Chinese balloon shot down over the US

What is known about the Chinese balloon that was found in US airspace?
17 February 2023


A hot air balloon


The news over the past few weeks has been awash with stories of unidentified objects in US airspace, including one dubbed the ‘chinese spy balloon’. Recently, the two countries have had a tenuous relationship at the best of times, and this incident looks to add further strain. But how has the situation unfolded thus far?

James - I’m sure you’ll have heard, this week, of the Chinese surveillance balloon that the US shot down which they now claim was able to collect communications signals. Equipped with instruments capable of "intelligence collection operations", it has sparked a major international row.

Even more instances have been happening recently, as 2 other flying objects have been shot down over the US. These two have not had their origins confirmed yet, and have been described by US intelligence as ‘benign,’ much smaller in size, and not controllable from the ground. So only time will tell if their motives were nefarious or otherwise.

As for the main balloon, details remain scant but it is believed it took off from a base on Hainan Island along China's southern coast. It was spotted at 60,000 feet in Montana, before being shot down by a missile for violating US airspace. The Chinese government insists that the balloon was a ‘civilian airship used for research’, but American intelligence has since confirmed from that debris that the balloon was being used for surveillance. However, it is now uncertain as to whether the balloon was meant to enter US airspace, or was blown off course by strong winds. The balloon was tracked since its launch and made ‘unusual turns,’ first into Canadian airspace, and then down into US airspace. The wind could have played a part in its course, despite the US claiming that China had partial control of the balloon’s movements.

So if a balloon is so easy to spot and difficult to control, why use one in the first place? Well, a balloon’s movement pattern is harder to track than satellites, as they move more unpredictably, and are often smaller than a typical radar’s level of calibration. They can also hover above a certain point for much longer than a satellite. Satellites are tied to their gravitational orbit around the Earth, which is not helpful if you want to monitor the ongoing progress of something happening on the ground. Balloons can also sometimes dip under weather systems that would otherwise block a satellite's view of an area. And, in this balloon’s case, it can be used to listen in to devices. The balloon confirmed to have surveillance equipment attached had technology capable of locating communication devices and listening in to their conversations. But the conversations of who? Civilians? Governing bodies? That remains to be seen. The US is taking in all of the downed craft for extensive analysis.

There are, however, experts on the subject of surveillance intelligence who remain surprised as to why this individual balloon incident is gathering so much traction. Both countries already have extensively detailed maps of one another. There isn’t much a balloon could tell either side, but balloons have been a part of China’s surveillance division for some time now, and the US now has to revisit its policy on how finely it scans for foreign aerial objects, and how they will deal with them in future. All that can be said for certain is that it has been a diplomatic disaster for both countries.


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