Before President Joe Biden ordered the US military to shoot down a Chinese surveillance balloon off the coast of South Carolina earlier this month, the last time an errant balloon occupied such a dominant place in America’s public discourse was 8 July 1947, when officials at a US Army airfield in Roswell, New Mexico issued a press release claiming to have recovered a crashed “flying disc”.
Amid hysteria about a potential alien invasion, the Army quickly reversed course and said the craft they’d recovered was nothing more than a weather balloon.
The incident has taken on a prominent place in American mythology despite myriad efforts to debunk claims of a crashed alien spaceship over the decades.
As it turned out, that famous American balloon and its modern Chinese counterpart have something in common – both were purposely built for espionage.
The truth of that 1947 incident was finally made public in 1994, when the government published a declassified report identifying the balloon in question as one used for an Air Force programme to determine whether balloons carrying microphones could detect the sound waves generated by Soviet nuclear weapons tests.
At the time, high-altitude balloons were state of the art when it came to Cold War aerial spycraft. The most famous espionage aircraft in America’s arsenal, the Lockheed U-2, wouldn’t take to the skies for another eight years. And the first US spy satellite – the Corona programme – wouldn’t make its first trip into space for another 12 years after that.
That famous balloon that crashed in Roswell was part of what the US called Project Mogul, which begat the Navy’s Skyhook balloon programme, which was in turn a forerunner to a pair of US espionage programmes that used balloon overflights to take surveillance photographs of the Soviet Union, Project Moby Dick and Project Genetrix.
According to US officials, the modern spy balloon that Mr Biden ordered shot down by an F-22 Raptor – one of the most advanced aircraft in the American arsenal – carried a payload the size of three city buses, which is why the president ordered the Pentagon to hold fire until it was over water.
The State Department has said the Chinese balloon is believed to be part of a larger Chinese military fleet of similar aircrafts, an expansive surveillance project intended to view military sites in the US and more than two dozen other countries.
But if the White House is to be believed, the doomed airship’s mission was unsuccessful; Defense Department officials were able to take unspecified countermeasures to prevent the balloon from collecting useful intelligence about the sites it hovered above, including US missile fields in Montana and North Dakota.
According to the Pentagon, it was the aircraft that supplanted the balloon as a premier espionage tool – the venerable U-2 “Dragon Lady” – that shadowed the Chinese craft as it traversed US airspace, collecting signals intelligence it was trying to beam back to Beijing, and – according to other US officials – putting out countermeasure signals of its own.
Still, intelligence officials are considering whether the balloon’s flight across the American mainland was likely accidental, carried off by unexpectedly strong winds. Officials have suggested that Beijing may have used the inadvertent flight path to its benefit in the hopes of surveilling the US from its airspace.
Senior defence officials testified to a Senate committee last week that the balloon did not collect any intelligence and posed no physical threat to anyone or anything on the ground below.
But the appearance of three other unmanned, unidentified objects above North American airspace less than a week after the balloon incident accelerated a media frenzy about aerial intrusions and raised more questions about what, exactly, is up there, and for how long.
President Biden and White House officials said there is no indication the objects are connected to China’s surveillance fleet.
More likely explanations, according to intelligence analysts and military officials, is that an administration on high alert, with radars picking up more raw data, is now finding research or commercial balloons and other aerial objects that the US has not previously kept tabs on.
And rather than wait to find out, with fears that those objects could be in the way of civilian air traffic, the Biden administration decided to shoot first.
Democratic US Senator Mark Warner, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told The Independent the US “needs to acknowledge” that “there is not a good reporting system in place” for weather balloons or similar commercial vessels.
“You just don’t have that kind of visibility,” he said on 14 February.
Meanwhile, as Republican lawmakers leverage the balloon incident to attack the administration and its relationship to China, emerging details about the decisions made between US and Chinese officials as the balloon made its way across America reveal some confusion and critical misreadings among the world powers that boiled over into partisan battles and media frenzy.
The balloon’s apparent surprise drift across the US reportedly sparked confusion among Chinese agencies and diplomats, who reportedly scrambled to assemble a cover story to describe the balloon as a civilian aircraft that had drifted off course. US analysts are examining the possibility that China didn’t intend to enter the US mainland at all, but once it did, may have taken advantage of the opportunity.
The top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee told USA Today that global surveillance efforts between world powers are nothing new.
“It’s not like they’re learning some deep dark secret that makes us extra vulnerable here,” Democratic US Rep Adam Smith said. “We definitely want to stop them from doing it, as we want to try and stop all efforts of surveillance on the US by China or anybody else for that matter. But, no, I don’t think it’s something that the American public needs to worry a great deal about.”
President Biden said the three objects’ discovery was largely due to changes under his administration to “closely scrutinise” North American airspace, “including enhancing our radar to pick up more slow-moving objects.”
In his first speech on the subject on 16 February, the president said there is “no evidence of a sudden increase” in unidentified objects.
“We’re now just seeing more of them partially because of steps we’ve taken to [broaden] radars,” he said.
Radars monitoring North American airspace now are combing through objects that might have otherwise been filtered out, which could include much smaller unmanned objects like civilian research aircrafts.
Those radar enhancements “may at least partly explain the increase in objects that we’ve detected over the past week,” Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Hemispheric Affairs Melissa Dalton told reporters in a briefing on 12 February.
