CHINA WATCHChina 'Spy Balloon:' Why Doesn't the Pentagon Shoot It Down?

By Zulfikar Abbany

Published 3 February 2023

Espionage is all about secrets — keeping and revealing them. But here’s what we can say about the alleged spy balloon.

This is all just supposition. No one really knows,” said Malcolm Macdonald, an internationally recognized space technology engineer and professor at the University of Strathclyde Glasgow in Scotland.

And it’s important to point that out at the start. We don’t know a lot about the technology behind the balloon, or, indeed, whether it is or is not a Chinese spy balloon as alleged by US military and security officials.  

What we know for sure, said Macdonald, is what the Americans have said publicly.

The Americans have said the Chinese have done this, they’ve flown over Guan and Hawaii [in the Pacific], it’s been over the USA and Canada for a few days now, it was spotted on Thursday by a member of the public and the military has had a look and said, ‘Yes, that’s what it is.’”

Macdonald said images of the balloon suggest it has solar panels that could power fans to steer it, but other than that, it would be nothing more than a standard helium balloon that may have drifted in the wind.

Things got trickier, however, when we spoke about the possible surveillance technology onboard, what the Chinese would hope to achieve, if indeed this is a Chinese craft, and why the US has not shot it down.

It’s ‘Probably’ a Chinese Spy Balloon
US officials say they have a high level of confidence that the balloon is Chinese, but are not saying why.

It was sighted over the US state of Montana, which borders Canada, having flown over the Aleutian Islands, most of which belong to the US state of Alaska. Some belong to Russia.

The AFP news agency quotes a senior Pentagon official as saying the balloon was now over “a number of sensitive sites” — and that was possibly in reference, wrote AFP, to nuclear missile silos in Montana.

Clearly, they’re trying […] to collect information,” the official added, but added that the balloon’s technology was not “revolutionary” and that its observations were unlikely to be better than what China was capable with its spy satellites.

China, meanwhile, said on Friday that the balloon was an unmanned civilian airship used mainly for meteorological research and said it had been blown off course.