Many questions about an alleged spy in the sky


A look at what’s known about the balloon crossing the United States – and what’s not.

A high-altitude balloon floats over Billings, Montana, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. China’s massive high-altitude balloon streaked across the United States on Friday, prompting serious espionage accusations at the Pentagon and sending Excited or alarmed Americans outdoors with binoculars. . Secretary of State Antony Blinken abruptly canceled a high-stakes trip to Beijing aimed at easing US-China tensions. (Larry Mayer/The Billings Gazette via AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — What is that thing?

The huge white orb drifting through US airspace has sparked a diplomatic maelstrom and is exploding across social media.

China insists the balloon is just an errant civilian airship used primarily for weather research that has been derailed by winds and has only limited “self-steering” capabilities.

The United States says it is definitely a Chinese spy balloon. His presence prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a weekend trip to China that was intended to ease already high tensions between the countries.

The Pentagon says the balloon, which carries sensors and surveillance equipment, is maneuverable and has shown it can change course. He loitered on sensitive areas in Montana where nuclear warheads are compartmentalized, leading the military to take action to prevent him from collecting intelligence.

A Pentagon spokesman said it could remain airborne over the United States for “a few days”, prolonging uncertainty over its destination or whether the United States will try to shoot it down. completely safe. And on Friday night, the Department of Defense acknowledged reports of a balloon flying over Latin America – assessed as “another Chinese surveillance balloon”.

A look at what’s known about the balloon crossing the United States – and what’s not.


The Pentagon and other US officials say it is a Chinese spy balloon – the size of three school buses – moving east over America at an altitude of about 60 000 feet (18,600 meters). The United States says it was used for surveillance and intelligence gathering, but officials provided few details.

US officials say the Biden administration was aware of this even before it entered US airspace in Alaska early last week. A number of officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic.

The White House said President Joe Biden was first briefed on the ball on Tuesday. The State Department said Blinken and Assistant Secretary Wendy Sherman spoke Wednesday night with a senior Washington-based Chinese official about the matter.

In the first U.S. public statement, Brig. Pentagon press secretary Gen. Pat Ryder said late Thursday that the balloon posed no military or physical threat — an acknowledgment that it was not carrying weapons. He said that “once the balloon was detected, the US government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.”

Even if the balloon is unarmed, it poses a risk to the United States, said retired General John Ferrari, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. The flight itself, he said, can be used to test America’s ability to detect incoming threats and find flaws in the country’s air defense warning system. It may also allow the Chinese to detect electromagnetic emissions that higher-altitude satellites cannot, such as low-power radio frequencies that could help them understand how different US weapons systems communicate.

He said the Chinese may have sent the ball “to show us that they can do it, and maybe next time he could have a weapon. So now we have to put money and time into it” to develop defenses.


According to senior administration officials, Biden initially wanted to knock the ball down. Some members of Congress echoed that sentiment.

But Pentagon leaders strongly advised Biden against the move because of the safety risks to people on the ground, and Biden agreed.

An official said the sensor package the balloon is carrying weighs up to 1,000 pounds. The balloon is big enough and high enough in the air that the potential debris field could stretch for miles, with no control over where it would end up landing.

For now, officials have said the United States will monitor him, using “a variety of methods” including aircraft. The Pentagon has said the balloon poses no military threat and does not give China any surveillance capabilities it does not already have with spy satellites.

But the United States is keeping its options open.

Rep. Jim Himes, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, suggested it might be worth trying to capture the ball for study. “I would much rather own a Chinese surveillance balloon than clean one over a 100 square mile debris field,” said Himes, D-Conn.


Deliberate or accident? There is also disagreement.

As for the wind patterns, China’s account that global air currents – winds known as Westerlies – carried the balloon from its territory to the western United States is plausible, said Dan Jaffe, professor of atmospheric chemistry at the University of Washington. Jaffe has studied the role these same wind patterns play in carrying air pollution from Chinese cities, smoke from Siberian wildfires, and dust from sandstorms from the Gobi Desert to the states. United for two decades.

“It’s completely consistent with everything we know about winds,” Jaffe said. “The transit time from China to the United States would be approximately one week.” “The higher it goes, the faster it goes,” Jaffe said. He said weather and research balloons typically have a range of steering capabilities depending on their sophistication, from no steering to limited steering capability.

The United States is largely silent on this issue, but insists the ball is maneuverable, suggesting that China somehow deliberately moved the ball into or out of space. American airline.


Spy balloons aren’t new – the primitives date back centuries, but they came into more use during World War II. Administration officials said on Friday there had been other similar incidents of Chinese spy balloons, with one saying it had happened twice under the Trump administration but had never happened. never been made public.

The Pentagon’s Ryder confirmed that there have been other incidents where balloons have approached or crossed the US border, but he and others agree that what makes this different is the length of time it lasts. has passed over American territory and how far it has penetrated into the country.

Craig Singleton, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said Chinese surveillance balloons have been sighted numerous times over the past five years in different parts of the Pacific, including US military installations near the sensitive area in Hawaii. High-altitude inflatables, he said, serve as low-cost platforms for gathering intelligence and some could be used to detect hypersonic missiles.

During World War II, Japan launched thousands of bomb-carrying hydrogen balloons, and hundreds ended up in the United States and Canada. Most were ineffective, but one was deadly. In May 1945, six civilians died when they found one of the balloons on the ground in Oregon, and it exploded.

In the aftermath of the war, America’s balloon effort ignited extraterrestrial stories and lore tied to Roswell, New Mexico.

According to research papers and military studies, the United States began using giant trains of balloons and sensors that were chained together and spanned more than 600 feet as part of an early effort to detect launches. of Soviet missiles after World War II. They called it Project Mogul.

One of the balloon trains crashed at Roswell Army Airfield in 1947, and Air Force personnel unaware of the program found debris. The unusual experimental equipment made identification difficult, leaving aviators with unanswered questions that over time – aided by UFO enthusiasts – took on a life of their own. The simple answer, according to military reports, was just over the Sacramento Mountains at the Project Mogul launch site at Alamogordo.

In 2015, an Army unmanned surveillance airship broke loose from its mooring at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland and floated over Pennsylvania for hours with two fighter jets on its tail, unleashing blackouts as he dragged his tether over power lines. As locals stood in awe, the 240-foot airship fell to pieces in the countryside of Muncy, Pennsylvania. He still had helium in his nose when he fell, and state police used shotguns – about 100 rounds – to deflate him.

Associated Press writers Zeke Miller, Ellen Knickmeyer, Matthew Lee, Aamer Madhani and Mike Balsamo contributed to this report.


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