What to know about the suspected Chinese spy balloon

Billings resident Chase Doak spotted an unusual object over Montana on Feb. 1. The Pentagon has been monitoring a Chinese surveillance balloon for several days. (Video: Chase Doak)
9 min

The spotting of a high-altitude balloon over the U.S. mainland this week quickly spiraled into a diplomatic incident. U.S. officials say the object is a Chinese spy balloon, while Chinese officials called it a “civilian airship” mainly used to track weather.

The airborne vehicle was originally spotted over Montana, home to some of the United States’ nuclear missile silos. The balloon then moved southeast from Montana, with locals in Missouri and Kansas reporting sightings, before a U.S. military aircraft brought it down just off the Atlantic Coast, near the Carolinas.

The Pentagon said Friday it had assessed that a similar airborne vehicle spotted over Latin America was a separate Chinese spy balloon.

Spy balloons have previously passed over the United States, but this object was unusual for loitering overhead “for an extended period of time,” defense officials say. The incident prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a planned trip to China that was intended to lower tensions between the two countries.

The first known usage of reconnaissance balloons was by the French during the Battle of Fleurus in 1794, when they were used to spy on Austrian and Dutch troops in what is now Belgium.

Here’s what you need to know about spy balloons, and about the Chinese balloons sighted this week in North America.

More on the flying objects shot down over U.S., Canada

The latest: U.S. fighter jets have shot four objects out of the sky over North America this month. The first object, a balloon shot down off the South Carolina coast, was Chinese. Biden said Thursday the three other objects did not so far appear to have connections to foreign surveillance programs.

The first balloon: The first object was linked by the U.S. intelligence community to a vast surveillance program run by the People’s Liberation Army. Here’s a timeline of the balloon’s journey across the United States and photos of the recovery.

The response from China: China’s Foreign Ministry said the U.S. has sent at least 10 unsanctioned balloons into Chinese airspace since last year. China accused the United States of an “overreaction” and reiterated claims that the airship was a civilian vessel that drifted off course.

Why use a spy balloon? Spy balloons “offer a few advantages over the use of satellites or drones,” James Rogers, an academic at Cornell, tells us. The Defense Department told Congress that similar surveillance balloons had been spotted in U.S. airspace before, and a top U.S. general said past incursions by Chinese balloons went undetected by the Pentagon.