The United States tracked the Chinese spy balloon since its launch on the island of Hainan by an unusual route

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning attends a press conference in Beijing on February 3, 2023. (Thomas Peter/Reuters) (THOMAS PETER/)

When a Chinese spy balloon crossed US airspace late last month, US military and intelligence agencies USA They had been following it for nearly a week, watching it take off from its base on the island of Hainannear the south coast of China.

American observers watched as the balloon settled into a flight path that seemed to have taken him over the American territory of Guam. But at some point on that eastward route, the craft took an unexpected turn north, according to several US officials, who said analysts are now examining the possibility that China did not intend to penetrate the heartland of the United States. United with their aerial surveillance device.

The balloon floated over the aleutian islands of Alaskathousands of kilometers from Guam, and then drifted over Canada, where it encountered strong winds that appear to have pushed the balloon south toward the continental United States, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe confidential information. A US fighter shot down the balloon off the coast of South Carolina on February 4, a week after it crossed Alaska.

This new account suggests that the international crisis The subsequent move, which has heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing, may have been, at least in part, the result of a mistake.

Meanwhile, the White House declared Tuesday that three other objects shot down over North America in the past week might not have posed a threat to national security, drawing perhaps the clearest distinction yet between those flying anomalies and the alleged spy balloon. John Kirbycoordinator of strategic communications of the National Security Counciltold reporters that the US intelligence community “will not rule out as a possibility” that the three ships belonged to a commercial organization or research entity and were therefore “benign”.

He People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has already sent spy balloons over Guam on other occasions, as well as over hawaii, to monitor US military installations, authorities have stated. But the flyby of the US mainland, which lasted several days, was novel and caused confusion within the Chinese government, as diplomats rushed to spread the word that the balloon had veered off course while collecting data. innocuous weather conditions, according to US officials.

The uproar caught Beijing off guard. At first he expressed “sorry” for what he insisted was a weather balloon deflected. He then went on to criticize Washington for what he called an overreaction, and this week accused the United States of sending 10 spy balloons over China. The White House has strongly denied the claim as false. “We are not flying surveillance balloons over China. I am not aware that we are flying over Chinese airspace,” Kirby said Monday.

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US military and intelligence agencies followed the balloon as it took off from the hainan island. Intelligence analysts aren’t sure if the apparent diversion was intentional or accidental, but they are certain it was intended for surveillance, most likely over US military installations in the Pacific. In any event, the incursion into US airspace was a great misstep of the People’s Liberation Armywhich sparked a political and diplomatic furor and increased scrutiny by the United States and its allies of Beijing’s aerial espionage capabilities.

Its passage through US airspace constituted a violation of sovereignty and his overflight of nuclear facilities sensitive in Mountain It was not accidental, according to authorities, raising the possibility that even if the balloon inadvertently flew over the continental United States, Beijing apparently decided to use the opportunity to try to gather intelligence.

The incident is but the latest indication of the determination with which China is expanding its surveillance capabilitiesfrom advanced satellite technology to balloons, according to authorities.

The fleet of balloons is part of a aerial surveillance effort much broader that includes sophisticated satellite systems and in which the Chinese government has invested what analysts consider billions of dollars over the years.

“It’s about a discrete program, which is part of a broader set of programs aimed at gaining greater clarity on US and other countries’ military installations,” a senior US official stated. It appears to be intended to “boost satellite systems.”

The balloon was launched from the ground, as part of a program led in part by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, and it is possible that it was blown off course by strong high-altitude winds, according to authorities. It was partly directed by air currents and partly remotely piloted, they said. With propellers and a rudder, it has the ability to maneuver.

After the balloon was launched, computer models made by The Washington Post indicate that steering currents would have pushed it eastward over the Pacific Ocean, probably passing between Philippines and taiwan.

chinese balloon tour
Track of a computer model produced by The Washington Post of air currents coming from Hainan, China on January 20 at an altitude of approximately 60,000 feet. The model projects the trajectory eight days into the future. Each triangle on the red line marks a day. (Washington Post/NOAA image)

Around January 24, when the globe was approximately 1,000 miles south of Japan, model simulations show that it began to pick up speed and turn rapidly to the north. This would have been in response to a strong cold front that had unleashed exceptionally frigid air over northern Chinathe Korean Peninsula and Japan.

Under normal conditions, atmospheric movements would have kept the globe in a much more west-east direction, historical weather data shows. However the intense cold front it forced the jet stream and high-altitude steering currents to head south, which could have dragged the balloon north.

chinese balloon tour
Left: Historic mean flow pattern from January 24-27 at an altitude of approximately 60,000 feet. The currents flow normally from west to east off the coast of China. Right: Current current from January 24 to 27 of this year. The flow curves further to the northeast of China, in response to cold air pushing in from the Asian mainland. (Washington Post/NOAA image)

The blimp entered US airspace off Alaska on January 28, he crossed Canada and re-entered the United States via Idaho on January 31, one day before being sighted over Mountain by civilians, leading to a ground stop at Billings airport, while US authorities considered shooting it down.

When authorities determined that they could not mitigate the risk to people on land, they decided to wait until they could shoot it down over the water.

Analysts are still waiting for the balloon’s payload to be recovered, which authorities estimate has the size of three school busesBut “it doesn’t appear to be a spectacular new capability,” said a second US official. “It seems to be more of a collection – everyone always wants more.”

Kirby said Monday: “These balloons have provided limited additive capabilities to the other intelligence platforms. [de la República Popular China] used on the United States. But in the future, if the PRC continues to advance this technology, it could certainly become more valuable to them.”

U.S. officials stressed that they took steps to thwart any attempt by China to collect sensitive information from military locations. Any such information or communication was encrypted, Kirby has said.

“The name of the espionage game is always new capability, new mitigation,” the second official said.

(c. 2023 – The Washington Post)

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