China and that Balloon: Should We Worry? The United States military and Central Intelligence Agency employed advanced aircraft such as the Lockheed U2 “Dragon Lady” and Lockheed SR-71 “Blackbird” as eyes in the sky during the Cold War, and later developed the HEXAGON KH-9 photo reconnaissance satellite.
Even today, the U.S. employs high-flying, high-tech drones to get a bird’s eye view of an adversary’s facilities.
China apparently has gone another direction, deploying a large-sized surveillance balloon that has reportedly been hovering for several days over U.S. territory, being spotted over Billings on Wednesday. It had reportedly flown over the Aleutian Islands and then through Canada.
“The United States government has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now,” Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told NBC News on Thursday.
“We continue to track and monitor it closely,” Ryder added. “Once the balloon was detected, the U.S. government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.”
Big Balloon – Small Capabilities for China?
The balloon, which has been described as the size of three city buses, is on a flight path that will carry it over “a number of sensitive sites,” Ryder acknowledged but said that it does not present a significant intelligence-gathering risk. U.S. officials have assessed it to have “limited additive value” from an intelligence collection perspective. Moreover, the U.S. is still taking steps to protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information.
There is also speculation that Chinese spy satellites in low Earth orbit are actually capable of gathering similar or better intelligence. Yet, while the balloon was over Billings, there was a ground stop at the city’s airport. At the same time, the United States Air Force also mobilized a number of assets, including Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptors – air superiority fighters that could easily take out the balloon.
U.S. officials reportedly did consider shooting down the spy balloon, but refrained out of fear that American citizens on the ground could be injured or worse from a possible “debris field.” A number of options are still being considered, and the White House hasn’t ruled out shooting down the balloon if it can be determined that it would be safe to do so.
“Why not shoot it down? We have to do the risk-reward here,” a U.S. official told CNN. “So the first question is, does it pose a threat, a physical kinetic threat, to individuals in the United States in the U.S. homeland? Our assessment is it does not. Does it pose a threat to civilian aviation? Our assessment is it does not. Does it pose a significantly enhanced threat on the intelligence side? Our best assessment right now is that it does not. So given that profile, we assess the risk of downing it, even if the probability is low in a sparsely populated area of the debris falling and hurting someone or damaging property, that it wasn’t worth it.”
A number of U.S. lawmakers have also reacted to the news.
“The Department of Defense owes Congress and the American people a full and accurate accounting of why U.S. forces did not take proactive measures to address this Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.
“This incident demonstrates that the CCP threat is not confined to distant shores—it is here at home and we must act to counter this threat,” Chair Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) also told reporters.
The U.S. government has reportedly engaged with the Chinese government both through the Chinese embassy in Washington and the U.S. diplomatic mission in China, according to officials.
Author Experience and Expertise: A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.