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Stratospheric Airships for Elint - And a Stray Chinese Balloon or Two

Another layer of intelligence gathering - fact or fiction?

By James MarineroPublished 2 months ago Updated 2 months ago 5 min read
Area 51 where are you? Supposed image of a stratospheric, long-endurance airship, said to have been taken near Subic Bay in the northern Philippines, as shared on social media. Photo: Twitter


China has apologised for the illegal drifting of one of its balloons into US airspace. It resulted in the US Secretary of State cancelling a visit to Beijing citing 'violation of our sovereignty' at a time when diplomatic relations between the countries are arguably at an all time low. It's clearly a major embarrassment for China.

Chinese 'spy' balloon over Montana. Image source: Twitter
Projected track of Chinese balloon. Author screengrab from Twitter

It's rare to see such an apology from China, so what happened?

U.S. defense officials considered shooting the balloon down but decided not to due to the risk of debris injuring civilians on the ground. A meeting was convened between Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, NORTHCOM/NORAD Commander General Glen D. VanHerck, and other military commanders. President Biden received a "strong recommendation" from officials that it not be shot down. - Wikipedia

And now there's another Chinese balloon drifting over Latin America.

The suspected Chinese surveillance balloon is flying about 60,000 feet above the United States, according to Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, and I'll get to the interesting issue of 'how high does a country's sovereignty extend upwards?' in the story on stratospheric elint gathering that I published back in December 2022, below.

Back to the original story

Stories and pictures have been circulating this week [Dec 2022] on social media about sightings of an unidentified high-altitude, long-endurance airship near a former US naval base in the Philippines. These have raised concerns that some countries in the region — e.g China — are using stratospheric airships to collect military intelligence.

When I saw the image, a phrase came to mind, a well-known catchphrase from a US comedy:

‘Car 51 where are you?

But I was wrong. It should have been ‘Car 54 where are you?’ I think that the scriptwriters missed a trick there.

I was thinking Area 51 as in Nevada, and the Skunk Works.

No doubt Russia and China have equivalent sites and maybe China has these floaters in operation.

Back to the stratosphere

The sightings were made by residents of Pangansin Island in the north of the Philippines.

Subic Bay is nearby. It used to be a major US naval base, but now it is just a freeport. 100 km northwest of Manila.

The sightings have led to speculation about the origin and purpose of the stratoship and a report in TheDrive’s War Zone said the airship appeared similar in design to stratospheric airship types that Chinese companies are known to have been working on.


China seems to be the most likely source of this airship, having the most significant interest in the region, other than the US.

A helium-filled airship called Jimu 1 docks at the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. [Photo by Aerospace Information Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences] via Africa.China.Daily


More generally known as atmospheric satellites or ‘atmosats’ this class of aircraft are usually unmanned and some are even autonomous. Designs vary and even Google had the Loon project to develop one. They may be geostationary or mobile.

We have HALEs (high-altitude long endurance) and HAPS: High-altitude platform station or high-altitude pseudo-satellite defined as “a station on an object at an altitude of 20 to 50 km (roughly 12.5–30 miles, 63,000–150,000 ft) and at a specified, nominal, fixed point relative to the Earth”. (ITU)


Some have a flying wing design:

NASA Helios prototype. Image credit: By NASA/Nick Galante — http://www.dfrc.nasa.gov/Gallery/Photo/Pathfinder-Plus/HTML/ED02-0161-2.html (direct link), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7001945

And others are conventional balloons, but most, though, centre on the blimp (fat cigar design).

Boeing Stratobus. Image credit: By Master Image Programmes, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47953074


They operate at heights up to and above the jetstream, but usually below 100,000 feet. ‘Angels 100’ is a critical height because below that the airspace is deemed (de facto) to be controlled by the country below, although there is little in the way of formal international agreement about this.

For HAPS vehicles of whatever design, a key constraint is power: how to maintain station keeping in the face of winds. Solar power is one answer.

In general both HALEs and HAPS have to operate above 17 km (~56,000feet) which is the practical ceiling for commercial aircraft operations.


Proposed applications for atmosats include border security, maritime traffic monitoring, anti-piracy operations, disaster response, agricultural observation, atmospheric observation, weather monitoring, communications relay, oceanographic research, Earth imaging and telecommunications. Facebook is reportedly envisioning providing Internet access to the African continent with a fleet of 11,000 vehicles — Wikipedia

And military, including:

  • Telecommunications
  • Surveillance and intelligence
  • Rocket launch and other weapons platform
  • Wide area comms jamming


Almost all major aerospace manufacturers have these systems under development, including, of course, Bayraktar in Turkey who are well know for their supply of drones to Ukraine during the Russian invasion.

Although touted as a HALE (high altitude long endurance) vehicle, I am wondering whether Bayraktar’s Akinci really does qualify as an atmosat (Wikipedia says it does). I could find no details of its operational ceiling. Its purpose is obvious and it is operational.

Bayraktar Akinci. Image credit: By ArmyInForm — commons.wikimedia, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=116386964

Many other atmosat versions are available:

The Airbus Zephyr is a series of lightweight solar-powered unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). The latest model is a high-altitude platform station capable of flying at 70,000 feet (21,000 m) for months at a time without fueling. It has a wingspan of 25 metres (82 ft) and weighs 75 kilograms. — Wikipedia

And if you’re wondering about Russia, the Lavochkin design bureau is reported to be flight-testing the LA-252, a 25 m wing-span, 116 kg solar-powered UAV apparently designed to stay aloft 100 days in the stratosphere.


Fact or fiction? Yes, they do exist outside Area 51 and after all my digging, I am betting that it was a Chinese ‘entity’ seen near the Philippines.

And as we have seen in January 2023, they seem to be commonplace these days, thanks to China.

We live in interesting times.


What about the Chinese claim that it was a weather balloon (January 2023)?

Weather balloons are launched around the world for observations used to diagnose current conditions as well as by human forecasters and computer models for weather forecasting. Between 900 and 1,300 locations around the globe do routine releases, two or four times daily, usually at 0000 UTC and 1200 UTC

Military and civilian government meteorological agencies such as the National Weather Service in the US typically launch balloons, and by international agreements almost all the data are shared with all nations.

- Wikipedia

Yes, there are a lot of them, and they fly as high as 40 km (25 miles). The weather data is shared, mostly.

To me there's little doubt that this was an elint balloon, but how on earth could the Chinese be so stupid as to get caught like this?

I'm surprised that they didn't say it was a left-over from the Chinese New Year.


James Marinero's novels at his Gumroad bookstore. Also at Amazon and Apple

This is a modified and updated version of a story first published in Medium on 25 December 2022.

techspacesciencefact or fictionextraterrestrial

About the Creator

James Marinero

I live on a boat and write as I sail slowly around the world. Follow me for a varied story diet: true stories, humor, tech, AI, travel, geopolitics and more. I also write techno thrillers, with six to my name. More of my stories on Medium

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