A giant Chinese balloon, flying across the United States and drawing the attention of an alarmed national and global public, has changed Americans’ awareness of everything that floats in the air and how defense officials observe and respond to it.
President Joe Biden said Thursday that the United States is updating its guidelines for monitoring and reacting to unknown aerial objects. That was after the discovery of a suspected Chinese spy balloon transiting the country sparked high-stakes drama, including the American shootdowns of that balloon and three smaller ones days later.
Biden said that officials suspect that the three subsequent balloons were ordinary. That could mean those used for research, meteorological, recreational, or commercial purposes. Authorities have been unable to recover any of the remains of those three balloons, and on Friday night the US military announced that it had finished searching for the objects that were shot down near Deadhorse, Alaska, and over Lake Huron on the 10th and February 12.
Altogether, the episodes opened the public’s eyes to two realities.
One: China is operating a military-linked aerial surveillance program that has targeted more than 40 countries, according to the Biden administration. China denies it.
Two: there’s also a lot of garbage floating up there.
A look at why there are so many balloons up there, launched for war, weather, science, business, or just for fun; why are they getting attention now; and how the US is likely to monitor and respond to slow-moving objects in the future.
WHAT ARE ALL THOSE BALLOONS UP DOING?
Some are there to spy or fight. Humans have attached bombs to balloons since at least the 1840s, when winds blew away some of the balloon-borne bombs dropped against Venice in Austrian launchers. In the US Civil War, Union and Confederate soldiers floated over the front lines in balloons to assess enemy positions and direct fire.
And when it comes to peacetime uses, the low cost of balloons makes them a favorite aerial platform for all uses, serious and idle. That includes everything up to “fraternities with nothing better to do and $10,000,” quipped Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
Himes’ role on the committee involved him in a congressionally mandated military and intelligence review of the most credible sightings of unidentified aerial phenomena, or UFOs. That review also made him and other legislators realize "how many things are floating, particularly balloons"Himes said.
For the National Weather Service, balloons are the primary means of above-ground forecasting. Meteorologists launch balloons twice a day from nearly 900 locations around the world, including nearly 100 in the United States.
High-altitude balloons also help scientists observe space from near the edges of Earth’s atmosphere. NASA has a national balloon program office, which helps coordinate launches from East Texas and other sites for universities, foreign groups and other research programs. School science classes throw balloons, wildlife watchers throw balloons.
Commercial interests also send balloons, like Google’s effort to provide Internet service via giant balloons.
And $12 gets balloon hobbyists, who use balloons for amateur radio or just for the joy of launching and tracking, balloons capable of going up to 40,000 feet and more.
That’s about the altitude the US military says the three smaller balloons were at when the US missiles ended their flights.
Most pilots probably wouldn’t even notice a collision with such a balloon, said Ron Meadows, who produces balloons, with popsicle-sized transmitters, for high schools and colleges to use for science education.
All it “does is report its location and speed,” Meadows said. “He’s not a threat to anyone.”
Among hot air balloon aficionados, there are suspicions that a balloon reported missing by the Northern Illinois Bottle Cap Squad was one of those shot down, as first reported by the Aviation Week Network. White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Friday that the administration could not confirm those reports.
And it’s not just America’s Mylar, foil and plastic roofs. Wind patterns known as westerlies sweep things into the air ranging from soot from Beijing’s tailpipe and the charred bits of Siberian wildfires swinging over the Arctic and into the United States. China says their big balloon was a weather and research balloon that was picked up by the Westerlies. The United States says the balloon was at least partially maneuverable.
WHY ARE WE LOOKING AT ALL THESE BALLOONS JUST NOW?
Short answer: because right now we are looking for them.
Balloons’ rise to global prominence received a boost starting in recent years. Congress directed the Director of National Intelligence to pull together everything the government has learned about unidentified aerial phenomena. That included the creation of a Department of Defense UAP task force.
Last year, at the first congressional hearing on unidentified aerial objects in half a century, Scott W. Bray, deputy director for naval intelligence, told lawmakers that improved sensors, increased drones and other non-military unmanned aerial systems, what about if He "air disorder"including random balloons, made people notice more unidentified airborne objects.
That awareness kicked into high gear this month, after the Chinese balloon was seen floating from the High North by the US military and then the US public. While the US says previous Chinese balloons have entered US territory, this was the first of them to slowly cross the United States in public view.
That balloon, and growing official awareness of a Chinese military-linked balloon surveillance campaign that had targeted dozens of countries, prompted US officials to snap.
SIDEWINDER MISSILES: A LONG-TERM BALLOON STRATEGY?
After the big Chinese balloon, US defense officials are expected to keep more extensive monitoring so that the balloons stay on the radar, but adjust the response.
Biden’s order for the Air Force to shoot down the three smaller air objects with Sidewinder missiles left him dodging Republican accusations that they were too easy to shoot. Biden says the four shootdowns were justified because the balloons could have posed a hazard to civilian aircraft. Hobby balloons with payloads of only a few pounds are not covered by many FAA airspace rules.
Biden says the United States is developing “tougher rules” for tracking, monitoring and potentially shooting down unknown aerial objects.
He ordered national security adviser Jake Sullivan to lead an interagency team to review the proceedings.