Military

Suspected Chinese Spy Balloon Hanging Out Over Continental US

Balloon flight path
Image: NOAA + @wildweatherdan/Dan Satterfield

On Thursday, the Pentagon announced that it is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon over the continental US. The balloon is suspected to be Chinese in origin. Based on the fact patterns, we’re not really rushing to conclusions when we say Washington has a high level of analytic confidence that the balloon is definitely Chinese in origin. 

The US says it has engaged with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) “with urgency, through multiple channels.” In a statement Thursday, the Canadian Armed Forces noted that it’s also monitoring “a potential second incident.” 

“We have no intention to violate other countries’ sovereignty and airspace,” China’s Foreign Ministry said Friday in Beijing. “We are gathering and verifying the facts. We hope the relevant parties will handle the matter in a cool-headed way.”

What we know so far

The mysterious white orb, as TIME referred to it, entered continental US airspace earlier this week. The PRC balloon, as Payload will refer to it, was spotted and reported by several people in Billings, Montana, on Tuesday. 

The PRC balloon is flying in the stratosphere—well above commercial air traffic—which would make it difficult to see with the naked eye. But it’s also said to be the size of three school buses. 

Flight path

The vessel flew over the Aleutian Islands, through Canada, and is now somewhere over the northern lower 48. Here’s meteorologist Dan Satterfield with some excellent sleuthing: 

As of Thursday evening, here’s the projected forward trajectory of the balloon (also courtesy of Dan Satterfield):

Precedent

This isn’t the first time this has happened. What’s different now is that this balloon is hanging out over the US for a longer time. 

Payload

The Pentagon didn’t divulge too many details. But based on what we do know, the balloon’s technology bay seems to include some sort of ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) payload, and it isn’t carrying any weapons systems. The PRC balloon “does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground,” Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told the Pentagon press corps on Thursday. 

Responses

Washington is tracking and monitoring the situation closely. “Once the balloon was detected,” Ryder said, “the US government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.” What exactly that entails we will leave to readers’ imaginations. 

The Pentagon scrambled fighter jets at one point to get a closer look, and has also briefed POTUS on military responses. Shooting the balloon down is off the table, defense officials said, as the risk of using kinetic force could endanger civilians on the ground. 

Why even risk it?

“Currently, we assess that this balloon has limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective,” a senior US defense official said Thursday. 

Last year, the US intelligence community noted that China’s fleet of ISR satellites trails only that of the US. “China employs a robust space-based ISR capability designed to enhance its worldwide situational awareness,” the DoD told Congress last year. China’s ISR fleet consisted of 260+ birds at the end of 2021, a near-doubling over its 2018 orbital total. 

So, what next?

The US government will presumably provide the public with regular updates. Now that the cat’s out of the bag, we’ll also be watching to see what open-source intelligence (OSINT) analysts are able to uncover. 

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