Big Bite: It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a Chinese balloon. Again?
What we know about the Chinese spy balloon and what questions remain.
Today I am doing what I do. Centralize information, guess how much the government is lying, and ask questions.
Over the weekend, the news cycle has been dominated by a balloon. Not the kind that you pick up on a Friday afternoon for a birthday party but the kind the Chinese government uses to spy on its adversaries.
To provide some perspective on the size of this balloon, Gen. VanHerck, Commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM), said that the balloon was up to 200 feet tall and weighed “in excess of a couple thousand pounds.”
He also said that officials believe it potentially carried explosives “to detonate and destroy the balloon.”
I am no expert in spy balloons, satellite imaging, and espionage in general, but that doesn’t mean I cannot have questions and be a little suspicious of the information our government shares.
Over the weekend, CNN reported a senior US defense official said, “We are confident that this high-altitude surveillance balloon belongs to the [People’s Republic of China],” the senior defense official said. “Instances of this activity have been observed over the past several years, including prior to this administration.”
The balloon’s flight path carried it over “a number of sensitive sites,” the official said it did not present a significant intelligence-gathering risk. The official added that the balloon is assessed to have “limited additive value” from an intelligence collection perspective.
However, it is worth noting that according to a US official, pictures taken from the U2 spy planes clearly showed that the Chinese balloon was equipped to detect and collect intelligence signals.
Another official said that some of the recovered equipment components had English writing or markings on them. Still, it wasn’t clear if they were American parts or from another English-speaking country.
Why use a spy balloon rather than a satellite?
My first question is, why use a balloon? What is the benefit of the Chinese government launching a balloon considered an antiquated form of surveillance?
It’s not as if China doesn’t have an extensive and sophisticated satellite system. In a Nov. 2022 report, the Defense Department said China’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance-capable (ISR) satellite fleet had more than 260 systems, second only to the U.S., as of the end of 2021.
On Thursday, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, noted that, for China, the balloon flying over Montana “has limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective.”
However, during a press conference two days later, Brig. Gen. Ryder dodged the question when asked about the intelligence-gathering capabilities of the balloon.
What is with the dodge Gen. Ryder?
So what are the benefits of a spy balloon?
James Char, a research fellow with the China Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, tells TIME that spy balloons have some operational advantages. For example, balloons can weather extreme conditions, he says, and are less expensive to deploy and operate compared to satellites. Chinese Academy of Science scholars found in 2020 that, despite harsh environments at more than 68,000 feet above ground, “the high-altitude balloon has long endurance time, which can achieve sustained and wider coverage for regional observation and detection.”
“It is harder to be spotted by radar as well, given the fact that they’re simpler in terms of technology,” Char adds.
High-altitude balloons can also be “trucks for any number of platforms, whether it be communication and data link nodes, ISR, tracking air and missile threats — and without the predictable orbits of satellites,” Tom Karako, senior fellow for the International Security Program and director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Politico.
And though the technology is old, says Bec Shrimpton, director at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, balloons can complement surveillance technology in orbit, while they can be built and deployed at a fraction of the cost. According to a 2020 analysis in defense publication Armada International, the development, launch, operation, and insurance of a single satellite can cost up to $300 million.
Another potential edge for balloons, Shrimpton tells TIME, is how unlikely defense officials may have been prepared for it to be used, especially by China. “It’s probably better because it’s unexpected,” she says. “It’s not that we haven’t seen this before, but we are expecting far more from Chinese surveillance efforts.”
The Guardian asked the same question.
“For the last few decades, satellites were de rigueur. Satellites were the answer,” says John Blaxland, professor of international security and intelligence studies at the Australian National University and the author of the book, Revealing Secrets. But now that lasers or kinetic weapons are being invented to target satellites, there is a resurgence of interest in balloons. They don’t offer the same level of persistent surveillance as satellites but are easier to retrieve and much cheaper to launch. To send a satellite into space, you need a space launcher – a piece of equipment that typically costs hundreds of millions of dollars.
Balloons can also scan more territory from a lower altitude and spend more time over a given area because they move more slowly than satellites, according to a 2009 report to the US air force’s Air Command and Staff College.
The most interesting benefits of a balloon are that it is cost-effective, can cover a larger area for longer, and is harder to detect by radar.
