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Opinion The inside story of how the U.S. shot down the Chinese balloon

The suspected Chinese spy balloon drifts to the ocean after being shot down by the U.S. military off the coast of Surfside Beach, S.C., on Saturday. (Randall Hill/Reuters)
5 min

Intelligence analysts distinguish between secrets and mysteries. The bizarre Chinese balloon overflight of the United States that ended with Saturday’s shoot-down over the Atlantic coast has elements of both.

The public spectacle of a spy balloon floating over America has been an embarrassment for the Biden administration, to be sure. But the administration can claim that it waited for the most opportune moment to destroy the balloon and capture its secret payload — and that the strange affair was a net intelligence plus for the United States.

The political fracas is already underway in Washington. Republicans claim the Biden administration showed weakness in allowing the balloon to enter U.S. airspace. Officials counter that the previous administration, under President Donald Trump, didn’t react to several similar missions over U.S. states and territories. Yet those previous incursions didn’t go on for so long, or reach so far into the continental United States.

But let’s examine the intelligence details of this latest incident, as described by an authoritative Pentagon official with detailed, firsthand knowledge of the event.

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First, the secrets part: The Chinese have been dispatching intelligence-collection balloons for years. The Pentagon official said Saturday night that five Chinese balloons have circumnavigated the globe, and China has conducted 20 to 30 balloon missions globally over the past decade.

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The balloons don’t appear to gather much more intelligence than could Chinese satellites in low Earth orbit. Balloons can hover longer over collection targets like the ICBM field in Montana that was overflown a few days ago, but they’re not stationary, and their signals-collection ability isn’t radically different from other systems available to the Chinese, the Pentagon official said.

A balloon provides better granularity in its images. And it’s possible that the mission was an attempt to trigger U.S. radar or electronic-warfare signatures, which would be valuable in a future conflict, the official said, but any such collection would have limited value. As for speculation that the balloon was scattering smaller spy devices — microdrones that could observe secret targets, say — the official said there was no evidence of any such dispersion.

The secrets part of the story should be clearer if the Pentagon recovers the intelligence-collection pod that the balloon was carrying, as officials expected on Saturday would be possible. The pod apparently fell into the Atlantic largely intact, the official said, and it should provide a useful opportunity to examine and reverse-engineer Chinese intelligence and communications systems.

Thus, from an intelligence standpoint, Pentagon officials believe that the strange week-long balloon voyage was ultimately of more benefit to the United States than to China. By waiting until the balloon was over U.S. territorial waters, the Biden administration was able to maximize the likelihood that the pod could be recovered while minimizing the risk that Americans would be injured by falling debris.

The Pentagon official said it weighed as much as two or three buses and could have caused considerable damage if it had hit land. If it had fallen over Montana, 2,000 people could have been in danger from scattered debris.

As a military operation, the shoot-down was relatively simple. An F-22 Raptor fired an AIM-9 missile at the balloon, and video cameras showed what happened. The Pentagon official said the key targeting priority was to avoid shooting clear through the balloon, which might have left it largely intact and able to travel another 500 to 600 miles east, perhaps out of range of U.S. retrieval.

The Pentagon weighed whether it might be possible to partially deflate the balloon and capture the intelligence pod at lower altitude. But the official said no technology exists that would allow such a “butterfly net” capture operation.

Now to the mysteries part. Intelligence officials don’t know what might have prompted the Chinese to launch such a mission now, on the eve of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s planned visit to China, which was canceled because of the overflight.

An obvious possibility is that this was a Chinese attempt to assert their power and panache at a moment when things haven’t been going well for Beijing, because of slowing economic growth, public political protest and mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic.

An opportunity to “poke a stick in the eye” of the United States is always attractive for the bellicose regime of President Xi Jinping, especially now. The United States tries to show the flag aggressively with “freedom of navigation” operations in the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea — but without such blatant violation of Chinese airspace and territorial waters.

Why now? Intelligence analysts are considering the possibility that the Chinese military or hard-line elements within the leadership deliberately sought to sabotage the Blinken visit, the chief goal of which was to explore strategic stability measures and other guardrails that could limit the likelihood of unintended escalation over Taiwan or other issues of potential conflict.

A final possibility is this was simply a mistaken chain of error — something that’s possible in any intelligence or military operation. “Sometimes the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing,” noted the Pentagon official.

Spies can gather secrets. That’s what the Chinese were doing with their balloon, and what the United States will now do in its attempt to analyze the hardware the balloon was carrying. But spycraft can’t resolve mysteries, the greatest of which today is the intention and potential outcome of Xi’s globe-girdling assertion of Chinese power.