Tag Archives: PLA Air Force

Stratospheric Balloon Technology Is Up There

Chinese stratospheric balloon seen over the United States, February, 2023

THE UNITED STATES says that the high-altitude balloon it shot down at the weekend that China says was a strayed weather balloon was not a one-off but part of a globally deployed fleet of stratospheric surveillance balloons.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken says Chinese balloons ‘have violated the sovereignty of countries across five continents’ and that Washington was sharing information from the one it shot down with various governments.

US officials have been briefing that the fleet operates from Hainan Island, home to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s Southern Theatre Command, and over the years has flown spying missions over Japan, Vietnam, India and Taiwan, among other countries, including previous overflights of the United States. One flew over South America concurrently with the flight of the one the United States shot down.

The one shot down, US officials say, was carrying devices to intercept communications — sigint gathering, in the jargon — among other surveillance equipment. Its solar panel array would have provided sufficient power for multiple surveillance devices.

Based on research papers published in recent years, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been showing interest in the military applications of ballons, including as a means to test the air defences of adversaries as well as for electronic surveillance and supporting PLA-Air Force attack missions. Chinese military researchers have also been looking at the way the United States uses high-altitude balloons as part of its early warning systems against missile attacks and to supplement ground-based air defence systems.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Aerospace Information Research Institute and Institute of Optics and Electronics are also researching stratospheric balloons for near-space use. They have conducted test launches, including balloons claimed to be capable of carrying payloads of over 1,000 kilogrammes. While these have civilian uses, such as land imaging and environmental mapping, the technology would readily transfer to military use.

US officials’ descriptions of the downed Chinese balloon suggest that it is at least ten times larger in diameter than a typical weather balloon and carried a payload of at least 900 kilogrammes, compared to the less than 200 grammes typical of the small and expendable measuring device called a radiosonde that weather balloons usually carry. It also appears to have been made of a plastic film, not latex, which is the usual material for weather balloons — and why they burst relatively quickly, giving short flying times, nothing like the days the downed balloon took to traverse Canada and the United States.

Larger balloons carrying equipment for civilian high-altitude photography and videography would be three times larger than a typical weather balloon but still only a third of the size of the one shot down.

The Foreign Ministry has said it does not know which company owns or manufactured the downed balloon. However, US officials have said they have identified a balloon manufacturer that sells to the PLA.

Weather balloon manufacture in China is dominated by Zhuzhou Rubber, part of state-owned ChemChina, which makes 75% of high-altitude balloons used by the China Meteorological Administration (CMA).

The CMA has its roots in the military but has been a civilian agency since the mid-1990s. It is highly unlikely the one shot down was one of its. Earlier this month, it said it had seven meteorological satellites in orbit. These could be used as relays to transmit data from high-altitude balloons back to ground stations.

The other manufacturer capable of making balloons that fly at that height is Guangzhou Double-One Weather Equipment. It has said the downed balloon was not one of its.

A US Air Force defence contractor, Raven Aerostar, and another US company, World View Enterprises, make stratospheric balloons of similar size and capacity to the Chinese one. These are ‘steered’ by moving them up or down to catch air currents moving in the desired direction. The Chinese balloons likely operate in the same way.

It is easy to imagine a fleet of stratospheric balloons able to communicate with each other and form a high-altitude mesh network providing real-time coverage of what is below — whether environmental conditions or military assets — from near-space and using the increasing constellations of communications satellites being put into space by US and Chinese entities to relay their data back to earth.

The 14th Five-Year Plan (2020-25) identifies the development of a national broadband satellite constellation as a policy goal, and earlier this week Beijing announced a licencing system for satellite internet providers.

Our man in Washington tells us that the US is now considering sanctions against Chinese balloon makers that sell to the PLA.

Stratospheric ballooning has its technical challenges, but they are not exactly rocket science, so to speak. Its wide application to civilian use will make it a new and particularly querulous front in the contention over dual-use technologies between Washington and Beijing.

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US Drops Charges Against Chinese Military Academics

AS A MATTER of record, this Bystander should note that the US Department of Justice has dropped charges against five Chinese academics accused of concealing their ties to the People’s Liberation Army.

The five faced charges of visa fraud, as we wrote at the time.

