What U.S. officials say is a Chinese government surveillance balloon is now soaring over the northwestern end of Missouri. This is in line with a generally southeasterly track that the balloon has been following since it was first publicly spotted over Montana on Wednesday. Readers of The War Zone can first get up to speed on this situation, which is the latest in a string of similarly concerning incidents in recent years, in our initial reporting here.
Earlier today, the U.S. National Weather Service's (NWS) offices in Pleasant Hill, Missouri, near Kansas City in that same state, Tweeted out pictures showing what looks to be the balloon in the distance. Other images have since emerged from elsewhere in the state. A private pilot flying a Cessna Citation business jet apparently reported seeing a "derelict balloon adrift" at approximately 50,000 feet near Kansas City, which may be the Chinese balloon.
This all matches up with independent modeling of its likely path, which has it continuing generally in a southeasterly direction across the United States toward the Atlantic Ocean. The projections could, of course, change significantly as time goes on.
At a press conference today, Pentagon Press Secretary U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder simply said that the balloon had moved eastward from Montana since yesterday and was now over the central Continental United States. He added that it was at an altitude of around 60,000 feet. Earlier reports said that the balloon had traveled across Alaska's Aleutian Islands and parts of northwestern Canada before moving south into the contiguous United States.
"The North American Aerospace Defense Command [NORAD] continues to monitor it closely," Ryder added. "Again, we currently assess that the balloon does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground at this time."
"The balloon has changed its course, which is again why we're monitoring it," the Pentagon's Press Secretary also noted later on in the press conference. He did not elaborate on whether this was in reference to a change that happened before or after the balloon entered U.S. and/or Canadian airspace.
Ryder also disclosed that the Pentagon has assessed that the balloon "has the ability to maneuver," though this is not at all surprising to learn. Various modern high-altitude balloon designs are already known to exist with the ability to navigate across very long distances and hold station despite prevailing winds in designated areas. This includes types that the U.S. military has been actively testing to potentially carry out various missions, including intelligence-gathering, more general surveillance, communications relay, or even long-range strikes.
The Pentagon Press Secretary flatly rejected the Chinese government's assertion earlier today that the balloon is simply a civilian weather research asset that strayed off course.
"The fact is, we know that it's a surveillance balloon," Ryder said, but declined to elaborate on how that assessment had been made or what its specific intelligence-gathering capabilities might be. "We do know that the balloon has violated U.S. airspace and international law, which is unacceptable. And so we've conveyed this directly to the PRC [People's Republic of China] at multiple levels."
The Chinese government has now officially confirmed that the balloon did originate in China. In a formal statement, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning described it as a "civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes" that has "limited self-steering capability" and that "deviated far from its planned course."
"The Chinese side will continue communicating with the US side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure," her statement continued.
Weather-related research has, of course, been a staple cover story for covert long-range high-altitude aerial intelligence-gathering activities for the better part of a century now. This includes the U.S. government's own efforts to conceal balloon-based snooping on the Soviet Union early in the Cold War, as well as the infamous initial description of the U-2 Dragon Lady spy plane as a weather reconnaissance platform.
Beyond that, the Chinese government has its own long history of responding to allegations about systems, facilities, and capabilities by claiming them to be purely intended for peaceful scientific or commercial applications. For instance, in 2021, another Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson claimed that a test of a novel fractional orbital bombardment system-like strategic weapon actually involved an experimental civilian spaceplane.
Even if this particular balloon is ostensibly a civilian research platform, the sensors that it carries could still be able to collect data that could be exploited for intelligence value. Likely Chinese dual-use of civilian scientific research assets for military or intelligence purposes has been documented on multiple occasions in the past.
“I wouldn't think that there would be much reason to fly such a balloon if you really were interested in studying weather patterns," Dr. James Flaten, associate director of NASA’s Minnesota Space Grant Consortium and an associate professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics at the University of Minnesota, told NPR's Geoff Brumfiel, referring to its apparent size and altitude.
The full fallout from this incident remains to be seen, both in terms of U.S.-China relations and domestic politics. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken's previously planned trip to Beijing next week has now been scrubbed in part over the optics of doing so now.
“We have noted the [People’s Republic of China] statement of regret, but the presence of this balloon in our airspace is a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law, and it is unacceptable that this has occurred,” a senior State Department official said, according to The Hill. “After consultations with our interagency partners, as well as with Congress, we have concluded that the conditions are not right at this moment for Secretary Blinken to travel to China.”
This trip would have been the first for a top U.S. diplomat in five years. The Secretary of State's expected meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping had been seen by experts and observers as a possible sign of rapprochement between the two countries after years of escalation that were further punctuated by then-Speaker of House Nancy Pelosi's pointed visit to Taiwan last year.
The Pentagon says that Biden requested options for shooting down the balloon over Montana on Wednesday, but that the decision was ultimately made not to do so over safety concerns. Such an operation could be difficult to even attempt given the balloon's altitude and other factors, and the debris that it could create might be hazardous to people on the ground. The War Zone is looking to explore those issues in detail separately.
