The United States detected a balloon suspected of being a Chinese spy balloon in American airspace, the Pentagon announced. Here’s what we know about the matter, which has raised alarm among the US and Canadian military and intelligence agencies.
Where is it located?
An official at the US Department of Defense announced that the balloon entered US airspace “several days ago,” without specifying its exact location.
The balloon flew over the Aleutian Islands in the North Pacific, then crossed Canadian airspace into the United States, where it flew over Montana at an altitude much higher than commercial aircraft traffic, according to US media, citing defense officials.
Its size is equivalent to the size of three buses together, according to these sources.
Is it really a Chinese balloon?
“We have no doubt that the balloon came from China,” said a senior Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In Beijing, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced, on Friday, that the airship, which the United States suspects was spying on its airspace, is “civilian” and used for research, especially for meteorological purposes.
The ministry’s statement stated that the balloon had a limited steering capacity and that it deviated from its planned course due to the wind.
The statement also said that China regrets the inadvertent entry of the balloon into US airspace.
China said earlier Friday that it was looking into reports that a Chinese spy balloon was flying in US airspace, urging calm.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said, “China is a responsible country, and has always strictly abided by international laws. China has no intention of violating the territory and domain of any sovereign country. As for the airship, as I just mentioned, we are investigating and checking the situation and hope that Both sides can handle this matter together calmly and cautiously.”
Xavier Pascoe, director of the Institute for Strategic Research and an expert on space issues, told AFP: “The question is: Is it a balloon used for espionage or a scientific platform that has been derailed?”
What sites can a balloon spy on?
The balloon flew over a number of sensitive sites, according to the Pentagon official, who added, “It is clear that it flew over these sites to collect information.”
Montana, in particular, includes air bases and nuclear missile stores.
Why was it not dropped?
US officials reported that the balloon was large enough that debris falling to the ground would pose a danger to residents.
The Pentagon considered several options, including shooting it down while it was flying over a sparsely populated area, but saw the risks remain high, according to a senior defense official.
He added, “Does it pose a danger to civil aviation? This does not apply in this case, according to our assessment. Does it pose a much greater danger in terms of intelligence? We estimate at the present time that this does not apply.”
“We see it as futile” to take the risk, even if “the risks of bringing him down are minimal.”
Is it the first Chinese spy balloon over the United States?
The Pentagon official confirmed that China has sent several balloons over the United States in recent years.
However, he made it clear that this is the first time that a Chinese airship has remained in US airspace for such a long period.
Didn’t satellites render spy balloons useless?
Airships have long been used for military purposes, for espionage and surveillance, and were particularly used extensively during World War I.
But with the conquest of space and the advancement of aviation, satellites and spy planes can monitor enemy territory more reliably.
However, balloons are a low-cost way to gather information.
“In the future there will be balloons over our heads for several months in a row, which could pose a threat to our activities at a lower cost than space means,” said Deputy Commander of the French Air Force, General Frederic Parisot.
And in the first American reactions, the Wall Street Journal, quoting a US official, reported today, Friday, that Secretary of State Anthony Blinken decided to postpone his upcoming visit to Beijing next week, due to the “tension” aroused by monitoring what was said to be Chinese “spy balloon” in the airspace of the United States.
Blinken was expected to arrive in Beijing soon, to meet his Chinese counterpart, Qin Gang, and Chinese President, Xi Jinping, but the “airship crisis” overshadowed it.
No US Secretary of State has visited China since 2018, while the relations between the two superpowers have witnessed several stages of tension, due to geopolitical issues and economic competition, in recent years.