The cases were dropped shortly before the trial of one of the five, Tang Juan (seen above in a photo submitted with court papers), was about to start on July 26. The Justice Department said it had ‘determined that it is now in the interest of justice to dismiss [the charges]’.

That reflects some internal concerns that the cases were not legally watertight on some technicalities. Further, courts had already dismissed parts of two cases because the FBI had not properly informed the defendants of their rights against self-incrimination.

Reading between the lines, the Trump administration, which brought the charges, was overreaching in its efforts to find spies among Chinese academics working at US universities.

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Air Force Academics Open New US-China Front

IN MAY, CHINESE students with military connections were blocked from pursuing graduate study or postgraduate research at US universities.

By the executive order of US President Donald Trump, the United States suspended the issuance of non-immigrant F and J student visas to such Chinese nationals, effective June 1. It claimed that some students operated as ‘non-traditional collectors of intellectual property’ on behalf Beijing’s ‘wide‑ranging and heavily resourced campaign to acquire sensitive United States technologies and intellectual property, in part to bolster the modernization and capability of…the People’s Liberation Army’.

Newly unsealed papers filed in the San Francisco division of the US district court for the Northern District of California, are providing some detail to that accusation.

They depict an organised attempt by the PLA Air Force to send scientists from the Air Force Military Medical University (AFMMU), formerly the Fourth Military Medical University, and other military institutions to work on US university research programmes without revealing that the participants were in active service with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Four people have been charged with related visa fraud, three of whom have been arrested in the United States, it was announced on July 23. Investigations have touched on 25 cities and are continuing.

The proximate case involves a bail hearing for Tang Juan (seen above in a photo submitted with the court papers), a biologist researching at the University of California, Davis. She is said to work for the AFMMU’s Centre for Molecular Translational Medicine. (Translational medicine involves paring basic and clinical research to develop new drugs and medical products, and is a field getting a lot of attention in China.)

Tang is facing charges of visa fraud by making false statements on her application for her J-1 visa (for exchange programmes) last year. She is accused of falsely answering ‘no’ to three questions about whether she is a member of the military and the Party and whether she had had assistance in making the application. If convicted of the charges against her, which do not include any of IP theft at this point, she could face ten years imprisonment and a fine of $250,000.

The US government wants her held in remand until she comes to trial, believing her a flight risk. However, Tang, who is in her late 30s, is the one of the quartet not in US custody as she has taken refuge in the Chinese consulate in San Francisco. This threatens to create a significant tension point between Washington and Beijing if she is not handed over to US authorities.

Having closed down the Houston consulate-general this week, citing the need to protect US intellectual property, the US president might be tempted to impose the same sanction on the San Francisco consulate, which US intelligence officials hold to be the centre of China’s espionage efforts in the United States.

A similar case, for which the court has also released the bail-hearing papers, involves Song Chen, who is in US custody. A Visiting Scholar at Stanford University, she has been working on neurological research there since the beginning of last year.

Like Tang, she is said to be a member of the AFMMU’s Civilian Cadre, technical specialists regarded as active military personnel. Her affiliations cited on her published academic papers have included the Department of Neurology at the Air Force General Hospital in Beijing, a clinical teaching hospital for the AFMMU. The court papers regarding her also include a photograph of her in uniform.

More substantive court filings about the cases against Song and Tang have not been made public.

However, in Song’s case, in addition to being accused of committing perjury over her visa application by falsely stating her military duty ended in 2011, she is charged with destroying evidence and lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (a federal offence in the United States).

The bail papers refer to ‘several’ similar cases, two of which are identified, Wang Xin, a J-1 visa student at the University of California, San Francisco, and one at Duke University referred to as ‘LT’. Wang was arrested on June 7. The third Chinese student who has been detained has been named as Zhao Kaikai, who was arrested on he same day as Song.

Zhao is studying machine learning and artificial intelligence at Indiana University. She is said to have attended the Air Force academy, Aviation University, and worked at the National University of Defense Technology, the PLA’s elite scientific research institution.

Chinese students in the United States have increasingly fallen under the suspicious eye of the Trump administration in its relentless determination to keep US technology out of Chinese hands. Its 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment report to Congress identified the openness of academia and the scientific community in the United States as a vulnerability.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said after the May executive order was issued,

We will not tolerate [China’s] attempts to illicitly acquire American technology and intellectual property from our academic institution and research facilities for Chinese military ends.

