Several questions about the Chinese spy balloon still in the air

WASHINGTON (AP) — What was that thing?

The massive white orb that drifted through US airspace this week and was shot down by the Air Force over the Atlantic on live TV on Saturday has sparked a diplomatic maelstrom and exploded on social networks.

China insists the balloon was just an errant civilian airship used primarily for weather research that derailed due to winds and had only limited “self-steering” capabilities. He also issued a threat of “further actions”.

In a statement after the downing of the craft, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the use of force by the United States was “a clear overreaction and a serious violation of international practice”.

He added, “China will resolutely defend the legitimate rights and interests of the relevant company, while reserving the right to take further measures in response.”

The United States says it was undoubtedly 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 said the balloon, which carried sensors and surveillance equipment, was maneuverable and showed it could 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 US Air Force fighter jet shot down the balloon Saturday afternoon off the coast of Carolina. Television footage showed a small explosion, followed by the balloon slowly drifting into the water. An operation is underway to recover the remains.

An overview of what’s known about the ball – and what’s not:


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

US defense and military officials said on Saturday the balloon entered the US air defense zone north of the Aleutian Islands on January 28 and moved over land across Alaska and in Canadian airspace in the Northwest Territories on January 30. in US territory above northern Idaho. US officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic.

The White House said 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 was unarmed, it posed a risk to the United States, said retired General John Ferrari, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. The flight itself, he said, could 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 have allowed 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.

As the balloon floated over Montana on Wednesday, Biden authorized the military to shoot it down as soon as it was in a location where there would be no undue risk to civilians. Due to its massive size and altitude, the debris field from its sensors and the balloon itself must have stretched for miles. So top military and defense leaders advised Biden not to shoot him down on the ground, even when it came to sparsely populated areas.

At 2:39 p.m. Saturday, as the balloon flew through United States airspace approximately 6 nautical miles off the coast of South Carolina, a single F-22 fighter jet from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia – flying at an altitude of 58,000 feet – fired an AIM-9X Sidewinder into it. The Sidewinder is a short-range missile used by the Navy and Air Force primarily for air-to-air engagements, the missile is approximately 10 feet long and weighs approximately 200 pounds.

Live news feeds showed the moment of impact, as the ball collapsed and began a long drop into the Atlantic.

The F-22 was supported by a range of Air Force and Air National Guard fighter and tanker aircraft, including F-15s from Massachusetts and tanker aircraft from Oregon, Montana, Massachusetts, South Carolina and North Carolina. All pilots returned safely to base and there were no injuries or other damage to the ground, a senior military official told reporters during a briefing on Saturday.

As the deflated balloon slowly descended, US Navy ships had already moved in, waiting to pick up the debris.

The Federal Aviation Administration had temporarily closed airspace over the Carolina coast, including airports in Myrtle Beach and Charleston, South Carolina, and Wilmington, North Carolina. And the FAA and Coast Guard worked to clear the airspace and water under the balloon.

Once the balloon crashed into the water, US officials said, the debris field stretched for at least 7 miles and was in the water 47 feet deep. This depth is shallower than they had anticipated, making it easier to retrieve sensor housing parts and other salvageable parts.

Officials said the USS Oscar Austin, a Navy destroyer, the USS Carter Hall, a dock landing ship, and the USS Philippine Sea, a guided-missile cruiser, are all part of the effort. of recovery, and that a salvage ship will arrive in a few days. . They said navy divers would be on hand if needed, along with unmanned vessels capable of picking up the debris and lifting it to the ships. The FBI will also be on hand to categorize and assess anything recovered, officials said.

As for the intelligence value, US officials said the balloon’s journey across the United States gave experts several days to analyze it, gather technical data and learn a lot about what it was doing. , how he did it and why China might use things like this. They declined to provide details, but said they expected to find out more as they gathered and examined the debris.


Spy balloons aren’t new – the primitives date back centuries, but they came into more use during World War II.

U.S. officials said on Saturday that similar Chinese balloons had briefly transited the continental United States at least three times during the Trump administration and once that they were aware of earlier in the Biden administration. But none of these incidents lasted that long.

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 stretched more than 600 feet in 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.

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


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