Keeping America's Skies Balloon-Free

[ Posted Monday, February 13th, 2023 – 17:17 UTC ]

For a little over a week now, America's military might has been called into action to defend our airspace against... balloons. This has led to a frenzy of speculation about what, precisely, is going on up there. It even sparked a bit of a U.F.O. craze of the type not seen since at least Close Encounters Of The Third Kind came out, if not the original U.F.O. craze of the 1950s. This is pretty absurd when you think about it, though, since if advanced civilizations were indeed monitoring humans, you'd think they'd have slightly-more-sophisticated aircraft to do so than the one which travels the slowest and is the easiest to shoot down. But because the tally is now up to four such objects shot out of North America's skies, I thought I'd share my own ballooning thoughts today (pun very much intended).

Let's start with the first aircraft -- the Chinese spy balloon, as it is now universally called. The balloon apparently traversed the Aleutian Islands, cut across the Gulf of Alaska, then either passed over the U.S. again somewhere in the vicinity of Juneau or just directly entered Canadian airspace. It flew through Canada and was then spotted by civilians over Montana. Days later, it was shot down just off the coast of South Carolina (while still in U.S. territorial waters) by a U.S. military fighter jet.

My immediate thought when the news broke was exactly what a whole bunch of other people thought as well: why the heck didn't the Chinese paint their gigantic balloon sky-blue? Seriously, that balloon looked pretty small in all the videos taken, but then again it was 60,000 feet up. That is more than 11 miles high. It flew anywhere from 50 to 100 percent higher than commercial jets fly (mostly in the 30,000-40,000 feet range). So that balloon was in fact huge to be so visible from the ground at such an incredible height. Making the fabric of the balloon sky-blue might have avoided any detection for China (or civilian detection, at any rate). Who would have even noticed it, if it had blended into the background?

But that's a rather simplistic and unpatriotic thought, isn't it? The next thing worth wondering is why anyone would even bother with a "spy balloon" in modern times, when satellites can easily see everything from much higher up. Satellites can gather visual and electromagnetic data just fine, so what would be the point? Well, slowness, for one. A balloon (unlike a satellite not in geosynchronous orbit) can hover. Or this one could, apparently. To be technical, it was more of an airship than a balloon, since it could (to some extent at least) control its direction and flight. It was maneuverable, which simple balloons just aren't capable of. Think the Hindenburg more than the Montgolfier brothers (or how the Wizard of Oz goes home, to use a more modern reference).

Reportedly, the airship was snooping on a military installation with a field of intercontinental ballistic missiles over Montana, but once it had been revealed in the news media, it reportedly shut down broadcasting signals and began drifting eastwards (with the prevailing winds, assumably). President Joe Biden, at some point during all of this happening, ordered the military to shoot it down. They recommended doing so over water, for safety's sake (the payload it was carrying has been described as being as large as a few school buses, so it's understandable why you wouldn't want the possibility of that crashing into buildings or people on the ground below). So they allowed the balloon to reach South Carolina's coast and then shot it down with a missile.

This brought up another bit of speculation on my end. Did that missile even explode? From the video, it doesn't really seem like it, but then again I might be mistaken in that. At 60,000 feet, would the relatively small explosion from an air-to-air missile even be visible? But for all the world it looks like the missile essentially just popped the balloon by flying through it. I can't imagine that "disabling enemy balloons" was one of the big criteria in developing a modern air-to-air missile, so this is perhaps understandable.

The whole situation has elements of this sort of historical mismatch throughout. "Why didn't all our radar systems immediately spot these dastardly balloon invaders?" plenty of people have been wondering. Especially when it was revealed that there had been more of these spy balloons in American skies dating back at least to the previous administration -- who were all caught by surprise by this announcement, because nobody was actually aware of it happening when it did. They only discovered it when they searched through archived data. Reportedly, some of the objects had been reported as U.F.O.s, or (as the military now prefers) unidentified aerial phenomena (U.A.P.). They had fallen into the category of "we're not sure what it is," and only after tracking the Chinese spy balloon did they realize the previous signals had almost certainly tracked the same sort of thing.

The answer to why nobody noticed anything before is pretty easy. Radar is not a perfect science. It can be "fooled," essentially. A military radar system is built to look for very specific things -- mostly large aircraft travelling rather fast. Any tiny radar "blips" are discounted, since they are almost certainly birds or some other "clutter" (which refers to all radar signatures which aren't important -- such as the radar reflection of a tall building on the ground, or a flock of birds, or even rain). The system filters these signals out and essentially ignores them.

