A suspected Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon was spotted hovering for several days over northwestern United States. The Pentagon confirmed it is tracking the object on February 2, 2023, a day after two F-22s were scrambled from Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, to intercept the balloon as it was flying over Montana, resulting also in a ground stop at Billings Logan International Airport for a “special mission over Livingston area” which lasted around two hours.
This is the official statement from Brigadier General Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, released during a background briefing on the balloon yesterday:
“The United States government has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now. The U.S. government, to include NORAD, continues to track and monitor it closely. The balloon is currently traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic, and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground. Instances of this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years. Once the balloon was detected, the U.S. government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.”
A senior defense official during the briefing said they are “confident that this high-altitude surveillance balloon belongs to the PRC”. While the officials did not share how they did determine this, they said they have very high confidence about this assessment, and this confidence is also shared also across the intelligence and analytic community.
PRC officials have been contacted “with urgency through multiple channels”, letting them know that the US are serious about the issue. “We have made clear we will do whatever is necessary to protect our people and our homeland”, said the official. “And so if the risk profile that I described earlier, if that changes we will have options to deal with this balloon.”
President Biden was briefed about the balloon and asked for military options, however the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Milley, and the commander of NORTHCOM, General VanHerck, recommended not to take kinetic action due to the risk to safety and security of people on the ground from the possible debris field. While officials did not want to go into the exact dimensions of the object, they said it is “large enough to cause damage”.
The balloon, in fact, appears to carry a quite large payload, according to the photos captured from the ground and shared online. While the photos are grainy and not very detailed because of the distance, we can see the shape of solar arrays distributed on two thirds of the structure suspended below the balloon, while in the remaining center third there are some indistinguishable objects. These should be the sensors of the surveillance payload, which is powered by the solar panels.
The officials, however, say they “assess that this balloon has limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective”, as they reckon it does not create significant value added over and above what the PRC is likely able to collect through other means, like satellites in Low Earth Orbit, and thus it does not pose a significantly enhanced threat on the intelligence side.
Nevertheless, they continue tracking what abilities it could have in gaining insights as well as taking steps to protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information. In fact, the officials say that the predicted flight path might take the balloon over sensitive sites, among which there are the launch silos of the LGM-30G Minuteman III ballistic missiles.
The U.S. Air Force has intercontinental ballistic missile fields across large areas of Montana, which are part of the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base. The 341st is one of three units that maintain and operate the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) across the United States.
Something that makes this balloon sighting stand out compared to previous events is the persistence, as the balloon is hovering over continental US for a longer period of time. The exact timeframe when the balloon entered US airspace is not clear, but during the briefing it was said it happened “a couple of days ago.” The balloon is reportedly still loitering over the area, but this was not confirmed.
The officials offered also more details about the involvement of the F-22 Raptor in this situation, saying that assets were put on station in the event that a decision was made to bring this down while it was over Montana. As a further precaution, the military coordinated with civil authorities to empty out the air space around that potential area, resulting in the ground stop at Billings airport.
“We had been looking at whether there was an option yesterday over some sparsely populated areas in Montana”, said an official. “But we just couldn’t buy down the risk enough to feel comfortable recommending shooting it down yesterday.” An E-3 Sentry AWACS and multiple KC-10 Extender and KC-46 Pegasus tankers were also dispatched to the area.
The Montana Air National Guard does not operate fighter jets anymore, so it is up to the neighboring states to intervene for Quick Reaction Alert duties. The nearest units would have been the South Dakota ANG with its F-16s and the Oregon ANG with its F-15s. The choice to send in the F-22 instead of F-15 and F-16 fighters of the Air National Guard might have to do with the altitude the balloon is flying at and the service ceiling of these fighters. Officials said the balloon is flying at an altitude well over commercial air traffic routes, which usually fly up to 45,000 ft.
This would put the balloon at an altitude of at least 50,000 ft or more which, while within the reach of the F-16 (service ceiling in excess of 50,000 ft) and the F-15 (service ceiling of 65,000 ft), it might be difficult to reach for a fully armed Quick Reaction Alert jet. The F-22, however, with its reported service ceiling of 65,000 ft and the ability to carry the weapons internally (without added drag), would have been able to get much closer to balloon with ease and eventually take the shot.
China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson responded to a Question about the spy balloon on their website.
Q: According to media reports, a Chinese unmanned airship has been spotted in US airspace. Do you have any comment?
A: The airship is from China. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes. Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course. The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure. The Chinese side will continue communicating with the US side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure.
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Wonder what kind of close up photos we have of this thing. Also wonder if we could blind it and make it basically useless. Would think we could send up a recce and have it fly inverted under the balloon. We used to also have theodolites for the space program which could take exception pictures from the ground.