The US administration defines military links as any connection with the military-civilian fusion policy. Thus an estimated up-to-5,000 of some 4000,000 Chinese students in the United States may be at risk if the administration can make good on its goal of finding a way to cancel existing visas held by Chinese graduate and postgraduate students, and not just stop new issuance.

Chinese students account for more than one-third of all international students in the United States, the largest national cohort. They are a rich source of tuition fees for US universities and colleges, one reason that visa applications for undergraduate courses are excluded from the new issuance suspension.

Overall, two in five international students in the United States are undergraduates. However, the more than one in three who are graduates and postgraduates and the further one in five who are working for US companies, as they can do after graduation to get practical experience, are weighted towards Chinese students, and especially in the science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) disciplines, where there is a shortage of qualified US job applicants. More than one-half of US graduate or higher- level STEM degrees are awarded to international students.

Senator Tom Cotton, a strident Republican critic of China, has introduced legislation into Congress that would bar Chinese graduate students from studying STEM-related subjects in the United States. His proposal is being fiercely resisted by the US tech industry, which scours the world for the best talent. Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, told a conference earlier this month that ‘many of the top graduate students are foreign-born and typically Chinese’.  

None the less, a growing atmosphere of hostility towards Chinese students is noticeable in the United States as bilateral relations deteriorate over everything from trade to Hong Kong and the coronavirus. At his regular press briefing earlier this week, in response to a question about the ordered closure of the consulate-general in Houston, Texas, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said,

For some time, the US government has been … intimidating and interrogating Chinese students and seizing their personal electronic devices, even detaining them without cause.

This week, the Chinese embassy in Washington started organising more charter flights home for Chinese students who have graduated, are about to see their visas expire, or are encountering ‘difficulties staying in the US’. It has already flown about 7,000 home who had been stranded by the Covid-19 pandemic.

This Bystander expects that to be characterised as a military evacuation by the more belligerent China hawks in the United States.


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China’s Modern Major-Generals

President Xi Jinping poses for a group photo with military delegates to a meeting on armed force reform, Beijing, November 24-26, 2015

THE MODERNIZATION OF China’s armed services into a professional fighting force commensurate with the needs of the country’s growing global presence is starting to reach the sharp end. A two-day policy meeting on PLA reform, presided over by the chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), President Xi Jinping, has just wrapped up in Beijing. The photograph above shows Xi and his top brass at the event.

The meeting ratified:

  • the PLA and the Chinese People’s Armed Police being put under the administration of the Central Military Commission, the twin state-Party agency through which the Party controls the armed forces, a move that further strengthens and integrates the Party’s control of the military and security apparatus;
  • amalgamation of the country’s seven military regions into five, which will be refocused as combat commands;
  • and advancement of the concept of the PLA as a true multi-service force as opposed to an army with planes and ships by giving the PLA Navy (PLA-N), the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and the Second Artillery Corps, which controls nuclear and conventional ballistic weapons, more autonomy over their procurement and strength expansion.

While much of this was presaged in the five-year-plan for the military drawn up in 2011, this most recent meeting suggests that the army, which has been fighting a rearguard against the changes, has largely concluded that further resistance is futile. This is partly because of the irrefutable military rationale that modern China needs more air and naval power and fewer ground forces, but also because Xi’s anti-corruption drives have successfully removed more than 200 of the greenish-brown-uniformed gainsayers.

However, the tightening of Party control over the armed forces, in itself another aspect of Xi’s centralization of power, and state media reports of the continuing need ‘to solve the problem of weak discipline enforcement and inspection and to ‘eradicate the soil of corruption with stricter rules and systems’, suggests that the pressure will be kept up. Corrupt, poorly trained and equipped ground forces is the PLA’s Achilles heel.

While the PLA ’s old commercial empire was dismantled some years back, China growing industrial-military complex offers new temptations. A ‘revolution in the management’ of the military will take care of some of that, as will cutting 300,000 administrative and non-combatant personnel from the army’s numbers as previously advertised — though the timeline is unclear and the cuts will still leave the PLA as around a 2 million-strong force including 1 million ground forces.

