China’s Spy Balloon Over Montana Is Part Of A Larger, More Troubling Pattern
The Pentagon says Chinese balloons have flown over the U.S. multiple times before and other peculiar incidents point to a much wider issue.
The U.S. Air Force has moved F-22 Raptor stealth fighters into position to be ready to shoot down what American officials say is a Chinese government high-altitude surveillance balloon over Montana. The balloon remains in U.S. airspace after the decision was made not to destroy it, at least for the time being. The Pentagon has downplayed the overall significance of the balloon's presence and stated that this has happened multiple times before. The latter is new official information as far as we can tell at this time.
Pentagon Press Secretary U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder and a senior U.S. defense official provided details about the balloon, and what the response has been to its presence, to The War Zone and other outlets at a press conference this evening. They both stressed that the balloon is currently at an altitude that is keeping it well away from commercial air traffic and that it does not currently present a threat to anyone on the ground.
"We are confident that this high-altitude surveillance balloon belongs to the PRC [People's Republic of China]," the senior U.S. defense official said. "Currently we assess that this balloon has limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective. But we are taking steps, nevertheless, to protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information."
"First, our best assessment at the moment is 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," the official added. "But out of an abundance of caution, we have taken additional mitigation steps. I'm not going to go into what those are."
"We know exactly where this balloon is, exactly what it is passing over," they continued. "And we are taking steps to be extra vigilant so that we can mitigate any foreign intelligence risk."
The idea that a terrestrial aerial platform in close proximity to, and floating for long periods above, major military installations and other sensitive locales is not significantly more of a threat than what can be collected by satellites in orbit is a debatable claim.
No more specific details about the balloon, including its size or its assessed capabilities were provided. Monitoring of the balloon has been conducted using crewed aircraft and other unspecified means, according to the senior U.S. defense official. Video footage, seen in the Tweet below, from KULR-8 News, an NBC affiliate in Billings, Montana, suggests that it is still floating over that state.
"Clearly they're trying to fly over sensitive sites," the senior defense official said. They added that the balloon's current anticipated flight path takes it over a number of locations of potential interest, but would not specify what those were. It was noted during the press conference that Montana is home to Malmstrom Air Force Base with well over 100 silos holding nuclear-tipped Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles belonging to the 341st Missile Wing.
"We have engaged PRC officials with urgency through multiple channels," the senior defense official said. "They've been engaged both through their embassy here in Washington and through our embassy in Beijing. We have communicated to them the seriousness with which we take this issue. But beyond that, I'm not going to go into the content of the message. But we have made clear we will do whatever is necessary to protect our people and our homeland."
It is not immediately clear when the balloon first entered U.S. airspace, but the senior U.S. defense official said it had arrived "a couple of days ago."
Reports of an unidentified spherical balloon with a large equipment array hanging below it floating near Billings, Montana, first emerged yesterday. The array appears to include solar panels, which would be a sensible way of powering various kinds of systems, including sensors and datalinks, during a long-duration flight.
NBC News also reported that F-22 Raptors from Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, along with at least one E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) radar plane were sent to the area as deliberations were ongoing about whether or not to try to bring it down. Nellis is not home to any combat-coded units equipped with the F-22, suggesting those aircraft may have been diverted from the ongoing Red Flag 23-1 exercise being run from that base. The War Zone reached out to the Pentagon for more information, but was told no additional details could be provided at this time.
Sending F-22s, in general, makes sense in this case given that they can operate and maneuver at higher altitudes than any other U.S. fighter. The balloon is likely soaring at well above 50,000 feet given the Pentagon's assurance that it is high enough to not pose any hazard to commercial air traffic. This would have put it beyond the reach of F-15C/D Eagles or F-16C/D Vipers that might have been based closer by.
At the press conference this evening, the senior defense official described the movement of the F-22s and other aircraft as a "mobilization of a number of assets" in order to "put some things on station in the event that the decision was made to bring it [the balloon] down while it was over on Montana." This made it unclear whether or not an actual intercept of the balloon was conducted, but the video seen in the Tweet below shows that this was the case.
Whatever action was taken did prompt a so-called 'ground stop' at Billings Logan International Airport, halting all commercial flight activity within a 50-mile radius around the airport for approximately two hours, according to KFBB television, an ABC/Fox/MyNetworkTV affiliate in Great Falls, Montana. Two flights were diverted and one outbound departure was delayed.
Air traffic controllers said this was necessary due to a "special military mission," NBC News reported today.
At tonight's press conference, the senior defense official said that President Joe Biden asked the Pentagon yesterday to present potential military options. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who was traveling in the Philippines at the time, convened a senior leadership meeting to discuss the situation.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley and Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) and the U.S.-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), were among those who advised against a "kinetic response" due to safety concerns, including the potential impacts of debris falling in around the Billings area. The decision was ultimately made not to "take the shot" due to the potential risks involved.
The senior U.S. defense official noted that not shooting down the balloon is also offering an opportunity for "tracking what abilities it could have." Though they did not elaborate, it's also worth noting that surveilling the craft and its payload both visually and electronically at close proximity would be critical to assessing its capabilities. If shot down prior to this, that intelligence could be degraded or lost.
Online flight tracking software showed that there were at least three KC-135 aerial refueling tankers flying over northern Montana earlier today. It's unclear whether or not they were directly supporting the ongoing monitoring of the balloon, but that would seem likely.
