UPDATE: The balloon was shot down by the U.S. on Saturday morning.
A mysterious Chinese balloon that was spotted high over Montana and passed over Crook County in Wyoming this week has military experts in the Cowboy State puzzled.
“It makes no sense at all,” retired FE Warren Air Force Base Commander Tucker Fagan told Cowboy State Daily. “It was reported that whatever they’re looking for, they could have gotten from one of their satellites. So why are they doing this?”
But the fact the strange balloon is maneuverable, confirmed during a Pentagon press briefing Friday morning, adds a new layer of complexity to analysis of the situation from a military perspective.
“That shows forethought,” Fagan said of its designers. “It shows they knew what they were doing. It wasn’t just, ‘Oh my God, the wind took it this way.”
Fagan believes the balloon’s maneuverability is likely limited.
“It can go, my guess is, probably right or left,” Fagan said.
Traveling Over Sensitive Sites
In press briefings about the Chinese balloon Thursday, an unidentified Pentagon official said the U.S. military has been following the balloon since the moment it entered U.S. air space.
That’s a key detail.
Most nations, including the United States, have drawn an invisible line around their countries to mark where they consider their air space to begin.
Anything entering that zone is subject to being summarily shot down.
It’s For Spying
Senior officials with the Pentagon also said they have determined the goal of the balloon is clearly surveillance.
“They’re trying to fly this balloon over sensitive sites,” said the unidentified senior defense official. “We do not judge that it provides significant value added over and above what they can currently collect in other means.”
It’s also not the first time this type of thing has happened, the official said. There have been similar incursions in the past.
This time there’s an important difference.
“It is appearing to hang out for a long period of time this time around,” the official said. “It’s more persistent than in previous instances. That would be one distinguishing factor.”
Of course, there are eyes in the sky watching U.S military sites all the time, and not just from China. Russia and other countries with satellite capabilities use that technology to watch each other all the time.
Despite that, the unidentified senior defense official said additional steps to protect sensitive information are being taken out of “an abundance of caution.”
The balloon’s presence is being monitored through multiple methods, including manned aircraft.
A mobilization of F-22s, used for air-to-air combat, along with other assets in Montana caught the media’s attention, resulting in some stories about the balloon Thursday.
Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming are all part of the U.S. nuclear program.
An inquiry as to whether any additional security steps were taken at FE Warren Air Force Base was referred up the chain of command to NORAD’s public relations.
Its response referred Cowboy State Daily to a canned Department of Defense statement that doesn’t mention Wyoming.
F-22s Were Ready To Shoot It Down
The mobilization of F-22s in Montana was preparation to possibly shoot the balloon down, an unidentified senior defense department official confirmed during the Pentagon’s press briefing Thursday.
“The context for that was it would put some things on station in the event that a decision was made to bring this down while it was over Montana,” he said. “So, we wanted to make sure we were coordinating with civil authorities to empty out the air space around that potential area.”
It was decided, however, that the risk-to-reward benefit was not there given that the balloon was not likely to improve upon readily available satellite information nor is likely to cause any physical harm.
“We did assess that (the balloon) was large enough to cause damage from the debris field if we downed it over an area,” he said. “We had been looking at whether there was an option yesterday over some sparsely populated areas in Montana.
“But we just couldn’t buy down the risk enough to feel comfortable recommending shooting it down yesterday.”
Carrying A Payload
The payload below the balloon is a potential confounding factor when it comes to shooting the balloon down, Fagan suggested.
“Even the picture shows something in black is there. So that’s the implication” from the press briefing Friday morning, Fagan said. “They don’t want to shoot it because something’s coming down.”
What that something might be will not likely ever be shared with the public, Fagan suggested.
“I have to believe that there are people in the White House National Security Council, DOD, they’re at tables right now,” he said.
But any plans from those tables are highly classified. If a decision is made to shoot the thing down, the public won’t likely hear about it until after it’s already happened.
“They don’t want to show their hands to the Chinese,” Fagan said. “You just don’t ever tell people that you’re going to move a fighter or a squadron here or a Marine Expeditionary battalion there.
“You don’t want the enemy to know what you’re doing.”
The payload, meanwhile, was described by the unidentified senior defense department official as nothing “revolutionary.”
Wyomingites Want To Shoot It Down
The unidentified senior defense official said the military does in fact have authority to shoot the balloon down, if it’s decided that’s the best course of action.
“We have all the authorities we need to do anything that we need to do to protect the American people, and we’ll continue to do that,” he said.
The Wyoming Solution
There were plenty of Wyomingites ready and willing to help shoot the balloon down Friday, among them former state lawmaker Tyler Lindholm, whose more usual home territory happens to be Crook County.
While Lindholm was at the state Capitol when the balloon passed over northeastern Wyoming, he said he knows a few friends in Crook County who would have loved taking a crack at shooting it down.
“I mean, there’s some real firepower, and I’m not talking about, you know deer hunting rifles or anything like that,” he said. “I mean, there’s some guys out in the woods who have the capability, and I think it would have been a hoot.”
Lindholm agreed a Chinese spy balloon moving high in the atmosphere over the United States is puzzling, and just plain silly.
“I think that damn balloon is nothing short of jazz hands,” he said. “That’s all it is for the Chinese. I think they’re just waving their hands like, ‘Hey look at this.’”
More Difficult Than it Looks
It actually would take much more than a deer rifle to shoot down the Chinese balloon.
According to the unidentified senior defense department official, the surveillance balloon is traveling well above the height of commercial airplanes, which typically cruise between 33,000 and 42,000 feet, or about 6 to 8 miles above sea level.
Most rifles, even high-powered ones, will not travel much past 4 or 5 miles.
The official would not confirm just how high above sea level the balloon is, but several media reports have suggested it is traveling at 60,000 feet.
The balloon is not traveling through outer space, the official said, but it was noticeable to commercial air pilots, despite being significantly above them. That implies the balloon is quite large, though the official wouldn’t say how big it is.
The likely size and its height put the balloon well out of reach for anything non-military.
It’s size also means the balloon won’t necessarily immediately deflate and descend when punctured.
Balloons like this one would tend to be filled with something like helium, at low pressures. Given that, the physics involves means even multiple punctures would lead to very slow leaks.
A study by Air Force Maj. Kevin Massey mentions as an example a 100-meter weather balloon shot down by Canadian F-18s in 1998.
Even though it was hit with 1,000 rounds of ammunition, it remained airborne another six days.