On Friday morning, China’s Foreign Ministry announced that the large balloon that was reported to be slowly floating over Montana on Thursday was actually a civilian airship used mainly for meteorological research and that it had simply deviated from its planned course.
“The airship is from China. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes. Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of Chinese said via a statement. “The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure.”
The ministry also said that Chinese officials will continue communicating with the United States and properly address the issue.
Is China lying? Is this some spy balloon?
China and a Case of Spy Craft Gone Wrong?
On Thursday, it had been widely speculated that the slow-moving balloon, which is reportedly the size of three city buses, may have been deployed to conduct reconnaissance on the United States.
The Pentagon had been tracking its movements since at least Wednesday and noted that it was traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic.
U.S. officials also said that it did not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.
“The United States Government has detected and is tracking a high altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now,” Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a statement. “The U.S. government, to include NORAD, continues to track and monitor it closely. The balloon is currently traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground. Instances of this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years. Once the balloon was detected, the U.S. government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.”
There was speculation that it could have been deployed to gather intelligence on a number of sensitive sites, while the U.S. military and other agencies were taking efforts to protect against any foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information.
Why Would China Use a Balloon To Gather Intel?
Even as China – much like the United States – has satellites that can monitor nearly any part of the world, a slow-moving balloon still offers a number of advantages.
Experts have noted that balloons can be smaller, cheaper, and far easier to launch. And unlike a satellite launch won’t generally receive a lot of attention.
Moreover, even large-size balloons can have a low signature and low-to-zero emission, so they still make a reliable platform for surveillance.
Also, unlike space-based systems, these can be far less predictable and thus harder to track – and unlike high-flying aircraft such as the SR-71 Blackbird, or a satellite, a balloon can loiter over an area for an extended time.
It also isn’t just what a balloon can “see” but also what it can “hear,” as the miniaturization of technology could allow a balloon to monitor cellular and radio traffic.
Balloons and the Military
Though China has claimed the balloon isn’t military, the use of such lighter-than-air craft in military applications dates back to the late 18th century. In 1794, the French Committee of Public Safety created the Corps d’ Aerostiers, and balloons were sporadically used for reconnaissance during the French Revolutionary Wars, seeing action during the battles of Charleroi and Fleurus.
During the American Civil War, the Union Army also employed a number of balloons in a similar role. The largest – the Intrepid and the Union – each had a capacity of 32,000 cubic feet of lifting gas, which was supplied by special hydrogen-generating inflation wagons.
The use of balloons continued through both World Wars, and it was just last year that there were reports that the United States military is now developing balloons to spy on China and Russia.
Of course, most infamously, it was during the Cold War that a high-altitude balloon, developed for nuclear test surveillance, crashed near Roswell, New Mexico and began the “UFO craze” that continues to this day.
MORE: Ukraine Needs M1 Abrams Tanks Now (But Will Have to Wait)
MORE: Joe Biden Won’t Send F-16 Fighters to Ukraine
MORE: Why Putin Should Fear the F-16 Fighter
MORE: Why Donald Trump Can’t Win in 2024
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.
Dr. Scooter Van Neuter
February 3, 2023 at 12:35 pm
It goes without saying that if this were a US balloon over China, it would have been shot down immediately. Now we have news from Canada that a second Chi-com balloon is heading for US airspace.
Biden’s administration continues to be a laughingstock. “We have met the enemy and that enemy is us”
February 3, 2023 at 12:49 pm
A perfect EMP bomb carrier.
February 3, 2023 at 1:03 pm
Montana is a pretty big, yet sparsely populated state.
The OFFICIAL argument against shooting it down seems inadequate to me: 1) It, or parts of it, could injure people or property when they reach Mother Earth; and 2) It can’t add much to what the Chinese already know from years of satellite observation.
1) Do we have the capability to shoot it down? With low radar signature and little heat, that might be very hard for a missile to hit. Could it be neutralized by one of our lasers?
2) An airport was temporarily shut down and measures taken to hide sensative items from the balloon’s sensors. If its intelligence gathering functions, images and comms, are minimally effective beyond what satellites have been providing for years, why temporarily close an airport and camo things?
3) There’s a lot of very sparsely populated land in Montana and adjacent states. Am I to believe that our armed forces couldn’t shoot it down with minimal risk to people or property somewhere in those vast spaces?
4) If we can shoot it down, at the very least it would be worthwhile to grab up the tech stuff and see what they’re looking at/listening to . . . i.e. what they find of interest, how good their tech is and how best to counter it.
5) Is there a “poison pill” on board? Say a bioweapon, or some source of radiation that could be released over a wide area if we were to shoot it down?
6) Why would the Chinese do this in the first place? It’s a deliberately provocative act. Are they perhaps doing a dry run for something, a decade or two in the future (EMP perhaps) under cover of hundreds balloons utilizing swarming tactics?
