Many Questions About China Balloon 02/04 09:17
WASHINGTON (AP) -- What in the world is that thing?
The massive white orb drifting across U.S. airspace has triggered a
diplomatic maelstrom and is blowing up on social media.
China insists the balloon is just an errant civilian airship used mainly for
meteorological research that went off course due to winds and has only limited
The United States says it is a Chinese spy balloon without a doubt. Its
presence prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a weekend trip to
China that was aimed at dialing down tensions that were already high between
The Pentagon says the balloon, which is carrying sensors and surveillance
equipment, is maneuverable and has shown it can change course. It has loitered
over sensitive areas of Montana where nuclear warheads are siloed, leading the
military to take actions to prevent it from collecting intelligence.
A Pentagon spokesman said it could remain aloft over the U.S. for "a few
days," extending uncertainty about where it will go or if the U.S. will try to
safely take it down. And late Friday, the Defense Department acknowledged
reports of a balloon flying over Latin America -- assessed as "another Chinese
A look at what's known about the balloon crossing the U.S. -- and what isn't.
IT'S A BIRD, IT'S A PLANE, IT'S A ... SPY BALLOON
The Pentagon and other U.S. officials say it's a Chinese spy balloon --
about the size of three school buses -- moving east over America at an altitude
of about 60,000 feet (18,600 meters). The U.S. says it is being used for
surveillance and intelligence collection, but officials have provided few
U.S. officials say the Biden administration was aware of it even before it
crossed into American airspace in Alaska early this past 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 balloon on
Tuesday. The State Department said Blinken and Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman
spoke with China's senior Washington-based official on Wednesday evening about
In the first public U.S. statement, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press
secretary, said Thursday evening that the balloon was not a military or
physical threat -- an acknowledgement that it was not carrying weapons. He said
"once the balloon was detected, the U.S. government acted immediately to
protect against the collection of sensitive information."
Even if the balloon is not armed, it poses a risk to the U.S., said retired
Army Gen. John Ferrari, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
The flight itself, he said, can be used to test America's ability to detect
incoming threats and to find holes in the country's air defense warning system.
It may also allow the Chinese to sense electromagnetic emissions that
higher-altitude satellites cannot detect, such as low-power radio frequencies
that could help them understand how different U.S. weapons systems communicate.
He said the Chinese may have sent the balloon "to show us that they can do
it, and maybe next time it could have a weapon. So now we have to spend money
and time on it" developing defenses.
LET IT FLY? SHOOT IT DOWN?
(AP) -- According to senior administration officials, Biden initially wanted
to shoot the balloon down. Some members of Congress have echoed that sentiment.
But Pentagon leaders strongly advised Biden against doing so because of
risks to the safety of people on the ground, and Biden agreed.
One official said the sensor package the balloon is carrying weighs as much
as 1,000 pounds. The balloon is large enough and high enough in the air that
the potential debris field could stretch for miles, with no control over where
it would eventually land.
For now, officials said the U.S. will monitor it, using "a variety of
methods" including aircraft. The Pentagon has said the balloon isn't a military
threat and doesn't give China any surveillance capabilities it doesn't already
have with spy satellites.
But the U.S. is keeping its options open.
Rep. Jim Himes, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee,
suggested it could be valuable to try to capture the balloon to study it. "I
would much rather own a Chinese surveillance balloon than be cleaning one up
over a 100-square-mile debris field," said Himes, D-Conn.
HOW DID IT GET HERE?
Deliberate or an accident? There's also disagreement.
As far as wind patterns go, China's account that global air currents --
winds known as the Westerlies -- carried the balloon from its territory to the
western United States is plausible, said Dan Jaffe, a professor of atmospheric
chemistry at the University of Washington. Jaffe has studied the role those
same wind patterns play in carrying air pollution from Chinese cities, wildfire
smoke from Siberia and dust from Gobi Desert sand storms to the U.S. for two
"It's entirely consistent with everything we know about the winds," Jaffe
said. "Transit time from China to the United States would be about a week."
"The higher it goes, the faster it goes," Jaffe said. He said weather and
research balloons typically have a range of steering capability depending on
their sophistication, from no steering at all to limited steering ability.
The U.S. is largely mum on this issue, but insists the balloon is
maneuverable, suggesting that China in some way deliberately moved the balloon
toward or into U.S. airspace.
SPY BALLOONS HAVE A HISTORY
Spy balloons aren't new -- primitive ones date back centuries, but they came
into greater use in World War II. Administration officials said Friday there
have been other similar incidents of Chinese spy balloons, with one saying it
happened twice during the Trump administration but was never made public.
The Pentagon's Ryder confirmed there have been other incidents where
balloons came close to or crossed over the U.S. border, but he and others agree
that what makes this different is the length of time it's been over U.S.
territory and how far into the country it penetrated.
Craig Singleton, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of
Democracies, said Chinese surveillance balloons have been sighted on numerous
occasions over the past five years in different parts of the Pacific, including
near sensitive U.S. military installations in Hawaii. The high-altitude
inflatables, he said, serve as low-cost platforms to collect intelligence and
some can reportedly be used to detect hypersonic missiles.
During World War II, Japan launched thousands of hydrogen balloons carrying
bombs, and hundreds ended up in the U.S. and Canada. Most were ineffective, but
one was lethal. 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 own balloon effort ignited the alien
stories and lore linked to Roswell, New Mexico.
According to military research documents and studies, the U.S. began using
giant trains of balloons and sensors that were strung together and stretched
more than 600 feet as part of an early effort to detect Soviet missile launches
during the post-World War II era. They called it Project Mogul.
One of the balloon trains crash-landed at the Roswell Army Airfield in 1947,
and Air Force personnel who were not aware of the program found debris. The
unusual experimental equipment made it difficult to identify, leaving the
airmen with unanswered questions that over time -- aided by UFO enthusiasts --
took on a life of their own. The simple answer, according to the military
reports, was just over the Sacramento Mountains at the Project Mogul launch
site in Alamogordo.
In 2015, an unmanned Army surveillance blimp broke loose from its mooring at
Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland and floated over Pennsylvania for hours
with two fighter jets on its tail, triggering blackouts as it dragged its
tether across power lines. As residents gawked, the 240-foot blimp came down in
pieces in the Muncy, Pennsylvania, countryside. It still had helium in its nose
when it fell, and state police used shotguns -- about 100 shots -- to deflate