People in Montana probably figured February 1st, 2023 would be a day like any other. Little did they know that they would spot a little white disc in the sky that would eventually be blown up by an F-22 Raptor over the Atlantic ocean off the coast of the Carolinas several days later. They would also initially have no idea that the little white disc was a Chinese surveillance balloon that had been performing data collection over the United States and Canada for the last few days. Here is a summary and timeline of the Chinese surveillance balloon that took flight over the continental United States not even a month into 2023.
A Brief Background on International Spying and Why This Is Different
Before we take this deep dive, it should go without saying that spying on foreign nations or entering their airspace unwanted is nothing new; the U.S. is definitely at the top of the list when it comes to spying and meddling in another nation’s affairs, but to so brazenly fly a balloon equipped with spying equipment over the continental United States for days on end is certainly out of the ordinary.
Countries will often probe the air space of other nations. It’s not unheard of for a country to fly their jets near another country’s airspace and to see the response time, the response itself, when they were initially discovered, and more. It provides vital information for militaries on another nation’s capabilities should they ever have to go to war. Russia has done this off the coast of Alaska in recent times, the United States does it in the South China Sea, where China is attempting to claim international waters, and China has often done it against Taiwan.
That said, flying an unmanned aircraft over another nation for days on end is quite different. Imagine the international incident that would have occurred if the Chinese surveillance balloon had popped and landed, killing an American. This is all without even considering the fact that they were hovering the balloon over sensitive missile sites, but we will get to that later.
Essentially, the conversation about this balloon needs to be prefaced with the fact that while spying is nothing new, the Chinese flying an unmanned aircraft over the continental United States and Canada is such a daring and brash decision that it warrants a diplomatic response.
An Overview of the Balloon Itself
Before discussing the general timeline of the Chinese surveillance balloon, it’s important to understand that this was, in fact, a balloon with spying capabilities and not a civilian weather balloon, as the Chinese government has claimed. The balloon itself was two hundred feet in diameter and carried surveillance devices along with solar panels to power the intelligence-collecting equipment. Normal weather balloons are much smaller and carry perhaps a dozen pounds in equipment; this balloon had several thousand pounds worth.
It also had the ability to control which direction it would move, as seen by its ability to hover over sensitive sites and change direction against the wind. It was able to do this through the use of small motors and propellers attached to the metal trusses hanging below the balloon.
This was also not the only balloon the Chinese had used for spying. There have been numerous cases of similar Chinese surveillance balloons flying over other countries in Asia, South America, and Europe. It would eventually be revealed by the Pentagon that similar balloons had flown over the United States three times during the Trump administration, albeit not for as long as this balloon. Scarily, the US military did not detect those balloons until afterward.
The General Timeline of the Chinese Surveillance Balloon
Initial Flight and Eventual Discovery
The balloon was launched from China sometime Friday, January 27th. The jet stream across the Pacific Ocean would eventually drag it towards Alaska on Saturday, January 28th. It would remain flying over U.S. airspace until Monday, January 30th, when it would cross over into Canada. By this point, the military had been aware of its presence for some time but had not notified the public about the balloon. They continued to track the balloon’s flight during this time through the use of NORAD and other radar technology.
On January 31st, the balloon would re-enter U.S. airspace over Idaho, and President Biden would be notified by the Department of Defense. President Biden immediately asked for options to shoot the balloon down and neutralize it. However, due to the non-zero risk of casualties, they decided to wait until it was over the Atlantic Ocean. Since the balloon was approximately two hundred feet in diameter, it could create a debris field covering a seven-mile radius when shot down.
On Wednesday, February 1st, it would begin crossing sensitive sites in Montana that contained the United State’s Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles– nukes. The military had begun preparing for this since they could calculate its flight path and had already taken precautions to prevent sensitive information and communications from being intercepted by the balloon.
Again, the decision not to shoot the Chinese surveillance balloon down was made due to the non-zero risk of casualties on the ground. The balloon was flying at an altitude of around 60,000 feet, well above any commercial airliner, and posed no immediate threat. There simply was no reason to endanger lives when the US military could simply continue to track the balloon, jam its equipment, and wait until a more opportune moment.
It was around this time that the Chinese surveillance balloon was first spotted and began dominating the news and social media. People in Montana could spot the balloon in the air as a faint white disc. One day later, on February 2nd, the Department of Defense admitted that the balloon had been flying over the United States for several days but that it posed no threat. The military, and the rest of the U.S., continued to monitor the situation.
China’s Reaction and the Cancelled Summit
On February 3rd, the balloon was spotted by civilians in Kansas and Missouri as it continued making its way across the continental United States. The Chinese government would eventually release a statement about the balloon after the Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, postponed his imminent visit to China for a meeting on improving relations and communications due to a growing divide in recent years between the two nations.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry essentially claimed that they weren’t at fault for the balloon entering U.S. airspace and that it wasn’t for spying but that it was “a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes.” They also continued to claim that they have never violated the territory or airspace of any sovereign country, which is an almost laughable claim given their track record with Taiwanese and Japanese airspace, to name just two.
As mentioned before, this is the same day that Secretary of State Blinken postponed his planned trip to meet with Chinese officials in Beijing. The postponement was due to the fact that the meeting would almost certainly be dominated by the balloon, and the original purpose would be lost. This is definitely an indication that the Biden administration is taking this event seriously and is not wanting to appear soft on China in an era when Republicans continually claim that he is not hard enough on the Asian nation.
The US Military’s Response
Finally, on Saturday, February 4th, eight days after the surveillance balloon took flight, the US military shot the balloon down using an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile from an F-22 Raptor. The balloon would eventually fall into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of the Carolinas without any casualties as planned. The balloon’s technology bay is currently being recovered for further analysis. Spectators on the ground captured the moment the balloon was hit, and videos like this one immediately went viral.
The Chinese government, of course, released a follow-up statement with a completely different tone condemning the U.S.’s actions and calling it “an apparent overreaction and a serious violation of the spirit of international law and international practice.” They continue to go on and say that “what the US has done has severely impacted and undermined the efforts and progress the two sides have made.”
It seems China has forgotten that sending a surveillance balloon over sensitive sites is in and of itself a clear violation of international law and, by their own logic, severely undermines the efforts made by the United States to improve relations between the two nations. This is all an effort to save face and give doubt to their actions, but it is crystal clear what the purpose of the balloon was– to undermine the security of the United States and gather intelligence on sensitive U.S. military sites.
What to Expect in the Coming Weeks
All-in-all, there shouldn’t be too much noise over the next few weeks about this Chinese surveillance balloon. We may hear a few small details from the Department of Defense about what was recovered, but we almost certainly will not know the full picture. Whether Secretary of State Blinken attempts to visit Beijing again remains unclear, but it definitely will not be happening anytime soon.
What is clear is that this was one hundred percent a surveillance balloon sent by the Chinese government to conduct surveillance over sensitive military sites in the United States. What this balloon could gain that satellites overhead can’t have is yet to be determined, but that will be figured out by intelligence analysts soon enough.
If you’re worried about World War III because of this international incident, don’t be. It’s guaranteed not to lead to that level of response. While China is definitely puffing its chest out at the fact that the U.S. has publicly broadcasted that they were so arrogant in their attempts at spying, it’s all just talk. Diplomatic relations between the two nations will suffer, but both nations will continue to remain peaceful with each other– as peaceful as the two can be, at least.