Perhaps most interestingly, Pentagon Press Secretary Ryder and the senior U.S. defense official both said suspected Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloons have been monitored passing over the continental United States in recent years on multiple occasions. This includes instances that took place before Biden took office in 2021. Neither of them would say exactly how frequently this has occurred or provide details about any past incidents. They did say that the balloon that is currently inside U.S. airspace has been here longer than others in the past.
This all is very intriguing given a very similar response, including the scrambling of F-22 Raptors, to the appearance of another spherical balloon floating off the coast of Hawaii nearly a year ago. To date, U.S. officials do not appear to have disclosed the origin or suspected origin of that balloon. The War Zone reached out to the Pentagon to ask whether this was also a suspected Chinese surveillance asset, but was again told that no additional information could be provided at this time in response to this query. That balloon was floating off Kauai not far from a sensitive missile test site.
In addition, a point was raised during tonight's press conference about whether such balloon activity could potentially be the source of at least some reported sightings of what are now are officially referred to as unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAPs. Previously such objects were commonly described as unidentified flying objects, or UFOs.
In January, the Pentagon’s newly formed All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO) and ODNI’s National Intelligence Manager for Aviation (NIM-A) jointly released an unclassified version of an annual report to Congress on UAPs. That report said that there had been 366 newly cataloged UAP incidents in 2022 – including older incidents AARO and NIM-A were not previously aware of – 163 of which were said to have been "balloon or balloon-like entities."
The War Zone has outlined in extreme detail in the past how a significant number of reported UAP sightings are very likely instances of people actually spotting surveillance assets, especially drones and balloons, operated by potential adversaries like China. To fully understand just how complex this issue is and how it has posed a very real threat to U.S. national security for some time, make sure to read our in-depth feature here.
In the nearly two years since we filed that feature, much more evidence has come to light regarding active surveillance of America's most critical military assets by unmanned aircraft.
This particular incident over Montana also recalls the still unexplained reported sightings of what might have been swarms of drones over areas of Colorado and Nebraska between December 2019 and January 2020. Some of those incidents were near Minuteman III silo fields, too.
There have been other similarly concerning incidents in the United States in recent years related to critical civilian infrastructure. The War Zone was the first to report on drones swarming over the Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant in Arizona across multiple nights in September 2019.
Regardless, the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA), together with ostensibly civilian entities with close ties to it, is also known to be heavily investing in high-altitude lighter-than-air platforms, such as blimps and balloons, that could be used for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance purposes, among other missions, as you can read more about here.
A sighting in December of what appeared to be a high-altitude airship in the vicinity of the northern Philippine island of Luzon near the South China Sea, called new attention to growing Chinese capabilities in that regard. This is an area of the world that is of great strategic importance to the government in Beijing.
Balloons that appear to have a very similar overall configuration to the one spotted over Montana have appeared in the skies over India and Japan – both countries of strategic interest to China – in recent years, as well.
It is worth noting that the U.S. military is actively testing how it might use similar high-altitude balloons, with the ability to navigate long distances to areas of interest and hold station against prevailing winds, to perform various tasks. This includes intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, but also a range of other potential mission sets like communications relaying and long-range strike, as you can read more about here.
Companies in the United States and elsewhere have also been developing similar systems for commercial purposes, too.
Whether or not another less risky opportunity to shoot down the apparent Chinese balloon will appear and be taken advantage of remains to be seen. In addition, with the disclosure that this incident is not the first of its kind, it will be interesting to see what new details about Chinese high-altitude balloon surveillance activities, more generally, might now emerge.
This is an evolving story and we will update this post in the coming hours with new information if we get it.
Author's note: Tyler Rogoway contributed to this report.
We cannot confirm these details at this time, but there may be another aerial intrusion underway in Canada, which is partners with the USAF in NORAD. Washington Post's Andrew deGrandpré also mentions highly strategic Guam as being a past target area for similar balloons, which is unsurprising.
Master aircraft tracking sleuth Steffan Watkins also has an interesting thread that may point to Canadian CF-18s having intercepted and tracked this balloon days ago. This would make sense based on what we currently know about the balloon and its track.
The Chinese government has now confirmed that the balloon did originate in China, but claims it is a "civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes."
"Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course," according to a statement from Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning "The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure. The Chinese side will continue communicating with the US side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure."
Chinese authorities have, so far, provided no further information to corroborate this. Furthermore, weather-related research has long been a staple cover story for covert long-range high-altitude aerial intelligence-gathering activity.
The People's Republic of China has a long history of responding to various similar allegations by claiming that the systems, facilities, or capabilities in question are simply for peaceful scientific or commercial purposes, further calling this claim into question. Even if this balloon is ostensibly civilian in nature, it would not automatically preclude it from having sensors that could gather data that could be exploited for intelligence purposes.
"China is a responsible country and we always act in accordance with international law. We have no intention to violate the territory or airspace of any sovereign country," Mao had said in response to a question about the balloon at a press conference earlier today. "We are gathering and verifying the facts. We hope both sides can handle the matter together in a cool-headed and prudent manner."
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had been set to travel to Beijing next week and to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. That trip, the first by a top U.S. diplomat in five years, has now been postponed.
“We have noted the [People’s Republic of China] statement of regret, but the presence of this balloon in our airspace is a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law, and it is unacceptable that this has occurred,” a senior State Department official said today, according to The Hill. “After consultations with our interagency partners, as well as with Congress, we have concluded that the conditions are not right at this moment for Secretary Blinken to travel to China.”
The War Zone has concluded updates to this story. Our continuing coverage of this Chinese surveillance balloon can be found here.
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