Chinese ‘spy’ balloon saga: What was it trying to collect from US?

The US insists that the balloon was part of a broader People’s Liberation Army intelligence-gathering effort that spanned more than 40 countries including India.

Anwesha Mitra
Updated10 Feb 2023
FILE PHOTO: Sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recover a suspected Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon that was downed by the United States over the weekend over U.S. territorial waters off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, U.S., February 5, 2023. U.S. Fleet Forces/U.S. Navy photo/Handout via REUTERS//File Photo
FILE PHOTO: Sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recover a suspected Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon that was downed by the United States over the weekend over U.S. territorial waters off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, U.S., February 5, 2023. U.S. Fleet Forces/U.S. Navy photo/Handout via REUTERS//File Photo(via REUTERS)

A Chinese balloon floating across the United States has triggered a multi-nation diplomatic crisis. First spotted at the end of January, it was shot down by a Sidewinder missile off the coast of South Carolina on February 4. Beijing continues to insist that it was an off-course weather balloon that the US had ‘irresponsibly’ brought down.

While a lot of the questions remain unanswered, the US insists that the balloon was part of a broader People’s Liberation Army intelligence-gathering effort that spanned more than 40 countries including India.

When was the balloon first spotted? What route did it take?

The balloon was first detected within US airspace on January 28 as it hovered high over Alaska, north of the Aleutian Islands. The North American Aerospace Defense Command - a military unit also responsible for tracking Santa's journey on Christmas - tracked the balloon into Canadian airspace over the next two days before it re-entered US skies over northern Idaho on the final day of January. 

As President Biden and other US officials looked into ways to disable the balloon it made its way over Montana - home to the Malmstrom Air Force Base - and then across the country to South Carolina. 

While the US government declined to say which areas the balloon had surveyed, it appeared to travel near sensitive US bases including Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana - which oversees 150 intercontinental ballistic missile silos, and Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska - home to the US Strategic Command which is in charge of nuclear forces. It also appeared to drift over Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, which operates the Air Force's B-2 bomber.

It was eventually shot down on February 4 over the Atlantic Ocean off Surfside Beach in South Carolina.

What do we know about the balloon itself?

The airship originated in China and has been described as a massive structure - the size of three buses - carrying a ‘large’ payload. Beijing insists that it was simply an unmanned civilian weather balloon while Washington claims it was equipped with spying equipment.

NORAD chief General Glen VanHerck described the balloon as being 200 feet high, with a surveillance payload the size of a regional passenger jet that likely weighed in excess of a couple thousand pounds. Civilians viewing the balloon from the ground described it as a giant white orb as it floated about 60,000 feet above the ground.

A Reuters report cited US-based Kaymont - a firm that makes and distributes weather balloons globally - to say that the size, payload and flight time exceeded the capabilities of typical weather balloons made from latex.

Why did the US shoot the balloon down?

US officials believe that the balloon was being used to surveil strategic sites. It had flown over several sensitive military areas and according to one official, managed to linger in the winds over specific regions.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the Pentagon acted to limit what the balloon could learn about US nuclear capabilities. 

“Certainly all of our strategic assets, we made sure were buttoned down and movement was limited and communications were limited so that we didn’t expose any capability unnecessarily,” he said in an interview with CBS News.

What has the US said about the balloon? 

The US maintains that the Chinese balloon had been sent to spy on the country.  The House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution on Thursday, condemned China for a “brazen violation” of US sovereignty and efforts to “deceive the international community through false claims about its intelligence collection campaigns.”

Senior Biden administration officials on Thursday said that as many as 40 countries have been impacted similarly. The US has intensified diplomatic efforts to expose China's balloon surveillance programme - particularly with Quad partners – Australia, India and Japan.

What did China say about the balloon? 

China's foreign ministry said the balloon was mainly used for meteorological purposes and had limited self-steering ability. Affected by the weather it had ‘unexpectedly’ drifted into US airspace. The ministry has also said it has no information to share about what company or entity owns the balloon.

China's Defense Ministry also refused a call from the US Defense Secretary after the balloon was downed. “Given that this irresponsible and seriously wrong approach by the US did not create the proper atmosphere for dialogue and exchanges between the two militaries, China did not accept the US proposal for a phone call between the two defense ministers," spokesperson Tan Kefei said.

Calling it "an isolated, unexpected incident" China has accused the US of exaggerating the dispute and slammed the recent resolution.

What did the US do with the balloon? 

Earlier this week the US Coast Guard had imposed a temporary security zone in the waters off Surfside Beach. A rescue operation to secure debris from the balloon is ongoing with analysis continuing at the FBI laboratory in Virginia. 

Some balloon debris was intact on the ocean floor and divers had recovered potentially high-value equipment over the past day and a half. Recovery efforts were temporarily suspended on Thursday due to high seas. 

Just a few pieces have so far arrived for investigation - including a small amount of electronics. An official said that some of the recovered equipment components had English writing or markings on them.

What the balloon doing? What data was it trying to collect? 

Authorities have determined that the balloon was operating with electronic surveillance technology capable of monitoring US communications. The balloon had “multiple antennas to include an array likely capable of gathering and geo-locating communications”.

"High-resolution imagery from U-2 flybys revealed that the high-altitude balloon was capable of conducting signals intelligence collection operations," CNN quoted an official as saying. 

It was also reportedly equipped with solar panels large enough to produce the requisite power to operate multiple active intelligence collection sensors.

 

(With inputs from agencies)

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