For the past 48 hours, a balloon has been flying above the United States. It is not in a rush to leave because it could be there for a purpose. Upon close examination, officials of the Pentagon confirmed it was a Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon, and its mission could be to spy on the United States and sensitive locations within the country.
“The United States government has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now,” Brigadier General Patrick Ryder, spokesperson of the Pentagon, stated Friday. He assured citizens that the balloon was flying at an altitude “well above commercial air traffic” and there was no physical or military threat to people on the ground.
The balloon is said to be travelling about 60,000 above the United States. That is about 18,000 feet higher than how a normal aeroplane should fly. Officials believe what is attached to the balloon is the steering and surveillance apparatus. It is estimated to be about 90 feet. However, the balloon itself is bigger than that size. Brig. Gen. Patric Ryder described what he saw as a basket under a blimp, adding that the surveillance balloon could be over the country in a few days.
Why the surveillance balloon was not shot down
Ordinarily, the United States reserved the right to shoot down the surveillance balloon. The men of the US Air Force were already prepared to swing into action should they receive an order to do so. Fortunately or unfortunately, the Commander-in-chief of the armed forces and the president of the United States, Joe Biden, did not give the order to shoot. He was advised that shooting down the balloon might not be safe for civilians.
“We do recognize that any potential debris field would be significant and potentially cause civilian injuries or deaths, or significant property damage,” Pat Ryder told reporters on Friday. He added that the military is keenly monitoring the balloon’s movement and is open to all the options depending on what happens.
“It was the judgment of our military commanders that we didn’t drive the risk down low enough. So we didn’t take the shot,” Ryder said.
China wanted to send a message
Spying with balloons is almost a thing of the past. It is the oldest form of surveillance technology used by the Japanese military during the Second World War. The United States also used similar technology during the cold war with the Soviet Union. Considering the technology and how outdated it is, many are wondering why China would decide to use the method to spy on the US.
Benjamin Ho, an expert in Chinese studies, said Beijing could have spied on the United States using other means, but it decided to do so with a balloon because it wanted to send a message to Washington.
“They have other means to spy out American infrastructure, or whatever information they wanted to obtain. The balloon was to send a signal to the Americans and also to see how the Americans would react,” Benjamin Ho stated.
Other experts agree with Mr Ho, as they feel the best way to send a message to the United States amid growing competition is to send a balloon big enough for everyone to see.
“Beijing is probably trying to signal to Washington: ‘While we want to improve ties, we are also ever ready for sustained competition, using any means necessary’, without severely inflaming tensions,” He Yuan Ming, a public affairs analyst, told the BBC. “And what better tool for this than a seemingly innocuous balloon.”
“It’s possible that being spotted was the whole point. China might be using the balloon to demonstrate that it has a sophisticated technological capability to penetrate US airspace without risking a serious escalation. In this regard, a balloon is a pretty ideal choice,” Arthur Holland Michel, another expert on international affairs, stated.
It is most likely that the arguments of the above experts are correct because the Chinese military has other options, including spy cameras and radar sensors. However, other experts have argued that China might have used the balloon because it is less expensive when compared to the use of drones or satellites. They also argued that the slow speed of the balloon was an advantage as it could spend enough time in one location monitoring the target area for a long time.
The controversial balloon was also in Canada
The United States was not the first country to be visited by the controversial surveillance balloon. On Thursday, the Canadian government said its Armed Forces discovered possibly the same equipment in its airspace.
“A high-altitude surveillance balloon was detected and its movements are being actively tracked by NORAD,” the statement by the Canadian government reads. “Canadians are safe and Canada is taking steps to ensure the security of its airspace, including the monitoring of a potential second incident.”
The statement added that the Canadian Armed Forces, the Department of National Defence, and other relevant agencies are closely monitoring the situation. The country’s intelligence agencies are also in touch with their American partners and are working together to tackle the rare situation and protected Canada’s sensitive information from foreign threats.
Following the movement of the controversial balloon, the Chinese Ambassador to Canada was summoned by the Canadian government to explain how the unwanted visitor entered the country.
On Friday, the Pentagon said another Chinese spy balloon was transiting Latin America. The current destination of the balloon remains unknown, but the Pentagon said it was not headed for the United States.
“We are seeing reports of a balloon transiting Latin America. We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder told CNN.
It was a mistake, China says
Following the arrival of the controversial balloon in the United States, Washington said it was in talks with the Chinese government. China, at first, said it was investigating the situation and urged all parties not to point an accusing finger.
Later on Friday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry admitted that the balloon was theirs but derailed from its route due to strong wind. The foreign minister added that the surveillance balloon was of “a civilian nature.”
“The airship comes from China and is of a civilian nature, used for scientific research such as meteorology,” the Chinese statement reads. “Affected by the westerly wind and with limited self-control ability, the airship seriously deviated from the scheduled route.”
China says it “regrets that the airship strayed into the United States,” and added that it will continue to communicate with the United States on how best to handle the “unexpected situation.”
“China is a responsible country, and we act in accordance with international law. We have no intention to violate other countries’ sovereignty and airspace,” the statement continues.
China is lying, the Pentagon says
Following China’s claim that the balloon was civilian in nature, Mr Ryder, on behalf of the Pentagon, said Beijing’s claim was inaccurate, as it was certain that the equipment was to spy on the United States.
“We are aware of the (People’s Republic of China)’s statement,” Ryder told Journalists on Friday. “However, the fact is, we know that it’s a surveillance balloon. And I’m not going to be able to be more specific than that.”
“We do know that the balloon has violated US air space and international law, which is unacceptable and so we’ve conveyed this directly to the PRC at multiple levels,” he added.
Secretary Blinken cancels historic visit
The US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, was supposed to depart for the People’s Republic of China on Friday night. Due to the recent development, the official has cancelled his trip. He called China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, on Friday, to tell him about his cancellation and expressed displeasure over the “presence of this surveillance balloon.”
“In my call today with Director Wang Yi, I made clear that the presence of this surveillance balloon in US airspace is a clear violation of US sovereignty and international law, that it’s an irresponsible act, and that [China’s] decision to take this action on the eve of my planned visit is detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have,” Blinken told reporters Friday.
Officials say the balloon could leave the US airspace as early as Saturday morning but President Biden has not ruled out the possibility of shooting it down should the need be.