My next question is, where did the balloon go? The WSJ reported that the balloon was first spotted on Wednesday, February 1, over Montana by civilians on a plane. But it was later revealed the United States Northern Command first started tracking it over Alaskan airspace on Saturday, January 28. But they thought it was just another one of China’s light probes around the edges of America’s defensive borders.
You wouldn’t think there was anything of particular interest in Montana or over the multiple “fly-over states” that the balloon crossed, but think again.
Path and Timeline of Chinese Spy Balloon
The balloon was reported to be up to 200 feet tall and weighed “in excess of a couple thousand pounds.” Believed to potentially have carried explosives “to detonate and destroy the balloon” and solar panels that power its propulsion, cameras, and surveillance equipment.
This wasn’t a casual float that got caught up in a jet stream or what the Chinese claim is a weather balloon that went off course.
The Chinese may have equipped the balloon with auxiliary propellers, making them genuine airships – some recent scientific papers mention Chinese work on this approach. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters that the Chinese balloon did have propellers which may have improved its ability to steer a course.
Saturday, Jan. 28 - Balloon enters Alaskan airspace near the Aleutian Islands and appears on US Northern Command trackers.
Monday, Jan. 30 - Exits American airspace and enters Canadian airspace.
Tuesday, Jan. 31 - Balloon reenters U.S. airspace over Idaho. Gen. Mark A. Milley, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, alerts President Biden. The president asks for military options, including the immediate destruction of the aircraft. Mr. Biden also ordered that no activities or sensitive unencrypted communications be conducted in the balloon's path.
Wednesday, Feb 1 - Makes its way over to Billings, Montana. The state is home to the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, one of three U.S. Air Force bases that operate and maintain intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Thursday, Feb. 2 - Reports of a second Chinese balloon traveling across Central America that is headed toward South America.
Friday, Feb. 3 - The Chinese Foreign Ministry says that the machine was a civilian weather balloon that had strayed far — very far — off course and entered U.S. airspace by accident. Later that evening, Mr. Biden is briefed about how the Air Force plans to destroy the balloon on Saturday.
Saturday, Feb. 4 - One of two F-22 fighter jets from Langley Air Force Base fires a Sidewinder air-to-air missile, downing the balloon, which was flying at an altitude of between 60,000 and 65,000 feet. The military then starts recovery efforts.
I understand not wanting to shoot it down over land if you cannot control the debris field. Although there are some wide open spaces in Idaho and Montana. However, if you do want to retrieve the items, having them crash into the ground versus water would probably be more damaging.
However, I think it’s problematic to have an adversary’s spy balloon float its way across the United States and conveniently make its way over where we keep our intercontinental ballistics missiles.
When in doubt, deflect
Not surprising Biden was getting a lot of flack as more details emerged. Especially when it was revealed that the balloon was spotted three days before over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday, and Biden was briefed about it on Tuesday, a day earlier.
The Biden administration withheld information from the public about the balloon, concerned that the disclosure would derail Secretary of State Antony Blinken's planned visit to China. Blinken’s visit to China was postponed shortly after the presence of the balloon was made public.
The only reason the spy balloon became public was that a newspaper in Billings, Mont., reported about spotting it last week.
As it turns out, US authorities were well aware of the unidentified object that had entered American airspace on Jan. 28, that had then left and re-entered over North Idaho on Tuesday. But with such a high-profile trip at stake, keeping it on the down-low was key. - Bloomberg
The best solution when you get caught in a royal screw-up is to deflect. A classic “but he did it too.”
A DOD press briefing was held Saturday shortly after the balloon was taken down. This briefing was with unnamed Senior Defense Official and Senior Military Official, held off-camera and on-background.
During this press briefing, the Senior Defense Official stated,
PRC (Peoples Republic of China) government surveillance balloons transited the continental United States briefly at least three times during the prior administration and once that we know of at the beginning of this administration, but never for this duration of time.
This caused quite a ruckus in the news cycle, but the following day an official told WSJ, "This information was discovered after the prior administration left." Meaning Trump wouldn’t have known. A senior administration official said the same to CNN, but did not describe when or how those previous intrusions were uncovered.
"This information was discovered after the prior administration left."
The senior defense official who first commented about three prior intrusions remains unnamed, and we do not know whether this person is a political appointee or a career employee.
Why does that matter?
