The Pentagon’s rejection of China’s claim that a balloon detected floating over nuclear sites in the US is a ‘civilian’ airship raises further questions about its surveillance capabilities.
Analysts predict the balloon is about the size of ‘three buses’ and could be fitted with high-tech equipment including cameras, sensors and radar.
Use of balloons to conduct spy missions dates back to the Cold War but modern-day systems can take advantage of the latest developments in surveillance technology.
The balloon was floating about 60,000ft above the center of the continental United States at midday ET on Friday, the Pentagon said. The balloon’s path had taken it over Montana, triggering fears it was gathering intelligence on nuclear missile sites in the state.
China claimed on Friday morning that it is a civilian balloon used for meteorological and weather research. But in a briefing at the Pentagon several hours later, Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said: ‘We know it’s a surveillance balloon.’
The Chinese surveillance balloon is estimated to be about the width of three buses. The balloon is fitted with solar panels to power the on-board equipment, which could include long-range cameras and radar. It was traveling at an altitude of around 60,000ft on Friday afternoon, but the balloons can reach heights of around double that
The balloon is believed to have launched from mainland China before crossing Alaska and Canada, then reaching the continental United States
Worryingly, defense analysts have previously claimed that a balloon could be used as a ‘delivery platform’ for nuclear weapons.
The Pentagon said the balloon was floating at around 60,000 feet on Friday afternoon
A 2015 report for the American Leadership & Policy Foundation said balloons launched by rogue states could carry nuclear payloads over the United States which could be use launch strikes or interfere with the electrical grid.
Report author Air Force Major David Stuckenberg wrote: ‘Using a balloon as a [weapon of mass destruction] platform could provide adversaries with a pallet of altitudes and payload options with which to maximize offensive effects against the U.S.
‘A high altitude balloon could be designed, created, and launched in a matter of months. There is nothing to prevent several hundred pounds of weapons material from being delivered to altitude.’
Stuckenberg said on Friday China’s balloon was ‘likely a type of dry run meant to send a strategic message to the USA’.
The size of the balloon currently floating over the US is about the equivalent of three bus lengths, defense expert John Parachini has said.
Assuming a typical bus is around 40ft long, that suggests the spherical balloon could be around 120ft by 120ft. That would align with the dimension of other balloons used for high-altitude operations.
The balloon was about 60,000ft over the center of the United States on Friday afternoon, around Kansas City in Missouri
Brigadier General Patrick Ryder told a press briefing at the Pentagon: ‘We know it’s a surveillance balloon’
Images taken from the ground show a device fixed to the balloon is fitted with large solar panels, which power the on-board monitoring equipment and also a system to maneuver the balloon.
The Pentagon has said the balloon ‘has the ability to maneuver’, although it’s not clear how well it can be controlled. Jet streams at such high altitudes make it extremely difficult to control the balloon’s path. China has also claimed the balloon ended up over the US because of its limited steering capability.
Equipment fitted to such a spy balloon is likely to include a long-range camera and radar to determine the presence and movement of harder-to-detect objects.
Such a balloon would also be fitted with a communication device that can relay the findings in real-time back to its controller.
Interestingly, officials believe the balloon is no more effective than Chinese satellites which can also be used to conduct surveillance of the United States.
Chinese spy satellites carry similar sensors to what U.S. officials believe is on the spy balloon, raising questions about why Beijing would risk such a brazen act on the eve of Blinken’s now-postponed visit.
Still, the Chinese spy balloon has taken a flight path that would carry it over a number of sensitive sites, officials say. One such site could be military bases, including in Montana, which is home to intercontinental ballistic missile silos.
A Pentagon official said: ‘Clearly, they’re trying to fly… this balloon over sensitive sites… to collect information.’
A missile alert facility near Belt, Montana. Officials feared the spy balloon could be used to gather intelligence about nuclear sites in the state as it floated overhead
The balloon was detected days before a landmark meeting planned between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese President Xi Jinping
The Billings, Montana, airport on Wednesday issued a ground stop as the military mobilized assets including F-22 fighter jets in case Biden ordered that the balloon be shot down.
The balloon is believed to have arrived over the mainland US after flying over the Aleutian Islands in the northern Pacific Ocean, and then crossed Canadian airspace into the United States.
One model suggests it’s likely to drift further into the Midwest. It had reached Missouri by Friday afternoon. But the nature of the device and changing weather makes longer-term predictions difficult.
Military chiefs have considered shooting it down – and President Joe Biden was reportedly keen on the idea – but decided against it due to the safety risk. The prospect has not been ruled out entirely.
‘Montana plays a vital national security role by housing nuclear missile silos at Malmstrom AFB,’ state senator Steve Daines wrote in a letter to the Pentagon, raising the alarm
Malmstrom Air Force Base is located in Cascade County in the state of Montana, in the US. It lies about seven miles from the Great Falls and is home to the 341st Missile Wing
The balloon is large enough that destroying it would rain down debris, risking the safety of people on the ground, US officials said.
China’s claim that the balloon is a civilian weather-monitoring device are not totally baseless – though they have been rejected by the Pentagon. Weather balloons, which can be similar in shape, size and appearance, are common tools for meteorological research.
China has sent other such spy balloons over the United States in recent years, the senior Pentagon official said.
The official did not share details, but indicated the flights were detected as far back as the administration of the previous president Donald Trump.
However, the official added, this is the first time a Chinese balloon has stayed in US airspace for an extended period.
The situation is also believed to be the first time such a balloon has travelled over the middle of the United States. Previous incursions have included a balloon that briefly moved over Florida, and others that were detected near Hawaii and Guam.