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Many Questions About China Balloon     02/04 09:17

   

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- What in the world is that thing?

   The massive white orb drifting across U.S. airspace has triggered a 
diplomatic maelstrom and is blowing up on social media.

   China insists the balloon is just an errant civilian airship used mainly for 
meteorological research that went off course due to winds and has only limited 
"self-steering" capabilities.

   The United States says it is a Chinese spy balloon without a doubt. Its 
presence prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a weekend trip to 
China that was aimed at dialing down tensions that were already high between 
the countries.

   The Pentagon says the balloon, which is carrying sensors and surveillance 
equipment, is maneuverable and has shown it can change course. It has loitered 
over sensitive areas of Montana where nuclear warheads are siloed, leading the 
military to take actions to prevent it from collecting intelligence.

   A Pentagon spokesman said it could remain aloft over the U.S. for "a few 
days," extending uncertainty about where it will go or if the U.S. will try to 
safely take it down. And late Friday, the Defense Department acknowledged 
reports of a balloon flying over Latin America -- assessed as "another Chinese 
surveillance balloon."

   A look at what's known about the balloon crossing the U.S. -- and what isn't.

   IT'S A BIRD, IT'S A PLANE, IT'S A ... SPY BALLOON

   The Pentagon and other U.S. officials say it's a Chinese spy balloon -- 
about the size of three school buses -- moving east over America at an altitude 
of about 60,000 feet (18,600 meters). The U.S. says it is being used for 
surveillance and intelligence collection, but officials have provided few 
details.

   U.S. officials say the Biden administration was aware of it even before it 
crossed into American airspace in Alaska early this past week. A number of 
officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic.

   The White House said President Joe Biden was first briefed on the balloon on 
Tuesday. The State Department said Blinken and Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman 
spoke with China's senior Washington-based official on Wednesday evening about 
the matter.

   In the first public U.S. statement, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press 
secretary, said Thursday evening that the balloon was not a military or 
physical threat -- an acknowledgement that it was not carrying weapons. He said 
"once the balloon was detected, the U.S. government acted immediately to 
protect against the collection of sensitive information."

   Even if the balloon is not armed, it poses a risk to the U.S., said retired 
Army Gen. John Ferrari, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. 
The flight itself, he said, can be used to test America's ability to detect 
incoming threats and to find holes in the country's air defense warning system. 
It may also allow the Chinese to sense electromagnetic emissions that 
higher-altitude satellites cannot detect, such as low-power radio frequencies 
that could help them understand how different U.S. weapons systems communicate.

   He said the Chinese may have sent the balloon "to show us that they can do 
it, and maybe next time it could have a weapon. So now we have to spend money 
and time on it" developing defenses.

   ___

   LET IT FLY? SHOOT IT DOWN?

   (AP) -- According to senior administration officials, Biden initially wanted 
to shoot the balloon down. Some members of Congress have echoed that sentiment.

   But Pentagon leaders strongly advised Biden against doing so because of 
risks to the safety of people on the ground, and Biden agreed.

   One official said the sensor package the balloon is carrying weighs as much 
as 1,000 pounds. The balloon is large enough and high enough in the air that 
the potential debris field could stretch for miles, with no control over where 
it would eventually land.

   For now, officials said the U.S. will monitor it, using "a variety of 
methods" including aircraft. The Pentagon has said the balloon isn't a military 
threat and doesn't give China any surveillance capabilities it doesn't already 
have with spy satellites.

   But the U.S. is keeping its options open.

   Rep. Jim Himes, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, 
suggested it could be valuable to try to capture the balloon to study it. "I 
would much rather own a Chinese surveillance balloon than be cleaning one up 
over a 100-square-mile debris field," said Himes, D-Conn.

   ___

   HOW DID IT GET HERE?

   Deliberate or an accident? There's also disagreement.

   As far as wind patterns go, China's account that global air currents -- 
winds known as the Westerlies -- carried the balloon from its territory to the 
western United States is plausible, said Dan Jaffe, a professor of atmospheric 
chemistry at the University of Washington. Jaffe has studied the role those 
same wind patterns play in carrying air pollution from Chinese cities, wildfire 
smoke from Siberia and dust from Gobi Desert sand storms to the U.S. for two 
decades.

   "It's entirely consistent with everything we know about the winds," Jaffe 
said. "Transit time from China to the United States would be about a week." 
"The higher it goes, the faster it goes," Jaffe said. He said weather and 
research balloons typically have a range of steering capability depending on 
their sophistication, from no steering at all to limited steering ability.

   The U.S. is largely mum on this issue, but insists the balloon is 
maneuverable, suggesting that China in some way deliberately moved the balloon 
toward or into U.S. airspace.

   ___

   SPY BALLOONS HAVE A HISTORY

   Spy balloons aren't new -- primitive ones date back centuries, but they came 
into greater use in World War II. Administration officials said Friday there 
have been other similar incidents of Chinese spy balloons, with one saying it 
happened twice during the Trump administration but was never made public.

   The Pentagon's Ryder confirmed there have been other incidents where 
balloons came close to or crossed over the U.S. border, but he and others agree 
that what makes this different is the length of time it's been over U.S. 
territory and how far into the country it penetrated.

   Craig Singleton, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of 
Democracies, said Chinese surveillance balloons have been sighted on numerous 
occasions over the past five years in different parts of the Pacific, including 
near sensitive U.S. military installations in Hawaii. The high-altitude 
inflatables, he said, serve as low-cost platforms to collect intelligence and 
some can reportedly be used to detect hypersonic missiles.

   During World War II, Japan launched thousands of hydrogen balloons carrying 
bombs, and hundreds ended up in the U.S. and Canada. Most were ineffective, but 
one was lethal. In May 1945, six civilians died when they found one of the 
balloons on the ground in Oregon, and it exploded.

   In the aftermath of the war, America's own balloon effort ignited the alien 
stories and lore linked to Roswell, New Mexico.

   According to military research documents and studies, the U.S. began using 
giant trains of balloons and sensors that were strung together and stretched 
more than 600 feet as part of an early effort to detect Soviet missile launches 
during the post-World War II era. They called it Project Mogul.

   One of the balloon trains crash-landed at the Roswell Army Airfield in 1947, 
and Air Force personnel who were not aware of the program found debris. The 
unusual experimental equipment made it difficult to identify, leaving the 
airmen with unanswered questions that over time -- aided by UFO enthusiasts -- 
took on a life of their own. The simple answer, according to the military 
reports, was just over the Sacramento Mountains at the Project Mogul launch 
site in Alamogordo.

   In 2015, an unmanned Army surveillance blimp broke loose from its mooring at 
Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland and floated over Pennsylvania for hours 
with two fighter jets on its tail, triggering blackouts as it dragged its 
tether across power lines. As residents gawked, the 240-foot blimp came down in 
pieces in the Muncy, Pennsylvania, countryside. It still had helium in its nose 
when it fell, and state police used shotguns -- about 100 shots -- to deflate 
it.

 
 
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