Are some people trying to start a war with China?

The media has been agog with the sudden flurry of objects in the sky that have been shot down by the US military. There have been four so far in the space of eight days. The objects have been nothing if not varied. So far, we have had the large white balloon that started the process, followed by what was described as. a small car-like object, then a cylindrical object, and then an octogonal one. The Chinese government has acknowledged that the balloon was theirs but say that it was a meteorological balloon and not a spy device. No one has claimed ownership of the other three objects.

What is peculiar is that all four objects were essentially propelled by the ambient wind currents and thus drifted at very low speeds. Of course, this has spurred all manner of claims (seriously by UFOlogists and facetiously by skeptics) that these are probes sent by extra-terrestrials to gain data before they invade.

Assuming that these were spying devices by another country, I would have thought they merited urgent back-channel discussions between the governments to defuse the situation. After all, no one in their right mind would want a direct conflict between nuclear powers. What bothers me is the hyper-aggressive response that has been taken.

U.S. authorities have made clear that they constantly monitor for unknown radar blips, and it is not unusual to shut down airspace as a precaution to evaluate them. But the unusually assertive response was raising questions about whether such use of force was warranted, particularly as administration officials said the objects were not of great national security concern and the downings were just out of caution.

Rather than ratchet down the tensions with China (which is after all a nuclear power), some seem to be delighting in gloating over the shooting down of the balloon, using it as device for the ever-popular anti-China posturing.

US and Canadian military are continuing to search by sea and land amid hostile weather conditions in a scramble to recover portions of three flying objects shot down over North American airspace in the past week.

The Democratic majority leader of the US Senate, Chuck Schumer, told ABC’s This Week on Sunday that he had been briefed by the White House and that officials were now convinced that all three of the flying objects brought down by air-to-air missiles this week were balloons. He put the finger of blame firmly on China.

“The Chinese were humiliated – I think the Chinese were caught lying,” he said. “It’s a real setback for them.”

Hours later a spokesperson for the White House national security council tried to tamp down some of Schumer’s rhetoric, saying it was too early to characterise the two latest flying objects shot down over Alaska and Canada. Definitive answers would have to wait for the debris to be recovered, the official said.

Democrats are always sensitive to the charge from Republicans that they are not ‘tough’ in their defense of US interests and tend to be too eager to use force to counter such charges, though by now they should have realized that Republicans will keep saying it whatever they do. Meanwhile Republicans want to know why the balloon was not shot down immediately it was detected. Being cautious and deliberate in dangerous situations is not in their nature.

Countries that have the capability and resources to spy on each other do so all the time, using satellites, other electronic means, and human beings. So what is unusual is why, if these are all indeed spying devices, such slow, low-flying, devices were used. What could they glean that satellites could not?

An object shot down Saturday over Canada’s Yukon was described by U.S. officials as a balloon significantly smaller than the balloon — the size of three school buses — hit by a missile Feb. 4. A flying object brought down over the remote northern coast of Alaska on Friday was more cylindrical and described as a type of airship.

Both were believed to have a payload, either attached or suspended from them, according to the officials who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation. Officials were not able to say who launched the objects and were seeking to figure out their origin.

The three objects were much smaller in size, different in appearance and flew at lower altitudes than the suspected spy balloon that fell into the Atlantic Ocean after the U.S. missile strike.

The officials said the other three objects were not consistent with the fleet of Chinese aerial surveillance balloons that targeted more than 40 countries, stretching back at least into the Trump administration.

The question that interests me most is a scientific and technological one: How were the non-balloons able to float and maintain directionality?

Large airships have engines and propulsion systems to steer them. Balloons have to take advantage of wind currents in the upper atmosphere to guide them. There are wind currents going in all directions at different altitudes and if you have that detailed knowledge, then you can adjust your height to snag a current that will take you in the direction you want to go. But that is not easy. I recently read an article that described the race to circumnavigate the globe in a balloon and it requires a pretty impressive feat of engineering. It is also a very delicate process that requires constant human intervention

In the Geneva airport, Piccard’s weather team projected the movements of atmospheric winds all over the world. Using models that were based on the spread of nuclear fallout over Europe after the Chernobyl disaster, the weathermen, Luc Trullemans and Pierre Eckert, had mapped an approximate trajectory for the circumnavigation. Balloon pilots have no way of steering; they can change direction only by going up or down, to inhabit different winds. If Piccard and Jones had any chance at success, it would be from the weather team’s careful reading of the jet streams.

That two-person crew needed propane tanks that could be turned on and off in order to change the buoyancy and thus the height.

How these recent remote controlled devices managed it would be interesting to know.

Seth Meyers takes a closer look at this sudden influx of flying objects.


  1. says

    Here’s the thing about war, especially limited war, which we are oh-so-good at practicing: For the right people, it can be a big money maker. And, there’s no downside for them. They and their kids are not going to be fighting it. General Butler was right. It’s a racket.

