As top diplomats got ready to attend talks in Beijing, the US Defense Department announced on Thursday that it is keeping an eye on a rumored Chinese surveillance balloon floating over the western state of Montana and highlighting the mutual mistrust between the world’s two largest economies. Here is everything we currently know:
What’s a Surveillance Balloon?
Balloons have been used for reconnaissance reasons for a long time, especially during battles like the American Civil War. They are inexpensive, quiet, and difficult to reach.
During World War I, the practice expanded widely. It was heavily employed during the Cold War when the US released many balloons to gather information on China and the Soviet Union. Many countries still use surveillance balloons, but their use has decreased as satellites and unmanned drones have become more common.
Politico reported last year that the Pentagon is increasing its spending on high-altitude inflatables. Even though most modern balloons are unmanned and don’t move independently, wind currents can still affect them.
Chinese Spy Balloon Floating Over the US
The Biden administration discovered the balloon on Thursday. According to the government, it had been sighted earlier in the week and was most recently seen soaring more than 40,000 feet (12,000 meters) over Montana.
Since the state is home to the 341st Missile Wing of the Air Force and its Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles, the site is sensitive. While China’s foreign ministry said Friday that the nation has:
“no intention to violate other countries’ sovereignty and airspace,” a Defense Department spokesman said earlier the US had high confidence it belonged to the country without explaining why.
Later on Friday, a representative for the Chinese foreign ministry stated that the balloon was used for scientific research on the weather and other topics and was civilian.
The ministry claimed it was an accident and attributed a “severe diversion” of the balloon’s course into the US to westerly winds and the object’s lack of control.
Is the Balloon a Security Threat?
Since a US official who briefed the media on Thursday declined to answer several questions regarding its size or characteristics, it is unknown exactly what this particular balloon can do.
The potential of the balloon to gather helpful intelligence information beyond what the Chinese can already gather through their satellite network, according to American officials, is limited.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or Norad, said Thursday it “continues to track and monitor it closely.” In contrast, Canada’s defense department tracked a “potential second incident” without elaborating.
So assuming the “spy” balloon was over Montana yesterday you can use the NOAA Hysplit model to show where it was 120 hours ago (see previous tweet) but by this time tomorrow it will be somewhere in SE Missouri. I assumed 20k meters initial height used NAM WRF 12 km Mdl from 0Z. pic.twitter.com/x16lGnCbEx
— Dan Satterfield (@wildweatherdan) February 3, 2023
Why Has China Sent the Balloon Up Now?
Many years ago, the Chinese complained about US espionage planes and ships flying close to their land. This has occasionally resulted in conflict. According to US officials, before Thursday’s declaration, Chinese balloon activity had also been seen close to US territory.
However, it’s unclear why the balloon is currently traveling over the US. The information was made public only days before US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was supposed to travel to Beijing; it threatens Beijing’s diplomatic attempts to support the first US Secretary of State visit to China since Michael Pompeo’s trip in 2018.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said Friday that Beijing hoped “the relevant parties will handle the matter in a cool-headed way.”
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Why Hasn’t the Pentagon Shot the Balloon Down?
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warned President Joe Biden against shooting down the balloon due to the potential risk of flying debris. When officials were thinking about the possibility, they decided that the “sizeable” object was big enough to cause damage if it hit the balloon as it floated over sparsely populated parts of Montana.
3 x US Air Force Stratotankers have been spotted flying over Montana.
Meanwhile there are reports in media about a Chinese spy balloon flying over Montana.https://t.co/i2BJi32IXG pic.twitter.com/zxN1q97v1A
— Flightradar24 (@flightradar24) February 2, 2023
Since it is floating far beyond the altitude at which commercial airplanes fly, there is probably no immediate danger to the general population.
How Has the Us Responded?
According to persons familiar with the situation, according to a report by Bloomberg News on Friday, the Biden administration has chosen to postpone Blink en’s forthcoming trip to Beijing because officials felt that doing so at this time would be inappropriate.
The “Gang of Eight,” which consists of the chairman and ranking members of the House and Senate intelligence committees, had already received a briefing from the Biden administration, according to a different person.
While this is happening, Republicans are pressuring Biden to take more decisive action. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has referred to the incursion as a “brazen disregard for US sovereignty.”