The aircraft carriers, advanced submarines, stealth fighters and ballistic missiles bear ample testimony to the naval and air services’ ascendancy. However, the PLA’s command structure, including its communications and logistics, does not yet fully reflect that though the communications infrastructure is making rapid advances.

A unified joint military command is also needed for the tighter integration between the PLA and internal security forces, even more important now that Beijing has now declared its ‘war on terror’ albeit mostly starting at home.

The 2011 five-year plan spoke of developing leaner, more technologically sophisticated armed forces with a joint command structure capable of “winning local wars under conditions of high technology and informatisation”. That is now being put in place, even if China is still — at least for now — only capable of winning skirmishes rather than wars in the Pacific, cyberspace and real space.

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Washington Lays Out Its Annual View Of China’s Military Capabilities

The U.S. military’s newly released annual assessment of China’s defense capabilities will surprise no one in saying that Beijing is improving its military training, weapons and surveillance so as to be able to conduct more sophisticated attacks against Washington and other adversaries closer to home. Neither is it any surprise that this is a result of China’s two-decades-long drive to modernize the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

If anything, this report to the U.S. Congress is a restatement of the justifications for Washington’s ‘Asian pivot’ announced in 2012. It is also perhaps the clearest statement to date of how that doctrinal shift is being tempered by U.S. budget cuts — and provides an implicit counterargument for curtailing them.

In light of those budget-cutting pressure, the Pentagon sees an opportunity for offshoring some of the cost of its increased Asian presence to its Asian allies. In every region of the world, the Pentagon says, it will seek to build the capacity of partners’ forces so that they, not Washington, can take the lead in providing security. That should also provide a bonus for America’s arms manufacturers who should see increased export demand for their wares as a result.

Equally predictably, Beijing has dismissed the report as a holdover of Cold War thinking, and says that its armed forces are still 20-30 years behind those of the U.S., which spends more than another nation on its military at 4% of GDP. Beijing also asserts that its military build-up is solely for defending its own sovereignty, though as the continuing conflicts in the South and East China Seas testify, sovereignty can be in the eye of the beholder.

“Probable” drone reconnaissance in the East China Sea was among the most significant military developments of last year identified by the Pentagon in its report. Others include:

  • air-defense upgrades to destroyers and frigates;
  • test flights of China’s Y-20 transport planes to move ground forces quickly across great distances;
  • at least eight launches to expand intelligence and surveillance from space;
  • integration of anti-radar missiles into the PLA Air Force’s fighter-bomber fleet; and
  • the PLA Navy’s development of long-range, over-the-horizon radar as a targeting mechanism for DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles carried on new Jiangdo-class corvettes, which previous Pentagon reports have identified as a threat to the U.S. new Littoral Combat ships.

The Pentagon’s assessment is couched in terms that suggest its working assumption for any future China-U.S. military conflict is that it would be a high-tech naval and missile fight. Thus the U.S. military’s need is to invest in technology more than capacity, and to ensure that its partner militaries in Tokyo, Manila and elsewhere in the region are willing and able to undertake U.S.-led training.

They may want to wait until after 2016 when the U.S. will have a new administration which may have a new set of priorities. Beijing will be quite happy to continue its PLA modernization in the meantime.

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China’s Military Modernization: Stepping Ahead

Soldiers of the honor guard of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) march during a media visit at the honor guard's base in Beijing, capital of China, July 21, 2011. A total of 145 domestic and foreign journalists were invited to take a tour to the base of the PLA honor guard on Thursday, ahead of the 84th anniversary of the founding of the PLA that falls on Aug. 1. (Xinhua/Wang Jianmin)

One can see pretty much anything one wants in the 2012 defense budget China announced last weekend, and which the National People’s Congress (NPC) will approve this week: more military build-up from an increasingly assertive regional power; catch-up spending for a developing nation’s armed forces still in need of substantial modernization; even a proxy for the expected slowdown in the economy overall. It is arguably all those things, but most of all it is pretty much more of the same. China has had double-digit increases in its official defense budget every year since 1989, with the exception of 2009’s 7.5%.

Ahead of the NPC’s opening, spokesman, Li Zhaoxing  announced that defense spending in 2012 would be 670.2 billion yuan ($110 billion),  a rise of 11.2% on 2011’s figure. It is the first time the budget has topped $100m, if that arbitrary threshold matters to you. The proposed increase for this year is  smaller than last year’s 12.7% rise, reflecting, as promised under the current five-year plan, the slowdown in the overall economy.