Inquiring minds want to know.
February 3, 2023 at 1:40 pm
Lets hope we can detect a nuclear EMP bomb carried on a “weather” balloon – maybe before its over the USA next time.
February 3, 2023 at 1:41 pm
They probably need precise targeting data of our missile silos for their ICBMs, just a guess. Why the angst about shooting it down. A large dart should do it. Then collect the entire balloon. F-15 can take care of it.
Remember in Independence Day when everybody was gathering on top of the skyscraper to celebrate the arrival of the huge hostile spacecraft? Same here.
February 3, 2023 at 1:58 pm
Oh, and all statements from PRC are always true.
“assume nothing question everything”
February 3, 2023 at 4:52 pm
@Scott: I could be wrong, but I suspect an EMP bomb would be much heavier than a balloon could carry.
February 3, 2023 at 4:55 pm
I don’t trust the Chinese, however: knowing where a balloon like this is going to go is a shot in the dark. Given the variability of winds (particularly over continents), and the fact that they can’t really be steered, it could have wound up over Mississippi or the Yukon. Not a very viable way to target ICBM sites in a particular location, if that’s really what it’s after; sheer luck.
Gerard Michael Burns Jr.
February 3, 2023 at 6:29 pm
US military routinely recovers weather balloons, and even picks up fairly heavy cargos by using a hook at the end of a stretchy cable attached to the back of a C-130.
February 3, 2023 at 6:40 pm
If you have to hide sensitive items from the balloon, it’s probably time to shoot it down and sort it out from there.
February 3, 2023 at 7:52 pm
It has solar panels. The ONLY reason to put solar panels on such a device is to replenish electrical power over long periods of time. Panels add weight, cost and complexity. That rules out weather balloons; they go up, burst and fall back down within hours of launch. It also probably rules out a bomb or any other one-time-use application. The most probable function would be for long-duration loitering surveillance. Possibly it was intended to hover offshore in international airspace for weeks or months but it somehow blew off course. Or another possibility would be for signal-jamming or communications relay. Transmitting a strong signal expends a lot of power. Regardless, the only way to know for sure would be to bring it down, recover the debris and do a forensic exam.
February 3, 2023 at 8:42 pm
What a joke! Your appearance on Watters World, in which you claimed the China balloon was harmless, made you look and sound like a moron to put it nicely. Former National Security Advisor Keith Kellogg’s subsequent interview should be viewed by everyone who thinks you have any credibility.
February 3, 2023 at 9:24 pm
Is it Joes Birthday??
Rumor is its an Anti-Gravity balloon!
Gee, I’ve been telling those kids next door if they let their birthday balloons go, they will go to china! Wow.. it must work!
February 4, 2023 at 7:59 am
Virus delivery device.
Of course standard protocol is incineration.
February 4, 2023 at 10:49 am
How do we know that the balloons are not releasing bio weapons, like Covid variants.
February 4, 2023 at 3:03 pm
God bless people in the world.
China is not enemy.
But China Communist Party and all socialism parties are enemies,
so people should confess and repent to God.
God bless America.
February 4, 2023 at 4:12 pm
February 4, 2023 at 5:03 pm
“On Thursday, it had been widely speculated that the slow-moving balloon, which is reportedly the size of three city buses…”
Actually, it was the instrument package/payload that was the size of three city buses.
President Biden did an excellent job of managing this! The payload fell into about 40 feet of water off in US waters. If we crashed it inland, all we would end up with is bits & pieces.
February 5, 2023 at 4:44 pm
Please please be straight,how many times did Chinese war aircraft confront and messed with US while our aircraft in International air space as the World recognized policy acceptance,we temporarily let it aside,Now,Chinese government continue act like a fucking stupid dumb retard human been,please pardon my language,the truth is,stop fooling over the limit,WE will continue blow up or SHOOT DOWN whatever the fuck up there in our space,go and spoil your own dictator air space and soil,don’t fuck with the US,Don’t You understand English,We will continue blowing up whatever look funny and stupid up there that communist send over here ,we don’t need that craps,keep it with you,if U send over here ,we as the Super power country ,let U understand that,we will continue to distroll and blow up whatever U secret fucking around snicky send over here without our permission,don’t U get it or U still acting like deaf or retard,please get real and fair,I stay with the truth,simple and easy to understand,thanks and wish you all have a nice day.
February 6, 2023 at 7:47 am
Government anger over the balloon seems like laughable hypocrisy. U.S. government has collaborated with China for several decades now in ways that have deeply weakened security, industry, and technology foundations.
February 6, 2023 at 1:13 pm
I wonder if it had a radioactive power source (like an RTG) on board and that is why they didn’t shoot it down over land.