Stealth aircraft fool radar systems one way, balloons fool it another. In the case of a stealth bomber or fighter, the aircraft has been specifically designed to bounce back the smallest-possible radar signature. So a plane which is quite large appears to the radar system as tiny -- about as big as a large bird. And it knows to ignore birds. So the plane never appears on the enemy's radar -- which doesn't notice that this "bird" is travelling at hundreds of miles per hour. Each time it spots the bird, it follows its programming and ignores it, no matter how fast it is flying. That's an oversimplification, but good enough to understand the concept. Balloons can be (as the Chinese spy balloon was) extremely large, but they might not reflect much of a radar signature. Even if the "blip" is a big one, the radar sees it as either motionless, floating on the prevailing winds, or moving incredibly slowly (relative to other aircraft). Which means it is not a plane, to the radar system. So, once again, the signal is filtered out and the radar system ignores it.

This is all almost certainly why we're now shooting down so many balloons. Because after the first incident with the Chinese spy balloon, the folks searching America's skies reportedly "took the filters off" their radar systems, so that everything was reported. And lo and behold, they found more (three more, to date) slow-moving balloons floating around up there. So they sent fighter jets up to shoot them down.

Interestingly enough, two of these new aircraft were shot down over water -- they were allowed to get offshore, just like the Chinese spy balloon -- but the third was shot down over Canadian land (the Yukon). Perhaps Canada is less concerned with people's safety below? At this point it is impossible to tell, but it is interesting to note.

So far, the military has not provided much in the way of details about any of these aircraft. One general wouldn't even rule out alien aircraft, which set off a frenzy of speculation, but the White House stepped in to state that "there is no -- again: no -- indication of aliens or extra-terrestrial activity with these recent takedowns" (Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre did also say that she loved the movie E.T.). Which, of course, hasn't entirely stopped all the speculation.

The first one landed in rather shallow waters, and there is already public footage of pieces of the balloon and payload being fished out of the water and brought to shore. The military will likely recover a great deal of it in the end, since they know exactly where it came down. But this is the one that they may also play their cards very close to the vest on, since any data about a spy aircraft rather obviously falls into the heading of "national security intelligence" -- so the public may only get a rather vague details about it.

Nobody's really sure what the other three are, although none were reported as being able to maneuver, so they are likely balloons and not airships (if the initial reports prove to be correct). All of them are hampered by being a lot more difficult to retrieve, though. The one in northern Alaska was shot down over sea ice in the Arctic Ocean and while efforts to retrieve it are underway they are limited by the weather (with wind chill reportedly as low as 55 degrees below zero) and by the lack of light (the area is far north of the Arctic Circle and it is winter, so there is only extremely limited daylight to work with). The one in the Yukon may be hard to locate and even harder to retrieve. Because of this, the most recent one in Lake Huron may in fact be the first one to be recovered, but that will depend on how deep it now is and what the weather's like on the Great Lakes (again, it is still winter).

The most recent three aircraft were all reportedly travelling much lower than the Chinese spy balloon (at 20,000-40,000 feet), and were also notably smaller (the first two were described as being the size of "a small car"). They were shot down not so much because anyone thought they were a national security threat as because they could have possibly been a threat to civilian aircraft.

But it all brings up the question of how many more of these things are going to appear and/or get shot down? How many balloons are up there? And, frighteningly enough, have they always been up there but we just haven't noticed them before now? That seems like the most likely answer, since who in their right mind would send up a balloon just after such a major international incident happened (the original Chinese spy balloon)? Maybe it's like space junk -- maybe there are lots of big balloons floating around that will now be identified and dealt with. Maybe most of them are benign. One certainly would like to think so, at any rate.

We won't really even begin to get any solid answers until the public gets a lot more information than it has to date. What I would expect, at this point, is that the three smaller balloons will be eventually recovered and investigated and deemed unimportant (at least, militarily-speaking). So the remains of these aircraft will be paraded in front of the cameras and some plausible explanations for them given by the military. At the same time, it is highly doubtful that we'll get a whole lot of details about the original Chinese spy balloon, except for maybe the same sort of dog-and-pony show for the cameras which shows the envelope of the balloon itself and perhaps some non-essential bits of the payload (perhaps the solar panels which seemed to power it, for instance). But everything else will remain classified.

Who knows how long the current period will last, where rogue balloons are spotted and brought down, before the skies are cleared of such aircraft? The whole thing is rather reminiscent of Cold War fears, such as what happened when the Soviet Union put up their first Sputnik satellite (which kicked off the whole "space race").

