The discovery of a Chinese spy balloon in Montana (USA), near the Canadian border, has disrupted the planned visit this weekend of US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to Beijing and raised the tension between the two powers. The news was confirmed by the Pentagon after the dissemination of some images of the device flying over US territory, captured in Billings, Montana. The question that is asked the most in the local media is why China resorted to a system used in the past for espionage and what was it looking for.
According to the Pentagon, the balloon is the size of three buses and it is a surveillance device, although China has officially responded that it is a civilian object intended for meteorological purposes and that it would have ended up in the US due to the action of the wind.
Why did China use a spy balloon?
Although the use of satellites is much more common today, balloons have been used for espionage purposes since the 19th century (in the US they were used in the Civil War). Experts quoted by the local press point out that China has opted for this device because of its greater flexibility: the increasing miniaturization of technological equipment would facilitate the use of balloons, “smaller, cheaper and easier to launch.” Furthermore, these devices do not depend on an orbit, like satellites, and can get closer to land and concentrate on the same territory for a longer time.
What was China looking for?
The balloon was located over Montana, where a intercontinental missile underground storage. It is believed that it could be collecting information on communication systems and radars that are inaccessible from space but that a balloon at a lower altitude could capture. “They are watching our radio and mobile traffic,” a military analyst told CNN, raising the possibility that the data collected by the balloon could be sent via satellite to China in real time.
Why hasn’t it been shot down?
According to the US Army, measures have been taken to protect sensitive information and the demolition of the balloon has been ruled out, citing the risk that fragments of the huge device could cause damage. It is also considered that the balloon, located at an altitude of 12,000 meters, would not pose a risk to air navigation.
Voices in the Republican Party, however, have criticized the Biden government’s response and called for the balloon to be thrown away “immediately”: “President Trump would never have tolerated this.” Government sources also do not rule out that if the situation changes, another decision will be adopted.
Where is the balloon?
The Pentagon reported that it was sighted in Montana but has not released its exact location. At a press conference, Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder revealed that she is in the central United States and it would be moving to the east. According to Ryder, he will be in the US for “a few days.”
In parallel, the meteorological service of Kansas has published on social networks photographs that could belong to the spy balloon: “We have verified that it is not a meteorological device.”
We have had several reports across northwest MO of a large balloon visible on the horizon. It is now visible from our office in Pleasant Hill and the KC Metro. We have confirmed that it is not an NWS weather balloon. pic.twitter.com/CKQWOw7God
— NWS Kansas City (@NWSKansasCity) February 3, 2023
The device would also be “actively” tracked by Canada since it would also have flown over the west of the country.
Has it happened more times?
US sources quoted by CNN indicate that surveillance balloons of probable Chinese origin have been detected in recent years, in Hawaii and the island of Guam.