The Chinese surveillance balloon is a topic of much discussion and speculation in recent weeks. This article will delve into the events surrounding this mysterious object, starting with its reported entry into U.S. and Canadian airspace, its trajectory over multiple locations, and the eventual downing by the U.S. military.
From January 28th to February 4th, 2023, a Chinese-made white high-altitude balloon traversed North American skies, traversing Alaska, western Canada, and the contiguous U.S. The American and Canadian military claimed the balloon was a spy tool, to which the Chinese government responded that it was merely a meteorological research airship that had veered off its course. On February 1st, the balloon was spotted in Montana, and by February 3rd, it had arrived in Missouri. However, on the following day, it was shot down by the U.S. Air Force over South Carolina’s territorial waters on orders from President Joe Biden.
This event intensified tensions between the United States and China, causing U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to reschedule an upcoming diplomatic trip to Beijing. Similarly, it added to the stress in Canada-China relations, leading Canada to recall the Chinese ambassador. On February 3rd, the U.S. Department of Defense announced the existence of a second Chinese balloon traversing Latin America.
The balloon had an attached load, referred to as a “technology bay,” that was roughly equivalent to “two or three school buses” in size and powered by solar panels. According to a U.S. official cited by CBS News, the balloon’s envelope was “much larger.” The same official noted that the craft had a rudder for limited direction control. In the past, a balloon in Japan with a cross-shaped payload bay was observed, with the addition of two propellers on its sides, potentially for better maneuverability. It is unknown if the balloon that flew over North America was equipped with propulsion.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, the balloon posed no military or physical danger to those on the ground. A study conducted by the U.S. Air Force Air University found that surveillance balloons often have very small radar cross sections, roughly the size of a small bird, making it difficult to shoot them down.
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On February 2nd, 2023, the U.S. Department of Defense and the Canadian Department of National Defence revealed that the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) was monitoring a suspected Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon. At the time, the balloon was flying at an altitude of 60,000 feet over the northern U.S., and the Department of Defense stated that it posed no danger to civilian aviation or people on the ground. National security and aerospace experts cited by The Washington Post noted that the balloon displayed features similar to high-altitude balloons used by other countries for meteorology, telecommunications, and research purposes.
According to U.S. reports, the mysterious Chinese balloon first entered U.S. airspace above the Aleutian Islands on January 28th and then entered Canadian airspace over the Northwest Territories on January 30th. It was later seen crossing into the U.S. in the north of Idaho on January 31st and Montana on February 1st, where it hovered over Billings. The presence of the balloon in the vicinity of multiple nuclear missile installations, including the Malmstrom Air Force Base, led to suspicions that it was deployed to conduct surveillance of these nuclear sites. This hypothesis was supported by a meteorologist who calculated a possible trajectory using the HYSPLIT atmospheric model, which was consistent with data on prevailing westerlies from China to Montana. On February 3rd, the balloon was spotted near Kansas City in northwest Missouri.
The U.S. possesses about 400 LGM-30 Minuteman III intercontinental nuclear missiles that are deployed in missile silos around Malmstrom AFB, Montana; Minot AFB, North Dakota; and Francis E. Warren AFB, Wyoming. When asked about the type of intelligence the balloon could collect that a satellite couldn’t, arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis stated that it would be possible to see if radio towers are transmitting, however, much closer observations could be made by driving around Montana with an RF detector.
On February 3rd, the U.S. Department of Defense announced the presence of a second Chinese aerial surveillance device flying above Latin America. Reports of unverified sightings of the balloon were recorded from Venezuela and Costa Rica, while the Colombian Air Force reported detecting an object similar to a balloon traveling at 25 knots at an altitude of 55,000 feet and monitored it until it left Colombian airspace.
Downing and debris recovery
On February 4th, the floating object moved towards the Carolinas. In response, the Federal Aviation Administration imposed one of the largest flight restrictions in American history, which was five times larger than the airspace restriction around Washington D.C. and double the size of Massachusetts. To accommodate this, several airports along the coast were temporarily grounded, including Myrtle Beach International Airport, Charleston International Airport, and Wilmington International Airport. Military aircraft were deployed over the region and U.S. authorities later stated that the preparations were made for the purpose of bringing down the balloon within American territorial waters of the Atlantic.
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The U.S. military reported that the balloon was brought down from a height of 58,000 feet (18 km) by an AIM-9X air-to-air missile fired from an F-22 Raptor aircraft off the coast of Surfside Beach, South Carolina, on February 4 at 2:39 PM. This was the first time an F-22 was used for such an action and is believed to be the highest-altitude air-to-air hit in history.
China asserts that the balloon hovering above Montana poses no danger and is secure. Are Chinese balloons used for secret nuclear strikes on America’s electric grid?
An effort to collect the scattered remnants of the balloon was launched after it was dispersed over a region spanning seven square miles, with an ocean depth of approximately 47 feet. General Glen VanHerck, head of North American Aerospace Defense Command and US Northern Command, announced that the US Navy was engaged in retrieval operations while the Coast Guard was maintaining security in the zone where the debris had fallen.