Now that we’ve caught on that China has been sending spy balloons over U.S. territory along the outer edge of the atmosphere, we’re shooting down everything that’s flying at roughly the same altitude and looks even vaguely like it might be another Chinese spy balloon—four such things, as of this writing, in a little more than a week.
Many mysteries remain (not least the nature and source of the last three of those four shot-down objects), but a few things seem clear, or at least very likely.
First, the Chinese have probably been doing this for quite a while. The reason U.S. radars weren’t seeing balloons or anything like balloons before, and are now seeing a lot of them, is that until this month, the radar operators weren’t looking for them.
Many people assume that U.S. military-intelligence gear picks up everything flying through our airspace, but this isn’t true—and this fact is not necessarily a sign of incompetence. Thousands of objects are passing through the lower regions of outer space above American skies—meteors, private satellites, various debris—and if the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) tracked all of them, its officers would be overwhelmed, perhaps to the point of taking their eyes off the truly plausible dangers. So, they set “filters” on their scanning radar to look out for objects of certain shapes at certain altitudes and speeds. Balloons floating along at a small fraction of the speed of sound don’t fit the algorithm.
“We tend to mirror-image when we look at threats, so we are blinded by our own technology,” a former Pentagon official and aerospace executive told me. The U.S. military threatens foreign adversaries mainly with missiles and aircraft, so those are the kinds of threats our early-warning sensors are programmed to look for. (If a Chinese airplane had flown across American borders, U.S. jet fighters would have confronted it—escorting it out of our airspace or down to an airfield, or taking deadlier action, if necessary—within minutes.)
After the sighting last week of the object over Alaska, Montana, and points east, which was followed by clear evidence that it was a spy balloon (not a weather balloon, as Chinese spokesmen initially claimed), NORAD reset its filters to include the telltale signs of spy balloons—mainly their speed, shape, and altitude. As a result, sensors have started seeing similar items and alerting their commanders, who in turn have alerted the commander-in-chief, President Biden.
A retroactive analysis of the many UFOs in recent years that have been spotted, but have gone unexplained, will probably conclude that most if not all of them were spy-craft of one sort or another. At the same time, an analysis in the coming weeks of the three most recent shootdowns might indicate that they weren’t spy balloons at all; they might have just been space junk. NORAD might have reset its filters a bit too broadly.
Still, it is telling that, as more has been learned and revealed about the first balloon shot down, government spokesmen in Beijing have changed their cover story. First, they denied it was China’s. Then they said it was a weather balloon gone astray. Now they say China has sent far fewer spy balloons over the U.S. than the U.S. has sent over China—as close to an admission that China has crossed American borders with spy balloons as we will probably get.
Their claim that we do the same, however, is highly implausible. Back in the 1940s and ’50s, the United States did send spy balloons over the Soviet Union and China to glean information about those countries’ military programs or to trick their air-defense crews into turning on their radars in order to gauge their capabilities. But once we built and deployed spy planes, and then spy satellites, we abandoned balloons.
“Our military is keen on advanced technology,” the aerospace executive told me. “Once we went into space, we never looked back.” (What modern American general or admiral would want to be commander of the balloon fleet?) The Chinese, over the decades, have also advanced from balloons to spy planes and spy satellites, but—perhaps for some strategic purpose, perhaps due to bureaucratic calcification—they keep the old stuff around, too.
Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, wrote in his newsletter for clients on Monday that U.S. intercepts of Chinese communications indicate that President Xi Jinping didn’t even know, until last week, that China was sending spy balloons across the entire span of North America. This bolsters the idea that bureaucratic politics was responsible for the intrusion.
However, Bremmer also wrote that U.S. officials believe the Chinese have kept their spy-balloon program going as a backup source of intelligence in case of war, during which they suspect the U.S. would shoot down, blind, or otherwise disable their space-orbiting satellites. Two former senior U.S. intelligence officials, while saying they have no direct knowledge whether this is true, told me the explanation is very plausible. One of them said that, given China’s extensive anti–satellite weapons program, it might be smart for the U.S. to build some balloon backups as well.