting into the news just meant they had to do something about it as a show of strength to the public. Sep 22, 2023 at 13:38
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    @hszmv good point. See also the British response to the Enigma Machine; they spent a lot of effort on not just countering every plan they knew about from decoded transmissions, to reduce the chances of the Axis figuring out that Enigma was broken.
    – Brondahl
    Sep 22, 2023 at 13:52
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    @StuartF Calling those weapons firings "ineffective" is a poor choice of words. The reason this is often done is to test the defense readiness of the adversary's response capabilities. The adversary probably knows it's a test and will fall short of entering their airspace/waters/land territory. They still have to act as if it is not a "test" but the real deal dressed up to look like a test. The response time gives the nation conducting the test information on their response capabilities. If they engage, they get a good reaction. If ignored, it also provides you intel.
    – hszmv
    Sep 25, 2023 at 10:21
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Ukraine sent spy drone aircraft (Tupolev Tu-141 Strizh) on kamikaze missions, to attack the target directly by crashing into it.

Tupolev Tu-141 is a large Soviet reconnaissance drone, designed to undertake reconnaissance missions within a 1,000 kilometres radius. It can carry a range of payloads, including film cameras, infrared imagers, EO imagers, and imaging radar. While it can be programmed to crash into the target, this was not its intended usage as designed, was supposed to return with the collected data records.

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A common tactic used during the cold war was known as Probing. You would send in an asset of some form (a long range bomber, for example) and then watch how your opponent responded.

This might mean observing how close you could get to their territory before being detected, and how long it would take for their interceptors to respond.

After the Gulf war it was common for the US to fly close to the Iranian border in order to goad the Iranians into targeting them with their air defense radars, as a method of determining where they were located.

It has been hypothesised that the devices in question may have been launched purely as a way of determining how long it would take for them to be spotted or what the response to them might have been.

In his book Open Skies, Closed Minds, British author and former defense analyst Nicholas Pope states that NATO radar systems often have filters on them to cut out noise, so that it is easier for the radar operators to see potential hostile aircraft.

For example, they would often automatically exclude fast moving objects at extreme altitudes as meteorites entering the atmosphere, and slow moving low objects as ground clutter caused by trees or birds. He posited that this may be creating blind spots in which hostile aircraft or spying devices could be hidden.

It may be the case that the device was being used to determine what the tolerances of the US filters where, and whether they automatically cut out devices of this nature.

We know that this is a possibility as news reports from the time stated that once the military went back over old records they found several more similar devices, and they then found several more current ones. Meaning that they may have been filtered out.

There has also been speculation that these devices may not have been intended for espionage in the traditional sense, and that they may have been used as mapping tools in order to create maps of the sea bed or of ice flows (Some passed over such areas before being detected). During the early 2000s it was discovered that Chinese submarines were able to operate in areas close to Japan without being spotted because they had extremely accurate maps of the ocean floor. It is suspected that fishing boats were used as a cover for mapping missions.

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Is there a precedent for a country sending a spy vehicle without doing any actual spying?

To my understanding, the closest one I got is World War 2 German kept receiving fake spy information from their own "spy".

Do countries have anything to gain from doing something like this?

It mounts massive humiliation on your enemy. It's 2023 and you allow spy ballon flies above your country sky, what even is your air defense. They should be spotted before they enter your shoreline.

The General in the video claims that the balloon was a spy balloon that didn't collect any intelligence.

Optimistically speaking, this could be the end but, this raise a concern of. What if the one make it out of American sky do collect intelligence?

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I don't think we can draw the conclusion that the Chinese balloon had spying capability that went intentionally unused. Much of the coverage has interpreted Gen. Mark Milley's limited statements in the context of the broadcast as meaning that the balloon was not a "spy balloon" or a security risk at all.

But Milley's phrasing is very lawyerly and not at all conclusive in that direction: "The intelligence community, their assessment – and it's a high-confidence assessment – [is] that there was no intelligence collection by that balloon." and “I would say it was a spy balloon that we know with high degree of certainty got no intelligence and didn't transmit any intelligence back to China.”

There's a potential implication that the electronic equipment the balloon carried was incapacitated by unspecified technical means before it could collect and transmit information.

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Recently released information by the U.S. government claim otherwise:

U.S. intelligence officials have determined that the Chinese spy balloon that flew across the U.S. this year used an American internet service provider to communicate, according to two current and one former U.S. official familiar with the assessment.

The balloon connected to a U.S.-based company, according to the assessment, to send and receive communications from China, primarily related to its navigation. Officials familiar with the assessment said it found that the connection allowed the balloon to send burst transmissions, or high-bandwidth collections of data over short periods of time.

... After the balloon was shot down, a senior State Department official said that it was used by China for surveillance and that it was loaded with equipment able to collect signals intelligence.

The balloon had multiple antennas, including an array most likely able to collect and geolocate communications, the official said. It was also powered by enormous solar panels that generated enough power to operate intelligence collection sensors, the official said.

Source (NBC News - 2023 Dec 28): U.S. intelligence officials determined the Chinese spy balloon used a U.S. internet provider to communicate

So it does seem clear now (if you believe the U.S.) that the "weather balloon" was indeed a spy balloon.

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The Double Cross System, during the 2nd World War, had several objectives, one of which was to infer German plans by collating the requests for information that were sent to spies. It isn't too much of a stretch to imagine fake spying:

  • we want you to think we are doing such and such, so we will pretend to be searching for information that would be useful if we were doing that;
  • our intelligence suggests that you are going to attack here, and we are ready for you, but we want you to think that we don't know.

In fact there was a case in Australia, where a criminal named Tony Mokbel fled the country in 2006, and was eventually arrested in Greece. The Australian police issued a number of feeble sounding requests for help, saying that they were sure he was in Lebanon; in fact they were working with the Greek police to surveil him in Athens, and the pathetic requests for help were intended to lull the suspect into a false sense of security.

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