The Pentagon’s rejection of China’s claim that a balloon hovering over nuclear facilities in the United States was a “civilian” airship raises further questions about its surveillance capabilities.
Analysts predict the balloon will be about the size of “three buses” and could be loaded with high-tech equipment including cameras, sensors and radar.
The use of balloons to conduct spy missions dates back to the Cold War, but modern systems can take advantage of the latest advances in surveillance technology.
The balloon hovered about 60,000 feet above the center of the continental United States as of Friday noon ET, the Pentagon said. The balloon’s path had taken him over Montana, sparking fears he was gathering information on nuclear missile sites in the state.
China claimed Friday morning it was a civilian balloon used for meteorological and weather research. But at a briefing at the Pentagon a few hours later, Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said, “We know it’s a surveillance balloon.”
The Chinese surveillance balloon is estimated to be about three buses wide. The balloon is fitted with solar panels to power onboard equipment, which could include long-range cameras and radar. It was flying at about 60,000 feet as of Friday afternoon, but the balloons may be about twice that
The balloon is believed to have launched from mainland China before crossing through Alaska and Canada and then reaching the continental United States
Disturbingly, defense analysts have previously claimed that a balloon could be used as a nuclear weapons “delivery platform.”
The Pentagon said the balloon was hovering at about 60,000 feet as of Friday afternoon
A 2015 report for the American Leadership & Policy Foundation said balloons launched by rogue nations could carry nuclear payloads across the United States that could use launch attacks or disrupt the power grid.
The report’s author, Air Force Major David Stuckenberg, wrote: “The use of a balloon as a [weapon of mass destruction] Platform could offer adversaries a range of heights and payload options to maximize offensive effectiveness against the US
“A high-altitude balloon could be designed, manufactured and launched in a matter of months. There’s nothing stopping you from hauling up several hundred pounds of weaponry.’
Stuckenberg said Friday China’s balloon was “probably some kind of dry run intended to send a strategic message to the US.”
The size of the balloon currently hovering over the United States is about three bus lengths, said defense expert John Parachini.
Assuming a typical bus is about 40 feet long, this suggests that the spherical balloon could be about 120 feet by 120 feet. That would match the size of other balloons used for high-altitude operations.
The balloon was about 60,000 feet above the central United States, near Kansas City, Missouri, on Friday afternoon
Brigadier General Patrick Ryder told a Pentagon press conference, “We know it’s a surveillance balloon.”
Images taken from the ground show that a device attached to the balloon is fitted with large solar panels that power onboard surveillance equipment and also a system for maneuvering the balloon.
The Pentagon said the balloon has the ability to maneuver, though 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 landed over the US because of its limited maneuverability.
The equipment attached to such a spy balloon will likely include a long-range camera and radar to determine the presence and movement of harder-to-detect objects.
Such a balloon would also be equipped with a communication device capable of relaying the results to its controller in real time.
Interestingly, officials believe the balloon is no more effective than Chinese satellites, which can also be used to monitor the United States.
Chinese spy satellites carry similar sensors to what US officials believe are on the spy balloon, raising the question of why Beijing would risk such a brazen act on the eve of Blinken’s now-postponed visit.
Still, the Chinese spy balloon has embarked on a trajectory that would take it over a number of sensitive locations, officials say. One such location could be military bases, including in Montana where ICBM silos are located.
A Pentagon official said, “They are clearly trying to fly this balloon over sensitive locations…to gather intelligence.”
A missile warning facility near Belt, Montana. Officials feared the spy balloon could be used to gather information about nuclear facilities in the state while hovering over them
The balloon was spotted days ahead of a scheduled key meeting between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese President Xi Jinping
The Billings, Montana airport issued a ground stop Wednesday as the military mobilized assets including F-22 fighter jets in case Biden ordered the balloon shot down.
The balloon is believed to have arrived over the US mainland after flying over the Aleutian Islands in the North Pacific, and then crossed Canadian airspace to 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 the changing weather make longer-term predictions difficult.
Military leaders have considered shooting it down — and President Joe Biden was reportedly keen on the idea — but decided against it due to the security risk. The prospect has not been completely ruled out.
“Montana plays a critical role in national security by housing nuclear missile silos at Malmstrom AFB,” State Senator Steve Daines wrote in a letter to the Pentagon, sounding the alarm
Malmstrom Air Force Base is located in Cascade County, Montana. Located about seven miles from Great Falls, it is home to the 341st Missile Wing
The balloon is big enough that destroying it would rain down debris and endanger the safety of people on the ground, US officials said.
China’s claims that the balloon is a civilian weather monitoring device are not entirely unfounded — although they have been denied by the Pentagon. Weather balloons, which can be similar in shape, size, and appearance, are common tools for meteorological research.
China has sent more such spy balloons over the United States in recent years, the senior Pentagon official said.
The official did not share details, but said the flights were discovered during former President Donald Trump’s administration.
The official added, however, this is the first time a Chinese balloon has stayed in US airspace for an extended period of time.
The situation is also believed to be the first time such a balloon has flown across the middle of the United States. Previous incursions have included a balloon that passed briefly over Florida and others spotted near Hawaii and Guam.