By Ethan Montague
China has just flown a spy balloon over the United States at the start of February. According to U.S. authorities, the balloon’s path started over the southern tip of Alaska, before flying over Canada into the mainland United States. The balloon then continued over the entire United States before being shot down off the coast of South Carolina.
As this occurred, President Joe Biden was briefed by the Pentagon on his options in dealing with the balloon. Biden wanted to shoot the plane down at once when first told about it, but was talked into waiting as the Pentagon warned of the risk of civilian deaths.
The balloon’s path included flying over a military base in Montana with nuclear weapons defense systems. It is believed that the balloon was able to monitor other military bases throughout its journey. A Montana airport shut down over the incident and so did airports in North and South Carolina when the U.S. prepared to take the balloon down.
The balloon was shot down by a F-22 airplane made by U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin. Costing a whopping 125 million dollars per model, this marks the first time that an F-22 has a confirmed “kill,” despite the fact that the plane has been in service since 2005 and the U.S. carrying out a plethora of missions involving air support. Military officials pin blame the lack of a serious conflict and it appears the plane would see heavy use in a conflict with a technologically advanced military like China’s.
The U.S. conveyed to China that this was clearly a spy plane. Evidence has shown this is not an isolated incident. According to the New York Times, three U.S. intelligence sources made them aware of this being a global surveillance threat by Beijing with the goal of gathering information of other countries military capabilities.
This is important because Beijing has increasingly upped their use of violent rhetoric threatening to seize Taiwan by military force, as world tensions continue to rise following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. These surveillance programs have been detected in at least 5 continents, showing the significance of the program’s spread.
Reports also claim at least three spy balloons passed over the country while Donald Trump was president, but this was found out only after he left office. There are numerous issues with this report, leaving only three possibilities.
First, the Pentagon’s explanation that the balloons were detected after Joe Biden took office could be true, but this would show a significant lack of U.S. surveillance capability when compared to rivals like China. Second, a significant number of Trump-era officials came out and denied this, so they would have to be lying in unison that this didn’t happen. Third, the Pentagon could have covered it up from the entire Trump administration, but this would be an act of treason.
John Bolton, a member of Trump’s administration who has since frequently criticized Trump over a host of issues and is running for President stating his goal is to stop Trump, didn’t seem to believe the reports of spy balloons traveling the U.S. under Trump’s administration could be true. “Well if it wasn’t detected when it happened, how did we detect it more recently? Did the Biden administration invent a time machine?” Bolton continued, “As far as I know, every Trump administration official who has been asked, has said they didn’t know anything about it.”
“I will say this, if there was any actual knowledge that these balloons were over the United States and higher authority wasn’t told, that’s a serious problem.”
Trump himself seemed to agree with Bolton. He said that his political opponents at the defense department were “putting out that a Balloon was put out by China during the Trump administration, in order to take the “heat” off the slow-moving Biden fools.”
“China had too much respect for “TRUMP” for this to have happened, and it NEVER did. JUST FAKE DISINFORMATION!”
Biden downplayed the incident relative to how Republicans have handled it.
“It’s not a major breach. Look, the amount of intelligence gathering that’s going on by every country around the world is overwhelming.” Biden also made it clear that this was a “violation of international law.”
University of Tampa political science Professor Liv Coleman agreed that “surveillance of rivals is common in international relations.” Professor Coleman also noted the need for this to not be taken lightly.
“The activity isn’t surprising, but needs to be taken seriously. The Pentagon took a measured response to the event and hopefully they can learn a lot about Chinese signals intelligence gathering that was happening.”
China meanwhile maintains that the balloon is not a spy balloon, really being a weather balloon accidentally veered off course. This is clearly false, the balloon was proven to not only include surveillance equipment unrelated to gathering weather information as well as the ability to control its course. The balloon was even carrying explosives believed to self-destruct the balloon rather than be used as a weapon. It has since been discovered that there is a spy balloon factory on a heavily militarized island off the coast of China.
While president, Trump launched a program to identify Chinese threats to national security. But last February the Biden administration removed this program with Matt Olsen, national security division assistant attorney general for the Biden administration, saying the program made Asians uncomfortable.
“We helped give rise to a harmful perception that the department applies a lower standard to investigate and prosecute criminal conduct related to that country or that we in some way view people with racial, ethnic, or family ties to China differently.”