As The War Zone has previously noted, there are additional intelligence-related reasons for why one might not want to shoot down the balloon. Letting it continue to proceed along its path gives opportunities to observe it and its capabilities, as well as collect data about electronic emissions it might be putting out. The Pentagon has said that unspecified mitigation steps have been taken to limit what the balloon might be able to collect in the meantime, and that the U.S. government reserves the right to shoot it down if it decides to do so.
A number of significant questions do remain about this balloon and the U.S. government's response to it so far. Most immediately, it has been especially curious that the Pentagon has declined to provide updates of any kind as to its specific location or how it is monitoring its movements.
"The public certainly has the ability to look up in the sky and see where the balloon is," Ryder said in response to a question about whether the public has a right to know where it is more specifically at any given time.
As a senior U.S. defense official had done at a press conference yesterday, Ryder downplayed the significance of what the balloon might be able to collect intelligence-wise. He declined to respond to a question about why the Chinese government would go through all of this trouble in the first place, then saying that was something to ask authorities in Beijing.
As The War Zone highlighted yesterday, while the exact sensor package the balloon might be carrying is unknown, a terrestrial aerial platform capable of operating in close proximity to a desired target and doing so persistently for long periods can provide very different capabilities than what one gets with orbiting satellites. Sensors can also be deployed faster and far cheaper and missions can be launched far more flexibly.
Perhaps the biggest unanswered question is still why this was not disclosed and attributed to China earlier and such activity in the past has gone undisclosed until now. The Pentagon says that this is not the first time that a Chinese surveillance balloon has passed over U.S. territory, including in the continental United States, and that the prior incidents predate Biden taking office in January 2021. Separate reports say that Chinese balloons previously passed over unspecified parts of Florida, Hawaii, and Guam.
The Pentagon says that details about any of the prior instances of Chinese balloon surveillance over American soil are classified. U.S. officials have so far declined to confirm or deny whether a very similar balloon floating off the north coast of Hawaii nearly a year ago, which prompted a similar reaction from the U.S. military, was also linked to China.
"What makes this [incident] different is the duration and the length of which it [the balloon] has been over U.S. territory, but beyond that, I'm not going to be able to go into any more specifics," Pentagon Press Secretary Ryder said at the press conference today.
The War Zone has reached out to the Pentagon, the White House, NORAD, and the Canadian Department of National Defense for more information on why this particular incident was disclosed and attributed, and why those statements only came days after the balloon appears to have first entered U.S. and/or Canadian national airspace.
Our query to the Canadian Department of National Defense also asked for an update on a statement yesterday that the country's forces were monitoring a possible second balloon. Pentagon Press Secretary Ryder had no additional information to offer on this matter.
If nothing else, this entire balloon affair underscores a number of worrying trends The War Zone has been highlighting for years. The biggest of these is the likelihood that many supposed sightings of unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP), also often referred to colloquially as unidentified flying objects (UFO), are actually people spotting foreign aerial intelligence-gathering assets.
Most of the instances of this to date have been attributed to drones and balloon-like objects, including instances of multiple uncrewed systems harassing U.S. Navy destroyers and buzzing civilian nuclear power plants, among other sensitive sites. Balloons and other lighter-than-air platforms are an underappreciated part of the intelligence-gathering ecosystem for many countries. China is certainly known to be investing heavily in various kinds of airships for surveillance and other missions, as you can read more about in detail here. As already noted, the U.S. military is doing the same.
Of 366 newly cataloged UAP incidents in 2022, 163 were determined to have been "balloon or balloon-like entities," according to an unclassified report that the Pentagon’s newly formed All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO) and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence's (ODNI) National Intelligence Manager for Aviation (NIM-A) jointly published in January.
Balloons that are similar, if not identical, to the one now flying over the United States have also been spotted in the skies above India, Japan, and now Costa Rica in the past few years. Another kind of airship, again possibly Chinese in origin, was spotted in the vicinity of Luzon, a large island in the northern end of the Philippines, and near the hotly contested South China Sea, last year.
"'We do it to them' with satellites and drones. And many of the 'unidentified aerial phenomena' sightings are believed to be Chinese aircraft," a "person directly familiar with the matter" told NBC News, according to a Tweet today from that outlet's chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel. "And China spies on [the] U.S. daily in far more damaging ways."
All told, it will be very interesting to see how U.S. government announcements about Chinese balloon surveillance activity or other similar incidents do or do not change going forward.
UPDATE 9:15 P.M. EST:
Pentagon Press Secretary Ryder now says another balloon flying over areas of Latin America has been assessed to be a Chinese surveillance asset, according to multiple outlets. While he did not offer any further details, this seems most likely to refer to a similar-looking balloon that had been previously spotted over Costa Rica.
Reports earlier had indicated that Costa Rica's Civil Aeronautics Directorate, also known by the Spanish acronym DGAC, had launched an investigation into this balloon, terming its presence an "airspace violation."
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