The US military took down a Chinese balloon that came floating into the country over the Canadian border. Beijing insists it was just collecting weather data, but the US claims it's a military surveillance device.
A spy balloon? What’s that?
First, a quick history: of the spy balloon:
- The humble balloon was first used for military purposes in 1794 during the French Revolutionary War. The Corps d’ Aerostiers (company of aeronauts) spied on enemy territory floating in the skies.
- Both sides of the American Civil War used balloons—which could reach 1,000 feet.
- They got a tech upgrade—i.e propellers and engines—during World War I. These ‘dirigibles’ could carry not just people—but also bombs and guns.
- Speaking of bombs, the Japanese sent 9,000 balloons to the US armed with bombs. Only 285 made it—and only one exploded, killing a picnicking family.
The modern spy balloon: Believe it or not, despite having access to fancy satellites, countries still use balloons for surveillance. Example: US balloons—equipped with infrared and colour video cameras—were widely deployed in Afghanistan during the war. Experts claim this Chinese balloon is a zero-pressure ultra-long duration balloon—which can hover over a territory for a long time. They typically float between 24 km-37 km (80,000ft-120,000ft) above the Earth's surface—and are either carried by air currents or can be navigated remotely.
Here’s what one of these cutting-edge balloons looks like:
This Chinese balloon: has pretty much the same features. US officials claim it was carrying surveillance equipment “roughly the size of three large buses.” And it also contains “sophisticated communications gear”—but the Pentagon has no clue what it does. The balloon was "significantly above where civilian air traffic is active.” Here’s what it looked like before the US military took it down:
But why a balloon? Because they weigh less and are smaller, cheaper and easier to launch than satellites. Also, they are not detected by the usual radar equipment: “They’re very low signature and low-to-zero emission, so hard to pick up with traditional situational awareness or surveillance technology.” They can be steered or can hang around at one spot—unlike satellites which have a fixed orbital path.
Ok, what did this balloon do?
According to Beijing, nothing. China claims it is merely a "civilian airship" which deviated from its planned route—while the US insists it is a "high-altitude surveillance" device. In any case, even the Americans don’t know very much about what the balloon was up to.
The route: According to US authorities, the craft entered Alaskan airspace on January 28—and crossed over into Canada on Monday. It then sauntered over the border into Idaho the next day—and was finally spotted over Montana—where it “loitered for a time” near Malmstrom Air Force Base—which houses several nuclear missile silos. And its path took it over several military bases.
Point to note: For all the big fuss, this is the fourth time that a Chinese balloon has crossed over into US airspace. There were three such incursions during Donald Trump’s stint at the White House. But this is the first time it has ventured this deep into US territory and it behaved a little differently: “It is appearing to hang out for a longer period of time, this time around, [and is] more persistent than in previous instances.” Pentagon officials also claim that there is a second balloon hanging about Latin America right now.
Popping the balloon: As with the US military, the balloon was dispatched in true Hollywood style—by an air-to-air Sidewinder missile launched by an F-22 plane. It went down off the South Carolina coast in relatively shallow water—making it easy to recover and examine the debris. See the grand moment below:
Point to note: Republicans fiercely criticised the Biden White House for not taking down the balloon the moment it was spotted. But the administration insisted there was risk to civilian life if they attempted to do so over land. And unnamed defence officials tried to pass off the delay as a clever bit of spycraft:
This actually provided us with a number of days to analyse this balloon, and through a number of means … to learn a lot about what this balloon was doing, how it was doing it, why the PRC may be using balloons like this.
But they were spying on what?
The flight itself… could be used to test America’s ability to detect incoming threats and to find holes in the country’s air defense warning system. It may also have allowed the Chinese to sense electromagnetic emissions that higher-altitude satellites cannot detect, such as low-power radio frequencies that could help them understand how different US weapons systems communicate.
But, but, but: A senior defence official told Washington Post that the tech on the balloon was unlikely to be sophisticated enough to collect anything of value: “I wouldn’t characterise it as revolutionary.” And that brings us to the other theory—this was purely a symbolic exercise. According to one China watcher:
They have other means to spy out American infrastructure, or whatever information they wanted to obtain. The balloon was to send a signal to the Americans, and also to see how the Americans would react.
And the intent was to be noticed:
It's possible that being spotted was the whole point. China might be using the balloon to demonstrate that it has a sophisticated technological capability to penetrate US airspace without risking a serious escalation. In this regard, a balloon is a pretty ideal choice.
The bottomline: If this was a deliberate act of provocation, it marks an unexpected escalation in Chinese aggression. Far more likely: the balloon just strayed way off course—and ended up further inside US territory than intended.
For a general overview, read Associated Press or Al Jazeera. Grid News and New York Times have the best history guide to spy balloons. Washington Post explains how these balloons work. BBC News explains why China would use balloons when it has satellites. CNN looks at what the balloon may have been spying on.