In what is surely the most captivating national balloon news since a Colorado couple falsely claimed their 6-year-old was trapped inside a runaway weather balloon in 2009, the Pentagon announced late Thursday that it is tracking a high-altitude Chinese balloon flying over the U.S., which is allegedly being used for reconnaissance. On Friday, China countered the allegation, saying it was a rogue weather balloon that had been blown off course. The Biden administration isn’t buying that line, calling the balloon a violation of U.S. sovereignty, and in response has postponed Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s upcoming trip to Beijing. While many are taking advantage of this rare opportunity to make balloon jokes, Republicans are attacking President Biden for not blowing it out of the sky. Below is what we know about this developing story.
What could China be trying to spy on?
Arms-control expert Jeffrey Lewis tells Intelligencer’s Matt Stieb that balloons are inexpensive longer-term alternatives to satellites:
A satellite is going to constantly be in motion. It’s going to fall, it’s going to peer over the horizon, it’s going to pass overhead, and it’s going to be gone. A balloon has a more persistent quality to its monitoring and detection.
But Lewis also notes that wouldn’t make much sense for China to be surveilling nuclear missile sites this way:
Satellites move but silos don’t. The locations of our missile silos and of Chinese missile silos are extremely well known to each party. If you’re talking about optical imaging, I don’t think there’s much of an advantage to a platform like this compared with a satellite. My guess is it could have some other payload on it to collect different kinds of information. I’m just speculating, but maybe a signals-intelligence payload. If you’re using a radio and you turn on marine radar, you can collect those signals from space or a drone. You could see if radio towers are transmitting, but again, we’re a free country. So you could take an RF detector and drive around Montana and you can get much closer to the silos than a balloon can.
Read the rest of Matt’s interview with Lewis here.
Where is the balloon now? Where has it been? Where is it going?
Everyone wants a glimpse of the Chinese spy balloon, it’s gonna be THE raging internet trend for the next few days assuming the air force doesn’t shoot it down. If you’re not on your lawn getting noisy shots of every speck in the sky, you’re missing out. pic.twitter.com/SA630Tfgy6
— Alejandro Alvarez (@aletweetsnews) February 2, 2023
As of midday Friday, the balloon was hovering over the central U.S. and moving eastward at an altitude of about 60,000 feet, according to the Pentagon, which would not confirm the device’s exact location. The big white balloon, which is expected to remain in U.S. airspace for a few more days, was apparently visible over northwest Missouri around 12:30 p.m. on Friday:
We have had several reports across northwest MO of a large balloon visible on the horizon. It is now visible from our office in Pleasant Hill and the KC Metro. We have confirmed that it is not an NWS weather balloon. pic.twitter.com/CKQWOw7God
— NWS Kansas City (@NWSKansasCity) February 3, 2023
Pentagon officials say they monitored the balloon hovering over Montana on Wednesday, where it had apparently traveled after flying into U.S. airspace in Alaska over the Aleutian Islands.
It was just confirmed that the Chinese government currently has a spy balloon flying over the US which shut down the air space over Billings yesterday. This is footage from our reporter Travia outside the @KULR NBC studios of the ballon. (1/2) pic.twitter.com/uhjVeLk69C
— Bradley Warren (@bradmwarren) February 2, 2023
Montana Republican senator Steve Daines told the Pentagon in a letter that he was concerned about the balloon’s proximity to the heart of America’s nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles, which are scattered across multiple bases in the Great Plains.
FYI the NOAA HYSPLIT going forward puts the Balloon over TN/SE MO. in the morning. https://t.co/kddIAVQnGG
— Dan Satterfield (@wildweatherdan) February 3, 2023
Why isn’t the U.S. shooting down the balloon?
Although the military reputedly readied fighter jets to shoot it down, President Biden reportedly opted not to pop China’s balloon after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin advised him against such a move. Pentagon officials were concerned that “any potential debris field would be significant and potentially cause civilian injuries or deaths or significant property damage.”