US Defense Secretary Llloyd Austin explained to NBC News that the military “opened the aperture” of its radars, echoing other military officials who have recently explained how such filter tweaks are bringing in all kinds of newer raw data that would have otherwise been filtered out as clutter in the past.
“We typically are focused on things that are moving fast, and so it’s a bit more difficult to collect on slow-moving objects like a balloon,” Mr Austin said.
“We basically opened the filters,” said an official speaking to The Washington Post who compared such data filters to those used by a prospective car buyer to broaden the parameters of what can be searched.
Following closed-door briefings with lawmakers at the US Capitol on 14 February, Republican Senator Mitt Romney of Utah told reporters that “there are a lot of these things that are up in the air from time to time, some commercial, some government and maybe there’s some things we don’t know.”
CBS News national security correspondent David Martin described the two unidentified objects shot down over Alaska and Canada as “balloon-like”.
“The prevailing wind brings everything that way, from east, west, across northern Alaska and northern Canada. And there is a lot of what officials call ‘sky trash’ up there,” he told Face the Nation on 12 February.
That “sky trash” includes “balloons that are put up by governments, that are put up by corporations, put up by research institutes, and probably just by private individuals, and not for nefarious purposes but to just collect scientific data,” he said.
In the past, the US didn’t pay as much attention to such crafts, but the much larger Chinese surveillance balloon was a “game changer” that put the US military and the Biden administration on alert, he added.
Another much older programme – the Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group, under direction of the Pentagon and US intelligence agencies – is used to “detect, identify and attribute objects of interest in Special Use Airspace and to assess and mitigate any associated threats to safety of flight and national security.”
That group – used to identify Unexplained Anomalous Phenomena, the federal government’s term for UFOs – appears to be one of the ways in which the US was able to identify China’s surveillance balloon programme.
A review from the Director of National Intelligence that was released in January found terrestrial explanations for more than half of the 366 new reported incidents since the first unclassified report released in the summer of 2021, according to a review by ABC News.
Balloons or balloon-like entities were found to be the reason for the vast majority of those incidents.
Five missiles, four fighter jets, three objects and one big balloon
US military fighter jets were deployed four times within eight days to strike down a large suspected Chinese surveillance balloon and three smaller unidentified flying objects in the skies over Alaska, Michigan, and in the Yukon territory of Canada.
The balloon, first tracked by military agencies from China’s Hainan province and roughly the size of three buses, first entered Alaskan airspace on 28 January before floating into Canada then again above the US before a Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor jet shot it down off the coast of South Carolina on 4 February with a single Sidewinder missile.
On 10 February, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which monitors and defends the skies over the US and Canada, began tracking an object “about the size of a small car” travelling at an altitude of about 40,000 feet, according to the Pentagon.
Military officials recommended shooting it down. The White House agreed “out of an abundance of caution”.
Two F-22 jets were dispatched from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson near Anchorage, Alaska, and the object was brought down with a single Sidewinder.
Meanwhile, officials also were tracking a second object that entered US airspace in Alaska before drifting into Canada. Over 24 hours, a pair of F-22s from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson tracked the object to “characterize [its] nature” as it cruised over North American airspace, Pentagon spokesperson Brigadier General Pat Ryder said in a statement on 11 February.
The object was “small” and “cylindrical” flying at 40,000 feet and “posed a reasonable threat” to civilian aircraft, according to Canada’s Defence Minister Anita Anand.
Following a call between President Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and with the recommendation of their militaries, the president authorised NORAD to shoot it down.
It was brought down roughly 100 miles from the US-Canada border in Canadian territory in central Yukon on 11 February. It was likely the first instance of NORAD downing an object in Canadian airspace, according to Ms Anand.
That evening, NORAD and the Federal Aviation Administration briefly closed and then reopened airspace over northern Montana to support “Department of Defense operations”, which the agencies initially chalked up to a “radar anomaly”.
The following day, on 12 February, US officials announced that another object, this time above Lake Huron near the state of Michigan, was shot down by an F-16 Fighting Falcon.
It took two tries. A first Sidewinder missed the target and landed in the lake. The object came down with a second shot, officials from the Pentagon and White House confirmed.
It’s not yet known what exactly that American missile brought down over Lake Huron, and National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said on 17 February that we may never know.
“Because of where it is over Lake Huron … we all have to accept the possibility that we may not be able to recover it,” he told reporters.
Mr Kirby also defended Mr Biden’s decision to order the as-yet unidentified “objects” shot down in the wake of the Chinese balloon’s trip across America.
“You got these three, and they're unidentified, they're not responding to any kind of communication so we don't know who owns them or what their purpose is … and they're flying in sovereign US airspace,” he told reporters.
“They're also at altitudes that could affect the safety of civilian air traffic and based on the flight path and the prevailing winds, potentially moving over sensitive military sites,” he said.
The president acted on the reccomendations of the US military “out of an abundance of caution,” according to Mr Kirby.
But the identity of one of those craft may be far more benign than any Chinese spy balloon.
An Illinois-based hobby group — the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade — has said the object shot down off Alaska may have been a “silver-coated, party-style, ‘pico balloon’ owned by the club.
Asked if the US government plans to reimburse the hobbyists for their lost airship, Mr Kirby said there were none that he knew of.
Eric Garcia contributed reporting