Why would China use balloons when satellites exist?
China has a substantial satellite network. In fact, in a November 2022 report, the Defense Department declared that China’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance-capable satellite fleet had over 260 systems, which is the second best, after the United States.
According to a senior defense official, the balloon flying over Montana didn’t have much value from an intelligence collection perspective. However, even if China HAS a satellite technology that’s better than any balloon, James Char, a research fellow within the China Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, spy balloons are oftentimes preferred, due to some operational advantages.
For instance, balloons can seize extreme conditions, and they are less expensive to deploy and operate, in comparison to satellites. Also, it seems that a high-altitude balloon has a longer endurance time, which could achieve sustained and wider coverage if the regional observation is in the plan.
It’s also much more difficult to spot it by radar since they’re much simpler in terms of technology. It seems that, even if the technology is rather old, balloons are able to complete full surveillance technology in orbit, and they’re also much cheaper to build and deploy.