When, oh when, will America close the "balloon gap"? When will we also have offensive spy balloon technology to deploy? When will America's skies be declared balloon-free?

Stay tuned....

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


8 Comments on “Keeping America's Skies Balloon-Free”

  1. [1] 
    Mezzomamma wrote:

    Up, up and away, my beautiful, my beautiful ballooooon...
    Love is waiting there in my beautiful balloon
    Way up in the air in my beautiful balloon
    If you'll hold my hand we'll chase your dream across the sky
    For we can fly, we can fly

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


  3. [3] 
    John M wrote:

    The three other objects have been described as cylindrical and octagonal. The second one, shot down over northern Alaska, is most probably NOT a balloon, whatever it was, because it reportedly shattered on impact with the surface.

    Aliens or not, there is also still the authenticated military videos that were released of objects caught on film by the U.S. Navy, including the super fast flying tic tac, and what certainly looks like a classic saucer, that have yet to be explained.

    What we may be seeing now is the preparation of the public in slow motion for an even greater disclosure by the American government of long held secrets about just what has been going on in our skies over America, and how little they know about them, and how little control they actually have of our airspace.

    As for the large Chinese spy balloon, it could very well be a warning from China along the lines of: 1) We intend to take Taiwan by force within the next couple of years and 2) If you try to do anything about it, we can now target your ICBM's for pinpoint destruction as we have mapped them up close, so don't even try to intervene.

  4. [4] 
    John M from Ct. wrote:

    You asked, 'When, oh when, will America close the "balloon gap"? When will we also have offensive spy balloon technology to deploy? When will America's skies be declared balloon-free?'

    But you forgot the big question: When will we fund and deploy an actual "Balloon Force", aka The United States Lighter-Than-Air Force? What will the uniforms look like? The shoulder patches and the command console logos? Which major defense contractors will get the juicy work of designing and funding weapons to wage balloon warfare in a way that no other nation can match?

    Re: John M [3], I highly doubt that 1) the Chinese don't already know where the US missile silos are for targeting; and 2) the Chinese are anticipating nuclear strategic exchanges over an invasion of Taiwan.

  5. [5] 
    John M wrote:

    [4] John M from Ct. wrote:

    "Re: John M [3], I highly doubt that 1) the Chinese don't already know where the US missile silos are for targeting;"

    Oh I am quite sure they already knew where they were, but the more close up information you can get on location, the more precise your targeting will be....

    "and 2) the Chinese are anticipating nuclear strategic exchanges over an invasion of Taiwan."

    I would not be too sure about that. What would be the response to the Chinese taking out an American Aircraft carrier battle group with a high yield explosive???

  6. [6] 
    John M wrote:

    Another new update on the objects on the national news tonight, it was confirmed that two of the objects were indeed describe as cylindrical and octagonal, and the first one, the one that shattered on impact with the ground, was described as a metallic drum....

    More and more curious....

  7. [7] 
    John M wrote:

    One final point on the aerial objects:

    Anything non military in American airspace has to have FAA clearance and Air Traffic Control clearance. That's true whether it is a commercial drone flying near an airport, a life flight or police helicopter, or a SPACEX launch of a rocket. So, if these other 3 objects are not Chinese spy balloons, what are they doing up thee without anybody officially knowing about them???

  8. [8] 
    John M from Ct. wrote:

    John M on your [5],
    Responding to my doubts that China is war-gaming a strategic nuclear exchange as a result of a Taiwan invasion, you said,
    "I would not be too sure about that. What would be the response to the Chinese taking out an American Aircraft carrier battle group with a high yield explosive???"

    Of course no one can know how a war with China over Taiwan would play out. But I would guess the response to the loss of a US carrier group to a conventional weapons attack would be something more like a powerful conventional attack on China's naval bases, the home ports of the air-sea forces that blew up the carrier and its escorts. Strikes like that would cripple the Chinese navy, and China does not have the power projection to retaliate with equivalent forces on the US west coast naval bases. God forbid, they'd find some other way to prosecute the war, or call it a day and wait to rebuild for another generation.

    On the other hand, for the US to go nuclear after the loss of some of its navy during a war, losses which have already been extensively war-gamed by the USN, makes no sense on any level. Nuclear war using the Montana-based ICBMs would be the end of the world, or at least the end of China and the US as working countries. No Chinese leader or US president is going to go there, Taiwan or no Taiwan, I think.

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