U.S. Shoots Down Chinese Balloon Off East Coast

A Timeline of Events

The first balloon was first reported on Feb. 1. It was in Montana near Billings Logan International Airport, and the airport was shut down for a couple hours in response. The reporting brought national attention to the balloon, and it immediately hit headlines across the country. People started wondering where the balloon came from, who sent it, and what, if anything, was its purpose.

The next day, the Pentagon started talking. It was a high altitude Chinese balloon that had been flying over the U.S. for a few days. A second balloon was reported over Latin America, and later that evening, Canada confirmed a third, unnamed incident that it was currently tracking. While the latter of these events was overlooked, the balloon was now fully ingrained in the American news cycle, and the questions started coming. Was it dangerous? Why hadn’t the U.S. done something yet?

It was Friday when China finally commented, with the Foreign Ministry apologizing for the balloon "straying off course," and saying it had no intention to violate any airspace. This started a back-and-forth between U.S. and China officials, with China claiming it was all an accident, while the U.S. pointed out this was a violation of American airspace. The situation became tense as U.S. Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, canceled a trip to China, while internal pressure on Biden erupted. The conservative faction of the House, headed by Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), put the president on blast, demanding action. China continued to claim the balloon was nothing more than a weather balloon.

Saturday was the last day the balloon was allowed to fly, and an F-22 Raptor shot it down shortly after it flew over the coast of the Carolinas, while it remained within U.S. waters. A naval mission was instructed to pick up what was left of the balloon, and the debris was shipped to U.S. intelligence for investigation.

Background and Aftermath

Officially, that’s the beginning and end of the 2023 Chinese Balloon incident, but that’s just the end of the flight itself. There’s a lot more, especially in the realm of balloon usage and China’s recent history. While China maintains that the object was meant to report on the weather, there’s reasonable cause to doubt that claim. China has been working on balloon technology at an increased rate since April of 2022, according to Reuters, and as early as 2014, there were papers published in Chinese academic journals calling for the use of balloons in air defense and air incursion. Combining this with China’s current aggressive stance — wolf warrior diplomacy, a nickname for aggressive, confrontational foreign policy, has been noted across almost all Chinese embassies in foreign countries — and the U.S.’s claims hold more weight.

On top of that, the downed balloon bears no resemblance to any weather balloon currently used. Weather balloons are usually much smaller than the downed balloon, and carry a globally standardized set of equipment. Most weather sensors have not been changed in a while, and the sensors recovered don’t fall in line with weather technology. Data gathered from American U2 spy planes seems to show that the balloon had significant intelligence gathering capabilities, including equipment that would be unusual on a weather balloon or similar meteorological device. The balloon also has claimed electronic tracking capabilities, including the ability to track and capture mobile phone and radio signals and data.

Further capabilities included the balloon's apparent ability to increase and decrease in altitude to enter favorable currents that would help it travel to specific locations. The balloon entered American airspace at an altitude of 60,000 feet, and was shot down at an altitude of 58,000 feet, seemingly dropping into lower airstreams in order to travel. The wreckage was recovered, and the U.S. identified propellers and rudders for movement, as well as a large solar panel for energy.

This is not the first identified strange balloon, with two near Japan and one near Taiwan reported recently, though none of those were linked to China explicitly. In addition, the Pentagon released information saying the balloon is one of 40 flown over five continents since 2017, five of which incurred American air space. This is, however, the first of these balloons to spend significant time over the US.

Despite such findings, China has vehemently denied any negative association between the balloon and intelligence gathering capabilities. In fact, the country has continued to raise objections, claiming that the U.S. shooting it down was a violation of international law. The U.S. has responded with evidence that the balloon was not part of a meteorological data agreement, nor was it authorized to be in American airspace at that time, and was therefore a valid target for attack. While the balloon posed no danger to American citizens and was recovered without any accident or damage to American property, the U.S. has still responded to the incident strongly, bringing together diplomats from the U.S. and Canada to discuss the situation with China.

Another object was shot down over Alaska over the weekend, and the situation does not appear to de-escalate anytime soon. China claims the balloon was not meant for spying, and has accused the U.S. of escalating and causing an international incident. As it stands, the two countries are currently negotiating as the U.S. attempts to find more information from the debris.

In terms of domestic pressure, the Republican Party, as well as hawkish Democrats, have called for stronger defense of American airspace, as well as improved early detection and warnings systems to prevent this from happening again.

Recent updates

The U.S. has shot down a number of other unidentified objects over American airspace in the last week. While U.S. intelligence don’t have much information about these objects, and most have been shot down over Alaska and Canadian airspace. The current reports are foggy, but there might even have been a fourth object. Meanwhile, Chinese naval vessels have started moving closer to the Japanese EEZ, and other strange actions have been taken by the Chinese military. On top of all that, China has gone quiet in response to the United States, while planning on shooting down another unidentified object over Chinese ports this time, which they aren’t talking about. The number of unidentified objects being shot down and reported this week is very high, and the government remains exceptionally tight-lipped about it.