Because a political appointee is more likely to help Biden combat the public relations crisis over the balloon than a career employee.
Trump denied to Fox News Digital on Sunday that any spy balloon made it over the US during his administration.
“This never happened. It would have never happened,” Trump said, claiming Beijing “respected us greatly” during his term.
“And if it did, we would have shot it down immediately,” he added, while blaming “incompetent” Biden officials for spreading “disinformation” about any balloons in US air space under his watch.
Even Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, who is no fan of Trump, told Fox earlier in the day, “I don’t know of any balloon flights by any power over the United States during my tenure, and I’d never heard of any of that occurring before I joined in 2018.
“I haven’t heard of anything that occurred after I left, either.”
Remember, a senior administration official said, "This information was discovered after the prior administration left." Bolton called on the Biden administration to “tell Congress” if they have “specific examples.”
Kind of weird that nobody apparently ever heard of these incursions until balloongate became public. It makes me question did these incursions, in fact, happen? And, if they did, when did we know? And was it kept from Trump?
Did the Pentagon not brief Trump?
I am under no delusion that we will get to the whole truth on balloongate. When do we ever get the whole truth from our government? But I can gather information and reports, look back on past behavior, and better understand how to weigh what is more true and what is not.
The primary outstanding question is have these spy balloons floated over the US before.
My first thought was no way. Especially considering how the IC (intelligence community) leaked like crazy during Trump’s administration and looked for every possible opportunity to make Trump look bad.
But then I saw Rep. Waltz suggest that the Pentagon refused to tell the president because they were worried his reaction would be too strong.
The Pentagon “thought Trump would be too provocative and too aggressive,” Waltz said.
“My office has been briefed by the office of the Secretary of Defense of the current Pentagon that it happened over Florida, it happened over Texas, and that it’s happened before,” he said during the interview.
“We have more detailed questions, but what is unclear, Stuart, at this point is, did the Pentagon under the Trump Administration brief the Trump White House and give them the option to take action, or did they decide not to brief them for whatever reason?” Waltz asked.
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“So that’s what we need to get to the bottom of, and one person that I’m waiting to hear from that we haven’t heard from that list is former Secretary of Defense, General Mattis, who was the secretary during this time period,” Waltz said. “What did he know, and what did he decide to pass on and brief to the president.”
During a speech in Vero Beach, Florida, Monday, Mattis claimed he had no knowledge of Chinese spy balloons under his watch.
“Did it really happen during past administrations?” Mattis asked. “Because there isn’t anybody from the past administration who is aware of it. I’m not for the first two years of that administration.”
But it’s not crazy for Rep. Waltz to ask that question because it has happened before. Remember when Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley undermined Trump out of fear that he would engage in hostilities?
According to the Washinton Post, Milley leaned on his longstanding relationship with Li, saying, "General Li, you and I have known each other for now five years. If we're going to attack, I'm going to call you ahead of time. It's not going to be a surprise."
Additionally, the Joint Chiefs of Staff enacted a "top-secret action" to prevent President Donald Trump from performing his job as Commander-in-chief.
The call was prompted following a call from former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who demanded to know, “What precautions are available to prevent an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or from accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike?” Milley assured her that there were “a lot of checks in the system.”
Gen. Milley later pushed back on the characterizations of his phone calls to China's top military official and denied that he had placed himself in the chain of command for nuclear launch protocols following a phone call from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
This is the same general who said, "China is not an enemy," he said, "I think that's important for people to clearly understand."
Navy divers are currently off the coast of South Carolina, gathering the balloon's debris. Time will tell what else we will learn about the spy balloon, but I am interested in whether previous incursions were kept a secret from former president Trump.
It wouldn’t benefit Gen. Mattis or Gen. Milley to admit that Chinese spy balloons entered US airspace. Because if they did and did nothing, it would suggest incompetence. And if they knew and decided not to brief Trump, the commander-in-chief, that is treason.
Finally, according to Rep. Waltz, he was briefed by the office of the Secretary of Defense of the current Pentagon that it happened over Florida, Texas and that it’s happened before. I do not see a benefit for Rep. Waltz or the current office of the Secretary of Defense to lie about previous occurrences.
Therefore I do not think it’s a stretch for Milley and Mattis to have kept the previous incursions of Chinese spy balloons during Trump’s presidency a secret.
That is treason.
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