The spy balloon that gripped a nation, and how it may affect China and US

The Explainer

The spy balloon that gripped a nation, and how it may affect China and US

“The balloon is completely destroyed,” said the pilot.

Since then U.S. officials have been gradually revealing what they knew prior to the flight, and what they learned during it – about China’s espionage aims and its use of seemingly low-tech surveillance technology. Here’s what we know now about some key questions:

What was it?

In briefings, State and Defense Department officials have described the balloon as having an inflated envelope about 200 feet high, carrying an instrument payload about the size of a small jetliner.

While it was traversing North America, the U.S. military received legal dispensation to itself spy on the intruder. As a day-to-day matter, the armed forces under law are not allowed to collect intelligence within the U.S.

Air Force U-2 spy planes operating in support of U.S. Northern Command then flew operational missions to gather information about the balloon. Their ceiling, about 70,000 feet, probably allowed them to fly over the airship and take images from above.

Allowing the balloon to travel across the country, instead of shooting it down in Montana soon after it crossed back into U.S. territory from Canada, allowed the Pentagon much more time to gauge the intruder’s capability and intent, said Melissa Dalton, assistant secretary of defense for homeland security, at a Feb. 9 Senate hearing.

The Pentagon blocked the balloon’s own spying capabilities, according to Ms. Dalton. “It was straightforward to block because we knew where the balloon was,” she said.

Visible equipment included antennas capable of locating and listening in on communications devices, said officials. Such capability is not consistent with China’s claim that the balloon was a weather tracking instrument that had gone astray, according to the U.S. government.

At the balloon’s altitude, 60,000 feet or more, gusting winds are much reduced and unlikely to blow the craft off course. In U.S. military airships designed for surveillance, sensors allow the craft to be “steered,” moving between areas and altitudes with favorable currents. It is possible the Chinese balloon had similar capability, but officials as yet have no confirmation of that.

Initial retrieval efforts in the area where the balloon was shot down off the South Carolina coast have snagged large pieces of the envelope, some wires, and scattered electronics. Although the craft went down in fairly shallow water it will still take some time to retrieve the main payload elements, said officials.

What was it supposed to do?

Initial indications are that the balloon was optimized to collect signals intelligence – electronic voice or data communications moving by cellphone, radio, or other means. In that way it might have been meant to complement the efforts of China’s spy satellites, which focus on image collection and move more quickly over target areas.

It’s possible the balloon was meant as one part of an effort by the Chinese to collect an overall picture of how U.S. radar, communications, and weapons systems interact. But officials aren’t saying that specifically, at least not in public.

The balloon passed initially over Montana, one of the states where U.S. silo-based nuclear missiles are located. At Thursday’s Senate hearing, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana asked officials what, specifically, the balloon was supposed to listen in on.

“We have some very good guesses about that,” said Jedidiah Royal, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, adding that the Pentagon would know more after recovery of more of the balloon’s payload.

In a larger sense the balloon may be an emblem of a widespread Chinese aerial surveillance effort targeting the military capabilities of countries that Beijing considers of strategic interest.

The Washington Post reported that the U.S. this week held a briefing for officials from the embassies of some 40 countries. U.S. briefers characterized the Chinese balloon surveillance as a “massive effort” that involves countries on five continents.

While balloons might seem like an old-fashioned technology today, they are relatively inexpensive, carry large loads, and can be difficult to spot, said officials. Some previous flights by Chinese balloons over U.S. territory during the administration of former President Donald Trump were not detected at the time. They were classified as unknown airborne objects.

Later analysis spotted them as balloons.

“That’s a domain awareness gap that we need to figure out,” said Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, at a Pentagon briefing for reporters this week.

The U.S. already appears to be taking a more aggressive stance toward airborne intruders in General VanHerck’s area of responsibility. The White House confirmed that the Pentagon shot down an unidentified object on Friday over the ocean off the coast of Alaska. The object was traveling at about 40,000 feet – lower than the confirmed Chinese balloon of last week – and could have endangered commercial aircraft, said White House spokesperson John Kirby.

“President Biden ordered the military to down the object, and they did,” said Mr. Kirby.

What does this mean for the U.S.-China relationship?

In one way the drifting white balloon has already set back relations between the U.S. and China. Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week postponed indefinitely a planned trip to China, telling Beijing the act was “irresponsible” and a clear violation of U.S. sovereignty.

Ironically, one of the things Mr. Blinken wanted to accomplish on the trip was to talk with the Chinese about keeping lines of communication open during any future dispute between the two nations, said Emily Weinstein, a research fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, on Friday.

“Within the next few months, when and if things quiet down, maybe Secretary Blinken can go back and try to resume his travel plans,” said Ms. Weinstein at a briefing hosted by Foreign Policy Magazine.

From the administration’s point of view the U.S. has not overreacted to the situation. China would surely have reacted with force to any similar incursion over its territory, officials say. In his State of the Union address President Joe Biden made only one oblique reference to the balloon, though he did say the U.S. is increasingly prepared to “compete” with Beijing, while also seeking to avoid direct conflict.

Why China released the balloon now remains a mystery. Perhaps one part of the Chinese government did not know what the other was doing. Perhaps a department of the Chinese military was simply unaware of what releasing the balloon at a sensitive moment might do. Or perhaps Chinese leader Xi Jinping really thought it was a good idea and might demonstrate strength.

In any case it seems to have been a miscalculation.

“What this has revealed is the fragility of the relationship,” said James Palmer, deputy editor of Foreign Policy, on Friday.