Friday, United Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said he was canceling a high-level diplomatic visit to Beijing following the discovery of a large high-altitude Chinese balloon that drifted over the US this week. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China said in a statement on Friday that the airship is an off-course weather balloon and denied it was a spy tool. Senior U.S. Department of Defense official told reporters on Thursday, however, that “this balloon is clearly intended for surveillance.”
Spy balloons are a historic technology that was widely used before the development of low earth orbit and geosynchronous satellites, including widespread use in the 1950s by the United States during the Cold War. But these days, their use has largely fallen out of fashion. Spy balloons have some advantages over satellites. They are cheap to deploy, fly relatively close to their targets, and can constantly monitor location for longer periods of time. But balloons have weight limits, which also limits the power and variety of their onboard sensors. And unlike satellites, which are out of sight and out of sight of people on Earth, the situation currently playing out with the Chinese balloon illustrates the biggest drawback of reconnaissance balloons.
“You may have noticed that this balloon has caused a massive international incident and everyone is looking at China and demanding that the US government do something. In terms of surveillance, that’s the kind of attention you don’t want,” says Brynn Tannehill, senior technical analyst at RAND Corporation and a former naval aviator. “My assessment is that the benefits the balloon offers versus the amount of unwanted attention it creates – I can’t answer why the Chinese did it. It attracts ill will.”
Sensor-equipped balloons have on-board control capabilities but are carried by wind currents. US officials said Thursday that the spy balloon hovered over commercial aircraft at an altitude of roughly 60,000 feet and that it did not pose a threat to people or activity on the ground. A senior Defense Department official noted that the balloon is large enough to create a potentially dangerous debris field if the US shoots down the balloon over a populated area. The official added that the military was considering taking kinetic action on Wednesday as the balloon was moving over “underpopulated areas in Montana” but concluded the risks were not low enough. RAND’s Tannehill notes that the added risk of such an operation is that a missile aimed at the balloon will miss, “and now you’ve created an even bigger problem,” she says.
Brigadier General Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, said on Thursday that “Instances of this type of ballooning activity have been observed previously over the past few years. confidential information”.
Increasing reports indicate that the vehicle is part of a broader Chinese spy balloon initiative, and a senior Department of Defense official said on Thursday about spy balloon flights over the US that “this has happened several times over the past few years, including before this administration “. However, the current incident appears to have been the most visible to the US public.