Nonetheless, the Biden administration is taking a lot of flak for not attempting to capture the balloon or take it out. “SHOOT DOWN THE BALLOON!” Donald Trump wrote in a Truth Social message on Friday. A number of top Republicans have said the same:
It was a mistake to not shoot down that Chinese spy balloon when it was over a sparsely populated area
This is not some hot air balloon, it has a large payload of sensors roughly the size of two city buses & the ability to maneuver independently
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) February 3, 2023
Shoot down the balloon. Cancel Blinken’s trip. Hold China accountable.
Biden is letting China walk all over us. It’s time to make America strong again.
— Nikki Haley (@NikkiHaley) February 3, 2023
No, do not shoot at the balloon
A certain former president’s oldest son is among those suggesting that gun-toting, spy-balloon hating Americans take matters into their own hands:
If Joe Biden and his administration are too weak to do the obvious and shoot down an enemy surveillance balloon perhaps we just let the good people of Montana do their thing… I imagine they have the capability and the resolve to do it all themselves.
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) February 3, 2023
A Montana state representative also tweeted:
Did somebody say Chinese spy balloon? Be right back pic.twitter.com/QTnQWI7qLY
— Ben Baker (@BenBakerMO) February 3, 2023
Though there have been no reports of any Americans actually shooting at the balloon, needless to say, that would not be a good idea, nor could the world’s best marksman hit a moving target 60,000 feet away:
B/c readers are asking, I don’t think you can easily see the balloon or shoot it down. It’s too high. And while I appreciate your eagerness to defend US air space, sources tell me that you should not try to actually do so.
— Nancy Youssef, نانسي يوسف (@nancyayoussef) February 3, 2023
Today’s safety brief:
Do not shoot at the balloon. It is too high up. You will not hit it.
— Task & Purpose (@TaskandPurpose) February 3, 2023
The Pentagon apparently isn’t impressed
The Defense Department has maintained that it does not view the balloon as a threat. According to unnamed Defense officials who spoke with the New York Times, the DoD seems to be more annoyed than concerned:
The [senior defense] official said that while it was not the first time China had sent spy balloons to the United States, this one has appeared to remain over the country for longer. Still, a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the balloon did not pose a military or physical threat and added that it had limited value in collecting intelligence. Another defense official said the Pentagon did not think that the balloon added much value over what China could glean through satellite imagery.
China swears it’s a wayward weather balloon
China’s foreign ministry acknowledged Friday that the balloon had come from China but claimed it was an airship conducting meteorological research that had “deviated far from its planned course” thanks to wind. The foreign ministry said China was “regretful”:
Full statement from China’s Foreign Ministry here: https://t.co/BqYKDUGLl7 pic.twitter.com/HKuzS7aQKM
— Olivia Siong (@OliviaSiongCNA) February 3, 2023
White House postpones Blinken’s trip to China
The violation of U.S. airspace has prompted the Biden administration to hold off on the secretary of State’s upcoming trip to Beijing, which was scheduled for next week and would have been the first trip to China by a U.S. secretary of State in five years. Bloomberg reports that the balloon incident “led officials to decide that going now would send the wrong signal.”
Yes, there have been jokes
What if the balloon is trying to defect pic.twitter.com/pTgnPtx1Ll
— Adam Rawnsley (@arawnsley) February 3, 2023
That’s no moon #ChineseSpyBalloon pic.twitter.com/NV9LdfW3hX
— H I Sutton (@CovertShores) February 3, 2023
And conspiracy theories
Am currently listening to Alex Jones who thinks the Chinese spy balloon is a potential dry run for an EMP attack which would escalate us into WWIII
I tune into (banned . video) so I don’t have to hear the exact same take 100 times here on Twitter
— Savanah Hernandez (@sav_says_) February 3, 2023
And war-balloon history lessons
Since “Chinese Spy Balloon” is trending: In 1945, the crew of USS New York spotted a sphere that they thought might be a Japanese balloon weapon. The captain ordered it shot down but none of the guns could score a hit. Finally, a navigator realized they were attacking Venus. pic.twitter.com/aKwedtrr2G
— U.S. Naval Institute (@NavalInstitute) February 3, 2023