In early February 2023, the US Ministry of Defence reported that a Chinese observation balloon had been shot down and had violated US airspace. On hearing of subsequent incidents, the world raised its heads in search of ‘unknown flying objects’, and the balloon itself became the subject of fierce public debate. Was its overflight really part of a global espionage programme, or was the Pentagon’s response exaggerated? A security expert answers!
US-China diplomatic crisis
The US-Chinese rivalry is reminiscent of the Cold War arms race after World War II. It occurs on many levels, going beyond military or technological.
The issues of contention between the US and China are:
- China’s conflict with Taiwan,
- human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region,
- the US investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic,
- China’s cooperation with Russia,
- violation of Hong Kong’s autonomy,
- cyber attacks in the US,
- export sanctions (trade war).
So far, the accompanying tensions have not led to open conflict. Moreover, the upcoming meeting between the US Secretary of State and the Chinese Foreign Minister in Beijing signalled a thaw in the superpower relationship. It was hoped that there would be a resumption of dialogue, cooperation and stabilisation of relations after the turbulent talks at the Anchorage summit (2021).
It signalled, because a conversation between Antony Blinken and the Qin Gang is not going to happen any time soon. The US Secretary of State cancelled a visit to Beijing after a Chinese surveillance balloon flew into Alaskan airspace.
On 28 January 2023, Americans spotted a mysterious balloon over the coastal waters of Alaska. Two days later, the unmanned balloon was close to the Canadian border and then changed course to fly over the states of Idaho and Montana. Its route passed over, among others, one of the three US Air Force bases, Malmstrom, where intercontinental ballistic missiles are stored. It was ultimately shot down only off the coast of South Carolina, with its debris falling into the Atlantic Ocean.
Space intelligence or weather observation?
Initially, the Pentagon believed that the airship was a Chinese weather balloon. This was also the position presented by Beijing: it admitted to owning it, but asserted its scientific purpose. It also expressed dissatisfaction with the US use of force, calling the response “excessive”.
The US narrative changed upon closer inspection of the balloon. The unmanned balloon was 60 metres high and 30 metres in diameter (the length of an average tram or three tour buses). It was equipped with antennas and solar panels. In addition, it transported a payload weighing around a tonne. Because of its design and its ability to change course, the Pentagon considered it a spy-diplomatic craft.
Possible functions of the Chinese spy balloon over the US:
- intercepting and recording calls from mobile phones and military radios (electromagnetic reconnaissance),
- increasing the signal range of drones and military equipment,
- capturing images from a different angle than satellites,
- transporting explosives or biological weapons,
- gathering geospatial information and monitoring changes.
Global spy programme
In a statement to reporters, State Department officials revealed that the balloon’s manufacturer was linked to a Chinese military unit responsible for space and cyberspace. They also reported that similar drones had violated the airspace of more than 40 other countries on five continents. They are believed to have intercepted civilian and military radio communication signals.
UFOs over America and Canada
A week after the downing of the spy balloon, the Americans and Canadians had to deal with more, this time unidentified objects in the sky. They were known to be of various shapes, unmanned and flying at an altitude of 12,200 metres. The lack of information about their origin has created room for speculation about whether the unmanned aircraft are UFOs.
What is a UFO?
A UFO (unidentified flying object) is any flying object whose origin is unknown. The acronym has now been replaced by the term UAP (unidentified anomalous phenomenon), which refers to all unidentified aerial phenomena.
White House position
On 13 February, during a press briefing, White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre assured reporters that “there is no indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity”. Interestingly, earlier, Air Force General Glen VanHerck had not dismissed the possibility. When asked about the potential origin of the objects, he replied: “I’ll let the intelligence and counterintelligence community figure it out. I’m not ruling anything out.”
The Pentagon’s role
It is worth recalling that in July 2022, the Pentagon created a team to investigate unexplained phenomena – the All Domains Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO). Since then, it has received more than 500 UFO reports. Some of these related to observation balloons and drones, but more than half involved unidentified objects that require in-depth analysis.
War on balloons
Things are increasingly boiling over between Beijing and Washington. The Americans are demanding an explanation of the origin and purpose of the objects that have violated their airspace. In response, they hear only accusations of espionage.
China is no longer just defending itself, claiming that its balloon was intended for meteorological purposes and the unfortunate wind changed its course. A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry also accused the US of using observation balloons for illegal data collection. This would not be the first time in American history – there was even a Union Army Balloon Corps during the Civil War.
Mysterious objects in the sky – expert analysis
The Pentagon assures that the observation balloon is unlikely to have recorded anything that Chinese space intelligence could not hear or see with the more than 260 modern satellites it has. In 2022 alone, the Middle Kingdom launched four more devices into orbit. Spying on other countries using such traditional methods would be a retrograde step. On the other hand, China may have wanted to bring about the cancellation of the Blinken-Qin Gang meeting, to demonstrate its power or to provoke the US. Finally, there is also the possibility that the balloon was indeed indeed civilian in nature.
UFOs and spy balloons – FAQs
Find out the answers to the most frequently asked questions!
What are spy balloons?
Spy balloons are unmanned aerial vehicles that are equipped with sensors, cameras, sound recorders and communication devices for intelligence gathering (spying). They can also extend the range of drones or transport explosives.
What are the disadvantages of a spy balloon?
A spy balloon is difficult to control. The direction of its flight largely depends on the wind. Also to its disadvantage is its size, which draws attention and makes the object perfectly visible from the ground.
How do spy balloons differ from satellites?
Spy balloons, known as ‘satellites for the poor’, are a cheaper way of exploiting the sky. They do not need a carrier rocket to deploy. By flying at lower altitudes, they provide more detailed information.
Does the US have spy balloons?
Officially, the US does not admit to collecting information via spy balloons, but there are reports in the media that the US military is increasingly funding their projects.