This year, for the first time, China says, it is including weapons R&D and acquisition in its numbers, which have in the past been overwhelmingly for personnel pay, maintenance and equipment. Quite what difference this makes to the headline number is unclear. How big a bite, for example, is the new aircraft carrier, or China’s new anti-ship missiles and J-10B jet fighters taking out of the official defense budget, if, indeed, that is where they are being accounted?

As is well accepted, the official defense budget is reckoned to account for less than two-thirds of China’s total military spending. The People’s Armed Police has its own budget, as does the militia. Some, if not all, of both budgets can reasonably be considered military spending. But more opaque is the question of how much is being spent under the aegis of the space program and the development of the strategically important “national champion” industries on R&D that has dual military-civilian use, or in the space program’s case, pure military use.

Not only does China still spend less than a third as much on defense as the world’s largest military power, the U.S. (however you add up the figures),  much of the operational deployment of China’s new military toys is still years away. Nor are its aircraft, missiles and ships yet comparable in the aggregate with those in the most advanced fighting forces, despite the ambitious development of a huge domestic aerospace and defense contracting industry.

Pravda reports from Russia that China is trying to buy 48 of Russia’s new Su-35 fighter jets. The $4 billion deal is being held up Moscow’s concerns that their advanced frontline fighter will be cloned by the Chinese military, as happened with its Su-27 (the inspiration for China’s J-10) and the Su-30 (the J-11). If this deal comes off, it would be the first time that Beijing has bought foreign fighters for the PLA Air Force in more than a decade. What is unclear is whether this is an attempt to leap-frog to the future or a deal that is necessary because domestic development is falling behind. Aircraft engines and radar systems, we are told, are the critical areas where progress is not as rapid as hoped.

That may be one reason that President assumptive Xi Jinping reportedly rebuffed U.S. President Barack Obama’s suggestion during his recent visit to Washington that the two countries’ military hold regular talks, as their economic and security officials do. A peep behind the curtain may reveal a less than flattering picture for the world’s second most expensive military force. Xi, who has close ties with the army–his father was one of Mao’s revolutionary generals before falling from grace–will not want to embarrass the PLA, and especially not while he is assuming the reins of power.  And just as he will want to keep his military onside during the transition, he will want to keep America’s off-balance and guessing to the extent he can.

There is no doubt that Beijing will continue to build-up its military forces, particularly the navy, which is developing submarine and carrier fleets to the extent it can be a power in regional waters, the logistics capability of the national command and support infrastructure, and the capacity to fight in space and cyberspace. It wants a modern, self-sufficient fighting force by the early 2020s. The 2012 military budget just keeps it marching in that direction.

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Four Points On China’s Military Build-Up

This Bystander takes four highlights away from the latest edition of The Military Balance, the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies’ (IISS), annual global defense spending  review (summary here).

  • ‘The global redistribution of military power now underway’ as a result of contracting defense budgets in developed nations and expanding ones in developing nations, means that Western arms manufacturers are facing strong and growing competition from non-Western defense industries, such as China’s, in markets for basic military equipment.
  • The attention to the build-up of Beijing’s aircraft-carrier and submarine fleets is misplaced. The IISS reckons that the PLA-Navy’s “new landing platform docks and its deployment of more effective anti-ship missiles hold greater strategic significance”. Similarly with the attention being paid to the PLA Air Force’s J-20 ‘stealth’ fighter. That may be an indication that China “is gradually closing the gap between itself and the West”, but it is the addition of Sukhoi Su30 multirole fighters, in-flight refueling tankers and AWACS aircraft that is “significantly strengthening China’s air capability”.
  • Beijing’s unremitting modernization of its military forces, which includes the development of anti-satellite and cyber-war capabilities, means that “that the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait is gradually changing in favor of the PLA.”
  • China’s increasingly assertive naval presence in the East and South China Seas has prompted a build-up of the defense capabilities of Japan and its Southeast Asian neighbors, while anti-piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean and  funding of port construction in Pakistan and Sri Lanka have provided a justification for India’s own naval expansion plans.


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