About that Chinese spy balloon over the US

The tense U.S.–China relationship is about to get even more tense, as Beijing throws us another curveball in the form of a massive spy balloon currently floating over Montana. The Pentagon reportedly thought about shooting it down, but they’re concerned that action might risk lives on the ground.

Watch the Skies

An intelligence-gathering balloon, most certainly launched by the People’s Republic of China, is currently floating above the United States, the Defense Department announced Thursday evening.

“The United States government has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now,” Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said during an impromptu briefing Thursday evening. “The U.S. government, to include NORAD, continues to track and monitor it closely.”

The Pentagon held an on-the-record briefing yesterday with a “senior defense official” laying out more details:

Secretary Lloyd Austin convened senior DoD leadership yesterday, even as he was on the road in the Philippines. It was the strong recommendation by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Milley, and the commander of NORTHCOM, General VanHerck, not to take kinetic action due to the risk to safety and security of people on the ground from the possible debris field.

Currently we assess that this balloon has limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective. But we are taking steps, nevertheless, to protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information.

We did assess that it was large enough to cause damage from the debris field if we downed it over an area. 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.

So, beyond that, though, I can’t really go into the dimensions. But there have been reports of pilots seeing this thing, even though it’s pretty high up in the sky. So, you know, it’s sizeable.

A mysterious ground stop at the Billings, Mont., airport on Wednesday suddenly makes more sense.

Shane Ketterling, the Director of Aviation at Billings Logan, says two flights to the airport were diverted, and one flight was delayed from taking off while the air space was closed. The diverted flights were eventually able to land.

He said BIL was directed by the Salt Lake City FAA tower to shut down, and they closed 50 square miles of air space over the Livingston area, impacting Bozeman, Helena and Billings.

If “many Montanans were noticing an unexplained object in the sky” and it’s in high-altitude space above the path of commercial airliners — usually between 33,000 and 42,000 feet — this thing must be huge. And if it’s huge and really high up, that means debris is going to fall to earth at enormous speed and likely do a lot of damage when it lands.

Last night, Tyler Rogoway, editor of The War Zone, laid out more complications of an attempt to shoot down the balloon:

Before you take something like that Chinese spy balloon down, assuming an order is ever given, you get the right assets in place to capture all the high quality visual and especially electronic intelligence on it you can. That can be lost in its destruction. Meanwhile, you do whatever you can do minimize your vulnerability in terms of intelligence it can collect. This means emission control procedures and possibly even dealing with assets that are visible if it is equipped with [electro-optical] sensors. Having one of these soaking up intel over an active ICBM field is not ideal. The key here is the craft poses no kinetic threat, so if you are aware of it and can mitigate its intel collection threat, then you can exploit it for your own intel.

That senior defense official explained on Thursday night that, “We wanted to make sure we were coordinating with civil authorities to empty out the air space around that potential area. But even with those protective measures taken it was the judgment of our military commanders that we didn’t drive the risk down low enough, so we didn’t take the shot.”

The senior defense official didn’t offer any specifics about whether the balloon was attempting to survey, but said that, “The current flight path does carry it over a number of sensitive sites.” Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana is one of three U.S. Air Force Bases that operates, maintains, and secures the U.S. arsenal of Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Apparently, China has sent spy balloons into U.S. airspace before — “a handful of other times over the past few years, to include before this administration” — but this one is behaving differently, according to the official. “I will say that the past number of times it did not loiter over the continental United States for an extended period of time. It’s different.” Back in February 2022, U.S. Pacific Air Forces scrambled F-22s to intercept an unmanned balloon floating off the coast of the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

Canada’s Office of the Minister of National Defense issued a similar statement, but it included a curiously vague reference to a “potential second incident”:

A high-altitude surveillance balloon was detected and its movements are being actively tracked by NORAD.

Canadians are safe and Canada is taking steps to ensure the security of its airspace, including the monitoring of a potential second incident.

NORAD, the Canadian Armed Forces, the Department of National Defence, and other partners have been assessing the situation and working in close coordination.

Canada’s intelligence agencies are working with American partners and continue to take all necessary measures to safeguard Canada’s sensitive information from foreign intelligence threats.

We remain in frequent contact with our American allies as the situation develops.

People might think surveillance balloons are obsolete in an era of spy satellites, stealth aircraft, and drones, but balloons offer a relatively cheap way to get a good look at a place for an extended period. Even the U.S. military uses them; Lockheed Martin boasted of the effectiveness of their blimp-like aerostats in Afghanistan:

Insurgents on the ground were perplexed by what they saw. The airships didn’t seem to move, nor did they fire missiles or release bombs.

It was only when insurgents began to notice coalition forces anticipating some of their covert operations that they realized those alien-looking airships had been watching — and recording — their every movement via a new surveillance program called the Persistent Threat Detection System (PTDS).

Lockheed asserts that the aerostats proved “to be an invaluable reconnaissance tool, gathering intelligence from 100 miles in every direction, 24 hours a day, for weeks on end, thwarting everything from the planting of IEDs in remote locations to rogue Afghan police officers extorting money from civilians at illegal checkpoints.”

The United Kingdom also uses persistent high-altitude balloons as part of their Aether project, developing uncrewed platforms for stratospheric communications and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

Why send a balloon over U.S. airspace and places the Pentagon calls “sensitive” sites? Because a spy plane going into U.S. airspace would get an immediate response from NORAD, and a balloon wouldn’t. The balloon can float above locations that a spy plane can’t, travel further than most drones (at least those launched from Asia) and conceivably provide better, clearer, more detailed surveillance images, simply by being closer to the surveillance target.

And here we have one of the core problems of dealing with the regime of Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party. As we’ve seen, Americans have varying degrees of concern about the Uyghurs. Sometimes, you’ll even hear business leaders scoff that, “Nobody cares about what’s happening to the Uyghurs, okay?” Americans have varying degrees of concern about the brutal crackdown in Hong Kong, the aggressive saber-rattling around Taiwan, and other Chinese acts of hostility. The world is full of brutal regimes that the U.S. is willing to work with when our interests align. We’ve even largely shrugged off the fact that we don’t know how the Covid-19 pandemic started in Wuhan, and the Chinese government’s refusal to cooperate with international inquiries and investigations.

But as the pandemic made clear, China’s problems don’t always stay in China. In addition to all those iPhones, toys, and clothing, the regime in Beijing also exports a lot of trouble.

Whether we like it or not, China’s government sees us as a potential enemy and threat and treats us that way. Oftentimes, it seems like they’re spoiling for a fight. The incursions into other countries’ airspace, the expansion of their military, the building of artificial islands in contested waters, the “Wolf Warrior” diplomats — the first instinct of Beijing, particularly under Xi Jinping, is usually aggressive confrontation. The CCP likes to probe, it likes to provoke, and it likes to test boundaries.

It’s got a spy balloon floating over our country, as of this writing. What are we willing to do about it?

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