News has been breaking in the last few hours that a surveillance balloon from a foreign state has been loitering over Montana for a day or so.
The craft is large enough that people are taking photo’s of it from the ground and the reactions to the news on social media are about what you’d expect, with everything from demands that the intruder be shot down to musings that this represents the groundwork for an imminent attack.
I’ll admit, I’ve found the whole affair mildly intriguing.
After all, espionage balloons have a long history of use, especially during the Cold War and the traditional culprit for their use has been the United States, so it is novel to see this particular craft getting so much attention with the fact it is overflying restricted and secure areas of the continental US.
So after reading the hullaballoo and press reports, I figured it would be better just to go to see what the Pentagon had to say about the affair, and to see if they had answers to the questions everyone seems to be asking. The information here can all be found in the press briefing that the Pentagon gave on this matter, and I shall link to it in the description if you want to read it.
But here are the answers to the pertinent details.
- Do We Know Its Chinese?
According to the “Senior Defense Official” who gave the briefing, the Pentagon is “…confident that this high-altitude surveillance balloon belongs to the PRC,” adding that he wouldn’t go into how they know it’s from China, but that “…we do not doubt that this is a PRC balloon. And that is an assessment shared across our intelligence and analytic community.”
- Is it Dangerous?
According to the DOD, no. It is flying well above civil aviation altitudes and, though some pilots have reported seeing the balloon, it apparently represents no danger to air travel. It also does not pose a, in the words of the official “…physical kinetic threat to individuals in the United States or the U.S. Homeland.”
- What’s Its Target?
Well, the balloon has apparently overflown a number of sensitive military areas and its current location over Montana is of note as that is the location of some of the U.S.-based missile silos for their nuclear deterrent. The official statement is obviously vague on just what the balloon might be snooping on, but the DOD state that they have taken steps to: “…protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information,” and that they do not think that the payload for this aircraft is particularly noteworthy.
- How did it get there?
The sudden appearance in the news cycle has given the mistaken impression that this balloon has just managed to achieve its position over the central USA out of nowhere. In fact, the DOD state they have been tracking the craft since before it entered US airspace and have continuously monitored it since it entered a couple of days ago.
- Why Are the DOD Not Seeming Worried?
Firstly, the DOD state they are sure that “…whatever the surveillance payload is on this balloon, it does not create significant value added over and above what the PRC is likely able to collect through things like satellites in Low Earth Orbit.”
Indeed, the attitude from the briefing seems more one of interest in the flying capabilities of the balloon, with the spokesperson admitting that the aircraft does seem capable of maintaining its position for an extended period of time. They also state that they have looked it over on multiple occasions by multiple means and retain the right and means to shoot it down should they think it necessary.
- So Why Not Shoot It Down?
Danger to people on the ground. According to the briefing, the advice from the Pentagon to the White House is along the lines of “why bother?” The balloon doesn’t seem to be doing anything particularly useful, it is a substantial craft and at the altitude it is at destroying it could scatter debris over a wide area. Though Montana is sparsely populated, the DOD don’t see the point of endangering anyone.
Now, I should point out, I’m just telling you the DODs attitude. I’m sure there will be folks out there outraged just on the whole principal of letting foreign surveillance devices wander freely over the United States. But the DODs attitude very much comes across as one of “Meh”.
- This has happened before?
Yep. According to the briefing, balloons like this have periodically flown over the US. The DOD wont say how many or how often, but they do admit that this has been occurring for several years now, including in previous administrations.
- Why now?
As the official put it: “You know, I can’t speculate. It’s probably a question better to direct to the Chinese embassy. I don’t know why they did what they did.”
It’s notable that next week Secretary Blinken is headed to China, notionally to try to repair some of the fractures in US-Sino relations. This action will likely be an impediment to that, especially as the situation has been raised with Beijing already. Given how opaque the Chinese government is, and it factionalism, it’s entirely possible no definite reason will ever come to light.
And I think that covers most of the salient points. As said, this has happened before, the most interesting point for the US military and intelligence services seem to be the persistence capability of this particular craft, noone seems to know what the Chinese are playing at by doing this, and the general attitude at the Pentagon seems to be “We are keeping an eye on it, but it’s no biggie.”
I guess we will see what happens.