  2. JM says

    I would be surprised if the US doesn’t have a good idea what the objects are. If the military doesn’t there is a rather blatant hole in air defense above conventional plane height but below orbital altitude. Weather balloons operating at those heights have existed for a long time, it’s not like it’s a new technology. There could be filters that block out things but a military scanner wouldn’t be blocking unknown signals, that is just inviting enemies to bypass our security by attaching some reflective tape to their missiles.
    I think it’s rather one of those things that has suddenly become an issue because the public noticed. As long as there was no public notice the government was happy to let the occasional spy balloon float over. It mostly wouldn’t be getting anything that a satellite couldn’t get anyways so no reason to spend time and money shooting them down.
    Once one was noticed by the public it became a political issue and the Republicans started complaining that Biden didn’t have a hair trigger. There are also issues relating to international law that favor shooting them down. If the US lets them through once the US has publicly acknowledged their passage it could be taken as general practice that they are allowed.

  3. Don Cates says

    The balloon referenced in the ‘around the world’ story uses hot air as an altitude control mechanism, hence the propane, a limited resource to be conserved as much as possible. The weather/spy balloon uses a clever but much less responsive mechanism. The balloon is filled with enough helium to provide the lift required to get the entire device off the ground. This does not completely fill the balloon. As it rises the ambient air pressure drops and the helium expands to become less dense and continues to provide lift. This continues until the balloon is completely filled at which point the helium density is fixed and the balloon will reach its maximum altitude. That’s it for going up, how about going down? Put a second balloon inside the first one and connect it to a small air compressor. Pump air into the second balloon and it takes up space inside the first one compressing the helium making it more dense, thus providing less lift. The more you pump in, the less the lift and down you go as much as you want. Let air out of that balloon and back up you go.

  4. Mano Singham says

    Don Cates @3,

    That article, long as it was, did not explain how that balloon system worked and I had been curious. Thanks so much for providing such a clear explanation of the two different mechanisms.

  5. sonofrojblake says

    What JM said: what you have here is not a sudden influx of balloons, what you have is a single balloon that could be seen from the ground, and a sudden influx of public attention. The US then HAS to act tough until one of the Kardashians gets her tits out or something.

    Chuck Shumer is much funnier than his second cousin -- the idea that successfully, publicly invading a sovereign hostile power’s airspace and forcing them to bimble about and eventually shoot down the intruder, but only when it’s safe, is a setback for CHINA is hilarious. Speaking as someone from outside the US I definitely see humiliation, but it’s not the Chinese who look like a bunch of easily-provoked halfwits.

    The US military knows exactly what these things are. Do recall that these people didn’t admit what went down at Roswell for DECADES (a secret surveillance balloon, coincidentally). Not admitting they know what they are is just a reflex action.

  6. Tethys says

    The US military shot it down so that they could physically examine its instruments and see if it was as benign as China claimed. China’s track record on honesty is not exactly stellar.

    It’s clearly more than a runaway weather balloon. It’s not nefarious that various officials involved in covert operations or the NSA don’t share all information with the general public.
    Spying requires extreme discretion, so it’s prudent for actual officials to avoid giving any fodder to GOP lunatics like MTG. The wingnut is already publicly promoting asinine conspiracy theories about Chinese viruses and Jewish space lasers.

  7. sonofrojblake says

    I know I’m going to kick myself, but could you please explain that last comment? Ideally without words, just a link to a photo or video that will make me think “oh ffs of course” or similar…

  8. No Respect says

    I’ll just say that, as an outsider, Americans and Chinese people killing each other would be quite fun to see (I’d still root for the Chinese, though). Oh, and:

    The US then HAS to act tough until one of the Kardashians gets her tits out or something.

    Nice choice of phrase, sonofrojblake. Keep giving me more of that sweet misogyny, it’s so addictive!

  9. Holms says

    Ordinary baloons are cheap. Helium balloons 60m high that are capable of directing their course across continents and oceans while carrying a payload of hundreds of kilograms… less cheap.

  10. lanir says

    Shooting down all this stuff sounds pretty awkward. China mostly wouldn’t care unless we significantly degrade their ability to see what’s going on over here. But that would require shooting down satellites and deling with informants. Which we aren’t doing. finding their means of attaining information is much more useful than eliminating it, from an espionage perspective. Also, I’d be willing to bet missiles and jet flights cost a lot more than a balloon, even a high altitude one.

    So basically? We’re shooting down random stuff in the sky because our government wants to let the citizens know it’s in charge while it’s showing a vulnerability to the Chinese. I mean, think about it. If they want to they can make our government look foolish simply by launching a dozen weather balloons now. They don’t even have to put spy gear on them.

  11. ardipithecus says

    In recent decades, balloons have been a great way to do some spying because radars have been programmed to ignore objects flying below a certain speed or below a certain size because no one wants to scramble jets for weather balloons. Every major power has likely been doing some of that. It may stop for a while if the major powers take the radar filters off, which they probably have done as several more were detected even though much smaller than the infamous one.

    This is not something to get one’s knickers in a twist over. The USAF probably shot it down so they could see how good the instrumentation was. Spying on the spy device, as it were.

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