just asking questions

What Could a Chinese Spy Balloon Over the U.S. Do, Exactly?

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: EyePress News/Shutterstock

The Pentagon announced on Thursday night that it has been monitoring a Chinese balloon floating high above the U.S. that it says is being used for reconnaissance. Although officials state it “does not present a military or physical threat,” the device caused a major political stir on the ground, with Republican lawmakers outraged over President Biden’s decision not to shoot it down and Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponing his trip to China in protest.

China’s foreign ministry has claimed the balloon — roughly the size of three buses and floating at an altitude of 60,000 feet — is a civilian aircraft used for “mostly meteorological” purposes that veered off course due to wind. But arms-control expert Jeffrey Lewis, the director of Middlebury College’s East Asia Nonproliferation Program, thinks that answer may be hiding the truth. On Friday morning, Lewis weighed in on the balloon’s capabilities, what China may be doing with it, and whether the whole thing could just be a high-altitude misunderstanding.

Does China’s claim that this is a civilian aircraft that went off course read like an honest explanation to you?
It seems pretty unlikely to me. Anything is possible, I suppose, but it does seem much more likely that it’s a surveillance asset. I guess the simplest thing to say is “They would say that, wouldn’t they.”

U.S. officials claim the balloon can maneuver on its own. So why would China use a balloon like this versus a low-Earth-orbit satellite, which these officials claim can get better images of the ground than balloons can?
By first approximation, it’s not the greatest way to do this. But it’s certainly high enough that it doesn’t pose the same problems as if China were to fly a drone over Montana. That would be an order of magnitude of alarm higher. Balloons are kind of inexpensive ways to conduct long-term surveillance. A satellite is going to constantly be in motion; it’s going to fall, it’s going to peer over the horizon, it’s going to pass overhead, and it’s going to be gone. A balloon has a more persistent quality to its monitoring and detection.

In general, though, it’s a pretty straightforward technology. We’ve seen all these reports over the past few years about UFOs. I’m not one of these people who think they are aliens. It strikes me that Russia, China, and other countries have different exotic surveillance platforms. This one just happens to have been photographed beautifully in front of the moon over Billings.

Is it possible for balloons like this to veer off course?
It is possible, but I’m skeptical. It also seems quite likely that this is something they did intentionally because U.S. officials say this is not the first time this has happened. Also the secretary of State is visiting China right now, and this comes at a very inopportune time; I think the Chinese would try to minimize the distraction from what would probably be important meetings.

The balloon has been hovering in the same area as the Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, where intercontinental ballistic missiles are housed. Is there a way for this device to find new information that a satellite couldn’t?
No, it makes no difference. The thing is, satellites move but silos don’t. The locations of our missile silos and of Chinese missile silos are extremely well known to each party. If you’re talking about optical imaging, I don’t think there’s much of an advantage to a platform like this compared with a satellite. My guess is it could have some other payload on it to collect different kinds of information. I’m just speculating, but maybe a signals-intelligence payload. If you’re using a radio and you turn on marine radar, you can collect those signals from space or a drone. You could see if radio towers are transmitting. But again, we’re a free country, so you could take an RF detector and drive around Montana and get much closer to the silos than a balloon can.

Was this meant to intentionally disrupt Blinken’s meeting in China?
Not everyone in China may be all that excited about that meeting, but you never know, it may just be poor timing. Famously, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, John F. Kennedy ordered all U-2 flights over Cuba to end out of fear that a pilot would be shot down and it would make the crisis worse. But the flights continued and a pilot was shot down and it made the crisis worse and somebody had to tell Kennedy that this had happened and he was like, “Well, there’s always some son of a bitch who doesn’t get the message.”

It could be a classic example of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. There’s some unit responsible for balloon surveillance and for whatever inexplicable reason maybe they’re not coordinating with the foreign ministry, which might not have told anyone about this meeting. This balloon would have launched some time ago, and when did the meeting hit the press? It was, like, yesterday. My guess is nobody at the foreign ministry knew anything about this balloon. Why would China’s security apparatus tell the foreign ministry anything? Do you think the Defense Department tells the State Department anything?

This conversation was edited for clarity.

What Could a Chinese Spy Balloon Over the U.S. Do, Exactly?