In January, a Chinese surveillance balloon was spotted as it traveled across the continental United States. It was shot down off the coast of South Carolina days later.
The balloon first entered U.S. airspace near Alaska and was positively identified by NORAD-deployed fighter jets.
At the time, officials maintained that the balloon was not capable of conducting significant intelligence collection. They claimed that shooting it down could cause falling debris to injure civilians on the ground.
What We Know Now
Over the last six months, defense officials have continued to look into the mysterious device. A Pentagon spokesman told Reuters that officials “assess that it did not collect while flying over the U.S.,” adding that they “also took steps to mitigate the potential collection efforts of that balloon.”
Regarding three smaller objects that were shot down over Alaska in the same week, no new information has been publicly disclosed. While U.S. officials originally suspected that the smaller objects were research or recreational balloons, a search effort was cut short after U.S. and Canadian authorities announced that no debris was discovered.
Some members of Congress grew frustrated with the Biden administration’s handling of the incident and its lack of disclosure to the public. As tensions rise rapidly between Washington and Beijing, perhaps authorities are beginning to understand they must be better prepared to deal with such scenarios. Nearly half a year has passed since the balloon incident, and the Pentagon is reportedly working on an effort to develop high-flying surveillance balloons.
According to Aviation Week, the Pentagon’s new Capturing Aerial Payloads to Unleash Reliable Exploitation (CAPTURE) project aims to find a way to capture and inspect high-flying balloons that enter U.S. airspace. The project is reportedly being run by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the body responsible for developing cutting-edge technologies for American military services.
As explained by DARPA’s program manager Kyle Woerner, CAPTURE will center “on the ability to down high-altitude systems at a time and place of our choosing to minimize collateral damage, maximize usefulness of the recovered payload, and minimize the cost of the response.”
While the program’s goal is clear on paper, its functionality remains unclear. Perhaps the greatest challenge for CAPTURE is the method of capture itself. Which airframes would retrieve a deflating balloon at lower altitude also needs to be determined. Finally, the Chinese spy balloon that was shot down in early February was reported to weigh thousands of pounds, but the CAPTURE program reportedly aims at finding solutions for aerial systems weighing between 500 and 1,000 pounds.
Another significant challenge is range. DARPA states that it wants this future system to be capable of covering high-altitude airspace incursions by objects in or near U.S. airspace, meaning it would have to be able to cover a gigantic geographical area.
Considering China’s hostile provocations near U.S. territory in recent years, the Pentagon’s future CAPTURE program might be necessary to thwart adversarial intelligence gathering efforts.
Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.
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