Chinese Spy Balloon Floats across America
Editor’s note: This piece was updated Monday, February 6, 2023 to reflect the fact that the balloon has been shot down.
A Chinese surveillance balloon is currently pursuing a leisurely jaunt across the continental United States. Brigadier General Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary said on Thursday that “the United States government has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now.” The Department of Defense (DOD) said it was “most certainly launched by the People’s Republic of China,” later adding that the surveillance balloon is “maneuverable” and headed in “an easterly direction.”
After it crossed the Aleutian Islands and parts of Canada, the spy balloon was spotted Thursday above Montana, passing close to Malmstrom Air Force Base, which maintains 150 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos. Around midday Friday, the National Weather Service tweeted photos of an unidentified balloon visible from the ground near Kansas City, Missouri. That’s about smack-dab in the center of the Lower 48.
Although balloons have been used for military surveillance since the 1790s, they are by no means obsolete. The U.S. military deployed balloons as recently as the war in Afghanistan.
The DOD estimates the balloon’s altitude at 60,000 feet, or around 11 miles. That places the balloon well above the range of commercial aircraft, which fly at 33,000-42,000 feet, according to the Pilot Institute. The DOD spokesperson declined to “go into the exact dimensions” of the balloon, but it must be gigantic to be visible to the naked eye from 11 miles below. Chances that it reads, “Happy Birthday, Joe,” are near zero.
The Biden administration is facing pressure to shoot the foreign device clear out of American airspace. Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) tweeted, “Shoot. It. Down. The Chinese spy balloon is clear provocation. In Montana we do not bow. We shoot it down. Take the shot.” Senator Steve Daines (R-Mont.) sent Defense Secretary Austin a letter Thursday “demanding answers from the Biden administration about the spy balloon that flew over our airspace.”
An unnamed defense official said that the military considered shooting the balloon, but ultimately decided to monitor it instead. “We had been looking at whether there was an option yesterday over some sparsely populated areas in Montana. But we just couldn’t buy down the risk enough to feel comfortable recommending shooting it down yesterday,” the spokesperson explained. “We had to assess what the possible debris field would look like falling from that height. We wanted to, you know, take care that somebody didn't get hurt or property wasn’t destroyed.” Ryder added, “The U.S. government, to include NORAD [North American Aerospace Defense Command], continues to track and monitor it closely.”
It is possible the decision not to shoot was made by President Biden himself. “In this instance, President Biden was briefed and asked for military options,” said the defense official. Biden was first briefed about the balloon on Tuesday. As vice president, Joe Biden famously advised against the raid that ultimately killed Osama bin Laden.
For its part, China on Friday admitted the balloon was theirs, but denied that it was a government surveillance vessel. The PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed in a statement, “The airship is from China. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes. Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course.”
Western officials aren’t buying China’s story. “This was intentional,” said one senior official. The DOD has already determined that the balloon can maneuver against the prevailing wind, contradicting China’s narrative. On Friday, a State Department official called the balloon’s presence in U.S. airspace “a clear and unacceptable violation of U.S. sovereignty.”
That violation has triggered instant consequences. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to travel to China for the weekend to work out a better way for both countries to respond to international incidents. Instead, Blinken has postponed his trip indefinitely after China created one.
The spy balloon “does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground,” said Ryder. That is, it is not equipped with weapons to begin shooting. However, the danger of this kind is that China will gain valuable information about U.S. nuclear sites, enabling them either to deliver a knock-out missile strike with pinpoint accuracy, or gain intelligence about personnel movements to enable their agents to infiltrate or sabotage the sites.
Meanwhile, Canada’s Department of National Defense, which cooperates with NORAD announced on Thursday that it was “monitoring a potential second incident.” Little more is known about this cryptic suggestion.
The U.S. has been tracking the Chinese surveillance craft for at least four days already. Ryder suggested Friday it will likely remain over U.S. airspace “for a few days” longer. This story will continue to develop over the weekend because the PRC’s airborne spy is not moving very quickly. After all, it’s a balloon.
**Update: A U.S. fighter jet shot down the balloon off the South Carolina coast on Saturday. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng complained the U.S. “obviously overreacted and seriously violated the spirit of international law and international practice.” However, the clear violation of international law is flying a spy balloon through another power’s airspace without permission. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) compared the Biden administration’s decision to hold their fire until the balloon reached the Atlantic Ocean to “tackling the quarterback after the game is over.”
Joshua Arnold is a staff writer at The Washington Stand.