• Asia-Pacific

PLA’s Strategic Support Command Linked to Chinese Balloon

REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration
A printed balloon with Chinese flag is placed on a U.S. flag in the shape of U.S. map outline, in this illustration taken February 5, 2023.

BEIJING — The Chinese reconnaissance balloon shot down off the United States on Saturday by U.S. forces is believed to have been operated with the involvement of the Strategic Support Force (SSF), a command tasked with strategic space, cyber and electronic warfare missions for China’s military.

The SSF is believed to be using spy balloons, which are inexpensive to manufacture and have no human casualties even if shot down, to supplement its satellite surveillance.

The downed balloon was reportedly sent aloft from a satellite launch base that the SSF controls in China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. The SSF is said to be responsible for gathering strategic intelligence and operating reconnaissance satellites to monitor U.S. nuclear weapons facilities and other sites.

However, the overflight time of satellite reconnaissance is limited, and the information gathered is also affected by weather conditions such as clouds.

According to an official well versed in the internal affairs of the Chinese military, China is trying to develop a system for fixed-point surveillance by deploying spy balloons in locations that cannot be continuously monitored by satellites. “The SSF has private-sector entities operate the balloons as part of its national strategy of ‘military-civilian fusion,’” the official said.

The administration led by Chinese President Xi Jinping advocates military-civilian fusion to link civilian technologies with the buildup of military strength.

The Xi administration is believed to be promoting the integration of the military and civilian sectors not only in the development of military equipment but also in operations. The fact that the SSF is using members of the civilian sector to operate its balloons also seems to be the basis for the Chinese government’s claim that the downed balloon was for “civilian use.”

Chad Fish via AP
The remnants of a large balloon drift above the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of South Carolina, on Saturday. A fighter jet and its contrail are seen below it.