In what is surely the most captivating national balloon news since a Colorado couple falsely claimed their 6-year-old was trapped inside a runaway weather balloon in 2009, the Pentagon announced late Thursday that it is tracking a high-altitude Chinese balloon flying over the U.S., which is allegedly being used for reconnaissance. On Friday, China countered the allegation, saying it was a rogue weather balloon that had been blown off course. The Biden administration isn't buying that line, calling the balloon a violation of U.S. sovereignty and, in response, has postponed Secretary of State Antony Blinken's upcoming trip to Beijing. While many are taking advantage of this rare opportunity to make balloon jokes, Republicans are attacking President Biden for not blowing it out of the sky. Below is what we know about this developing story.
The New York Times interviewed a bunch on Montanans about how they feel about the sudden inflatable eye in the sky:
"It was a wake-up call for me and probably for a lot of people in Montana," [ Independence Day actor Bill] Pullman said Friday. "The state can feel too remote to be in harm's way if there were a war, but in fact it could very likely be the frontline of a nuclear first strike. Fortunately I think most Montanans have a restraint that keeps things like unruly horses and floating hot-air balloons from causing a bad wreck."
Arms-control expert Jeffrey Lewis tells Intelligencer's Matt Stieb that balloons are inexpensive longer-term surveillance alternatives to satellites:
A satellite is going to constantly be in motion. It's going to fall, it's going to peer over the horizon, it's going to pass overhead, and it's going to be gone. A balloon has a more persistent quality to its monitoring and detection.
But Lewis also notes that it wouldn't make much sense for China to be surveilling nuclear-missile sites this way:
Satellites move, but silos don't. The locations of our missile silos and of Chinese missile silos are extremely well known to each party. If you're talking about optical imaging, I don't think there's much of an advantage to a platform like this compared with a satellite. My guess is it could have some other payload on it to collect different kinds of information. I'm just speculating, but maybe a signals-intelligence payload. If you're using a radio and you turn on marine radar, you can collect those signals from space or a drone. You could see if radio towers are transmitting, but again, we're a free country. So you could take an RF detector and drive around Montana and you can get much closer to the silos than a balloon can.
Read the rest of Matt's interview with Lewis here .
As of midday Friday, the balloon was hovering over the central U.S. and moving eastward at an altitude of about 60,000 feet, according to the Pentagon, which would not confirm the device's exact location. The big white balloon, which is expected to remain in U.S. airspace for a few more days, was apparently visible over northwest Missouri around 12:30 p.m. Friday.
Pentagon officials say they monitored the balloon hovering over Montana on Wednesday, where it had apparently traveled after flying into U.S. airspace in Alaska over the Aleutian Islands. Montana's Billings Logan International Airport was briefly shut down Wednesday after the FAA temporarily closed nearby airspace because of the balloon.
Republican U.S. senator Steve Daines of Montana told the Pentagon in a letter that he was concerned about the balloon's proximity to the heart of America's nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles, which are scattered across multiple bases in the Great Plains.
Although the military allegedly readied fighter jets to shoot it down, Biden reportedly opted not to pop China's balloon after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin advised him against such a move. Pentagon officials were concerned that "any potential debris field would be significant and potentially cause civilian injuries or deaths or significant property damage."
Nonetheless, the Biden administration is taking a lot of flak for not attempting to capture the balloon or take it out. "SHOOT DOWN THE BALLOON!" Donald Trump wrote in a Truth Social message Friday. A number of top Republicans have said the same:
A certain former president's oldest son is among those suggesting that gun-toting, spy-balloon hating Americans take matters into their own hands:
A Montana state representative also tweeted:
Although there have been no reports of any Americans actually shooting at the balloon, that would not be a good idea, nor could the world's best marksman even hit a moving target 60,000 feet away:
The Defense Department has maintained that it does not view the balloon as a threat. According to unnamed Defense officials who spoke with the New York Times , the DoD seems to be more annoyed than concerned:
The official said that while it was not the first time China had sent spy balloons to the United States, this one has appeared to remain over the country for longer. Still, a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the balloon did not pose a military or physical threat and added that it had limited value in collecting intelligence. Another defense official said the Pentagon did not think that the balloon added much value over what China could glean through satellite imagery.
China's foreign ministry acknowledged Friday that the balloon had come from China but claimed it was an airship conducting meteorological research that had "deviated far from its planned course" thanks to wind. The foreign ministry said China was "regretful":
The violation of U.S. airspace has prompted the Biden administration to hold off on the secretary of State's upcoming trip to Beijing, which was scheduled for next week and would have been the first trip to China by a U.S. secretary of State in five years. Bloomberg reports that the balloon incident "led officials to decide that going now would send the wrong signal."
This post has been updated throughout.
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