There are still many questions about the alleged Chinese spy balloon in the skies over the United States
A suspected Chinese surveillance balloon flew over sensitive ballistic missile sites in the United States on Friday, and later a Chinese surveillance balloon was seen over Latin America. But what exactly is this massive white orb sweeping across US airspace that has sparked diplomatic turmoil and exploded on social media?
China insists it was just a faulty civilian balloon used mainly for meteorological research that was derailed by the wind. With only limited “self-guided” capabilities.
However, the United States says it is a Chinese spy balloon without any doubt. Her presence prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a weekend trip to China aimed at de-escalating already escalating tensions between the two countries.
The Pentagon says the balloon, which carries sensors and monitoring equipment, is maneuverable and has shown it can change course. However, it slowed down in sensitive areas of Montana where nuclear warheads are isolated, prompting the military to take action to prevent it from collecting intelligence.
It could remain high over the United States for “a few days,” a Pentagon spokesperson said, adding to uncertainty about where it will go or if the United States will attempt to safely eliminate it.
A look at what is known about the balloon – and what is not known.
bird, airplane, balloon
The Pentagon and other US officials say it is a Chinese spy balloon – the size of three school buses – moving east over America at an altitude of about 18,600 meters (60,000 feet). The US says it was used for surveillance and intelligence gathering, but officials have provided few details.
US officials say the Biden administration was aware of it before it crossed into US airspace in Alaska early this week. Some of the officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic.
The White House said President Joe Biden was shown the balloon for the first time on Tuesday. The State Department noted that Blinken and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman spoke with a senior Chinese official based in Washington on Wednesday evening about the issue.
In the first public US statement, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, said Thursday night that the balloon was not a military or physical threat — an admission that it was not carrying weapons. “As soon as the balloon was discovered, the US government immediately moved to protect against the collection of sensitive information,” he said.
Even if unarmed, the balloon poses a danger to the United States, says retired Gen. John Ferrari, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He said the flight itself could be used to test America’s ability to detect incoming threats and find loopholes in the country’s air defense warning system. It might also allow the Chinese to sense electromagnetic emissions that high-altitude satellites cannot detect, such as low-power radio frequencies that could help them understand how various US weapons systems communicate.
He also said that the Chinese might have sent the balloon “to show us that they can do it, and maybe next time they can have a weapon. So now we have to spend money and time on that” developing defences.
Let it fly, fall?
Senior administration officials said President Joe Biden initially wanted to bring down the balloon. Some members of Congress have echoed that sentiment.
But senior Pentagon leaders strongly advised Biden against this step because of the risks to the safety of people on the ground, and Biden agreed.
One of the officials said the sensor package being carried by the balloon weighs as much as 1,000 pounds. And the balloon is big enough and high enough in the air that the potential debris field can extend for miles, with no control over where it will eventually land.
For now, officials said the US will monitor it, using “a variety of methods,” including aircraft. The Pentagon has also said that the balloon is not a military threat and does not give China any surveillance capabilities it does not already have with spy satellites.
But the United States is keeping its options open and will continue to monitor the flight.
Rep. Jim Himes, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, suggested it might be worth trying to capture the balloon for study. “I’d rather have a Chinese observation balloon than clean one over a 100-square-mile debris field,” said Himes.
How did I get here?
Deliberate or accident? There is also disagreement.
In terms of wind patterns, China’s calculation that global air currents — winds known as Westerlies — carried the balloon from its territory into the western United States is plausible, said Dan Jaffe, a professor of atmospheric chemistry at the University of Washington. Jaffe has studied the role these wind patterns play in transporting air pollution from Chinese cities, wildfire smoke from Siberia, and dust from sandstorms in the Gobi Desert to the United States for two decades.
“It’s very consistent with everything we know about wind,” Jaffe said. “The transit time from China to the United States will take about a week.” “The higher you go, the faster you go,” Jaffe said. Typically, he said, weather and research balloons have a range of steering capabilities depending on their development, from no steering to limited steering ability.
The US is essentially silent on the issue but insists the balloon is maneuverable, suggesting that China somehow deliberately moved the balloon toward or into US airspace.
The history of spy balloons
Spy balloons are nothing new – the primitives go back centuries, but they only became more widely used in World War II. There have been other similar incidents of Chinese spy balloons, administration officials said Friday, with one saying they occurred twice during the Trump administration but never made public.
At the Pentagon, Ryder confirms that there have been other incidents where the balloons have come close to or crossed the United States border. However, he and others agree that what makes this different is the length of time he was on American soil and how far into the country it was.
Craig Singleton, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said Chinese observation balloons have been seen several times over the past five years in various parts of the Pacific, including near sensitive US military facilities in Hawaii. He said the high-altitude rubber planes serve as low-cost intelligence-gathering platforms, and some can be used to detect hypersonic missiles.
During World War II, Japan launched thousands of hydrogen balloons carrying bombs, and hundreds ended up in the United States and Canada. Most of them were ineffective, but one of them was fatal. In May 1945, six civilians were killed when they found one of the balloons on the ground in Oregon, which exploded.
In the aftermath of the war, America’s balloon efforts are ignited by the strange stories and lore associated with the city of Roswell, New Mexico.
According to military research documents and studies, the United States began using giant trains of balloons and sensors that were strung together and stretched more than 600 feet as part of an early effort to detect Soviet missile launches during the post-World War II era. They called it Project Mogul.
One of the balloon trains crashed at Roswell Army Airfield in 1947, and Air Force personnel unaware of the program found wreckage. However, the unusual experimental equipment made them difficult to identify, leaving pilots with unanswered questions that, with the help of UFO enthusiasts, took on a life of their own. According to military reports, the simple answer was over the Sacramento mountains at the Project Mogul launch site in Alamogordo.
In 2015, an Army drone surveillance balloon broke away from its mooring at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. The plane circled over Pennsylvania for hours with two fighter jets on its tail, knocking out power as its rope was towed through power lines. Then, as the residents contemplated, the 240-foot balloon crashed in rural Muncie, Pennsylvania. He still had helium in his nose when he fell, and state police used shotguns—about 100 rounds—to deflate him.
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