One week has passed since a Chinese balloon was spotted sailing 60,000 feet above Montana; four days since a U.S. F-22 fighter jet shot it out of the sky 6 miles off the South Carolina coast; and three days since Navy divers started pulling its shards out of shallow waters.
Much remains unknown about what this thing was doing, but enough is known to answer many of the questions that this whole incident has raised. For instance:
Could Chinese spokesmen be telling the truth? Might this just have been a weather balloon gone astray?
Almost certainly not. The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that the balloon was part of a “vast surveillance program” that the Chinese army has operated out of an intelligence base on its southeastern coast for a long time. This past week’s flight was one of “dozens” that similar balloons have taken since 2018, over not only the U.S. (on at least four previous occasions) but other countries of interest including Japan, Taiwan, India, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
Either from the ongoing excavation or from U.S. planes that followed the balloon as its presence became known, it is known that the airship was 200 feet high and carried a payload weighing 2,000 pounds, including digital cameras, radar, and signals and communications gear.
Where did the balloon fly? What were its navigators, presumably guiding it from a base back in China, trying to see, hear, or learn?
U.S. officials have said that it passed over Alaska, Utah, Montana, and Missouri, and tried to “monitor sensitive military sites.” It’s not clear what this means. There are nearly 500 military bases or installations in the United States. It is hard to follow any line across the country without flying over some military bases. All 50 states have at least one; several have dozens. For instance, Montana has a Minuteman ICBM site and launch-control center, but this—like the activities at all the other bases—is publicly known.
A former senior U.S. intelligence officer told me that the balloon’s cameras might have higher resolution than those on imaging satellites. Other devices onboard could intercept line-of-sight microwave signals. In short, the balloon could give China the same sort of information that U.S. surveillance drones retrieve when flying over a place of interest, such as a terrorist camp.
How much damage did this overflight do to national security?
“Little to none, compared to the extensive cyber penetrations and human spying activities,” the former senior intelligence officer told me. “China takes terabytes of data” from defense industries and other sites “on a regular basis.” An “expansive human spy network” targets industry and academic organizations. In short, the balloons might have given the Chinese a little extra information, but nothing to justify the panic that some pundits and Biden critics tried to stir.
Didn’t the United States once send spy balloons over Russia and China?
Yes, but that was mainly in the 1950s, before the days of spy planes, spy satellites, and drones. We no longer have any need for spy balloons—though one can imagine some obscure branch of the Pentagon proposing to spend money developing some balloons, or an anti-balloon program, to match or deal with China’s capabilities. Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, head of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), told reporters that the balloon revealed “a domain-awareness gap that we have to figure out.”
The Post quoted one U.S. official describing China’s balloon program as “a massive effort” in which they took “an unbelievably old technology and basically married it with modern communications and observation capabilities.” This may be clever and it was certainly a cost-saver, compared with building and launching more satellites. But does it give China an edge over the U.S.? If so, it isn’t clear what that edge might be.
Could China put a destructive weapon in a balloon, fly it over the U.S., and detonate it?
Theoretically, but what would be the point? Rep. James Comer, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, told Fox News last week that the balloon might be carrying “bio-weapons” from Wuhan, the lab in China where some believe the COVID virus originated. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich warned that China’s balloons “could be trial runs for low-visibility deliver[y] of devastating EMP weapons.” (EMP refers to electromagnetic pulse, which could turn off the lights over vast swaths of the U.S.)
Both scenarios seem like stretch, to say the least. From 60,000 feet, biological (or chemical) weapons would likely dissipate before reaching earth. EMP is most efficiently delivered by a nuclear explosion way above the atmosphere. It’s unclear what “EMP weapons” inside a balloon would even be. In any case, let’s say the Chinese did this. Then what? The U.S. would retaliate; a wider war would ensue. The surprise of starting the war with a “low-visibility” balloon would have no lasting advantage.
So has all the Sturm und Drang been a big hullaballoo over nothing?
Well, it’s not nothing. Whatever its motives or results, the balloon was a major violation of American sovereign airspace. (By contrast, reconnaisance satellites orbit far above U.S. airspace and are treated in international law as not only permissible but productive, as they allow nations to detect other nations’ military activities and thus refrain from reacting to worst-case speculations.) In that sense, it is worth close attention and smart counter-steps.
So what should we do?
As a result of this violation, Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a long-planned trip to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping—the first such trip by a secretary of state in six years. The point of the trip had been to explore ways to reduce the tensions in U.S.-China relations. Blinken would have had to focus on the balloon; the agenda would be scrapped; going ahead with the meeting would have been worse than worthless.
Xi was looking forward to this meeting at least as much as Biden and Blinken. China is suffering huge economic problems, lingering from its extreme “no-COVID” lockdown, supply-chain problems, and sanctions left over from the Trump administration. In other words, the balloon fuss hurt China probably much more than it ever helped.
Some analysts have wondered whether Xi even knew about this balloon, much less ordered this balloon to fly over the U.S. as a “test” of Biden’s pliancy (as some Republicans have charged). This is something we may never know.
In any case, the public spotting of this balloon has all but blown any usefulness that the program may ever have had. John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesman, said that because the flight over America was publicly known early on, U.S. officials could track its path and “ensure no sensitive activities or unencrypted communications would be conducted in its vicinity.”
Now that we know what these balloons look like, and what they can do, preempting their gaze during future flights—by stopping activities, encrypting communications, or perhaps even jamming their sensors and feeding them false information—should be a snap. The same is true of other nations that might be surveilled. According to the Post, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman recently gave 150 people from 40 embassies a detailed briefing on its patterns and capabilities.
This may have been the last mission for China’s spy-balloon unit. It’s time to go back to worrying about—and dealing with—far more serious incursions.