On February 4, the U.S. government shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon that had been drifting across U.S. airspace for days.
The high-altitude balloon spotted floating for days in airspace near U.S. military sites dominated headlines and sparked a political uproar. It prompted U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to postpone a high-stakes visit to Beijing.
China said it regretted “the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace due to force majeure,” but called the downing of the balloon “an obvious overreaction.”
“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,” the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
That is misleading.
The U.S. government, which monitored the balloon for days before shooting it down, rejected China’s characterization of the balloon.
“[W]e are aware of the PRC's statement. However, the fact is we know that it's a surveillance balloon,” Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, told reporters on February 3.
The U.S. military was “able to collect intelligence on the balloon as it flew over the U.S., giving them a number of days to analyze it and learn how it moved and what it was capable of surveilling,” The Associated Press reported, citing two senior defense officials speaking on condition of anonymity.
The fact that the balloon could be maneuvered also undermined China’s claim that the balloon had drifted over the U.S. because of wind and had limited self-steering capability.
Once the Pentagon publicly identified the balloon, “China attempted to maneuver the balloon to leave the U.S. as soon as they could,” said U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in a February 5 press release. A U.S. official who spoke to AP on the condition of anonymity confirmed that the balloon “changed course at that point.”
Reuters reported that the balloon “appeared to travel near sensitive U.S. bases including Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, which oversees 150 intercontinental ballistic missile silos, and Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, home to U.S. Strategic Command, which is in charge of nuclear forces. It also appeared to drift over Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, which operates the Air Force's B-2 bomber.”
Reuters quoted an anonymous U.S. official as saying the balloon “had propellers and rudders” and “loitered over certain sites”:
“It went left, right. We saw it maneuver inside the jet stream. That's how it was operating."
On February 7, China confirmed ownership of a second balloon the Pentagon spotted over Latin America, claiming it was also a weather balloon.
Citing U.S. officials, AP reported that the balloons “are part of a fleet that China uses for surveillance” and “can be maneuvered remotely through small motors and propellers.”
The New York Times, citing a senior U.S. administration official, reported that balloons from the Chinese surveillance fleet “have been spotted over countries across five continents.”
A senior U.S. defense official told the Times that Chinese surveillance balloons had previously strayed into U.S. airspace once during the Biden administration and three times during the Trump administration.
Citing a U.S. official, AP reported that the Chinese surveillance balloons “carry equipment in the pod under the balloon that is not usually associated with standard meteorological activities or civilian research.”
U.S. meteorologists said the Chinese balloon spotted in the U.S. last week did not look like a typical weather balloon.
“The reported characteristics of this balloon don’t really match anything that we’re familiar with,” Jonathan Porter, the chief meteorologist at Accuweather, told Time magazine.
ABC News on February 2 cited a U.S. a defense official who described the balloon as wide as three school buses, which is about 27 meters. However, typical weather balloons used by the U.S. National Weather Service are about two meters wide when launched, expanding to about six meters in diameter as they rise, and “are only in the air for a couple of hours,” Weather.com reported.
Marina Miron, a defense studies researcher at Kings College London, told the BBC that some balloons have the capability of lingering over a spot to collect data, which is something “you cannot do with a satellite.”
The Washington Post, citing a Pentagon official, reported that “[b]alloons can hover longer over collection targets like the ICBM field in Montana that was overflown a few days ago, but they’re not stationary, and their signals-collection ability isn’t radically different from other systems available to the Chinese…”
The newspaper noted that a balloon also “provides better granularity in its images.”
The Post added that “it’s possible that the mission was an attempt to trigger U.S. radar or electronic-warfare signatures, which would be valuable in a future conflict…but any such collection would have limited value.”
Experts say that the pod retrieved from the downed balloon should provide a clearer picture of the balloon’s purpose.