Building on China’s Mistake to Advance U.S. Interests after the Balloon

A Chinese balloon has captivated the United States for much of the past week. The balloon traversed North America, crossing into the Aleutian Islands in Alaska on January 28, to Canada on January 30, then across the continental United States from January 31 to February 4, until it was finally shot down six miles off the South Carolina coast into the Atlantic Ocean. Now that the balloon and its payload are being recovered from the Atlantic Ocean, U.S. leaders should focus on building consensus—among themselves and with the American public—on how to respond over time.

Q1: What happened?

A1: It depends on who you ask. According to China, it lost control of a research balloon used mostly for meteorology research over the Pacific, and it just happened to follow a five-day path over sensitive U.S. military installations in Idaho, Montana, Missouri, and toward the Carolinas. According to Brigadier General Patrick S. Ryder, Pentagon spokesperson, the balloon was outfitted to conduct surveillance over the United States.

Q2: What is a weather balloon?

A2: A weather balloon is a device regularly used to monitor numerous weather factors including temperature, humidity, wind direction and speed, and many others. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), weather balloon flights “last for around 2 hours, can drift as far as 125 miles away, and rise up to over 100,000 ft.” NOAA’s weather balloons are about six feet wide on the ground and expand to approximately twenty feet in diameter when at altitude. The payload on a weather balloon, a radiosonde, weighs about one-half to one pound. The balloons do not have a motor or a means to control their speed or altitude after launch. All this stands in contrast to China’s balloon.

Q3: What was China’s balloon?

A3: While much remains unknown, it is clear that the balloon was much larger than a standard weather balloon, flew much further, and was purposely maneuverable. The payload on the balloon weighed as much as 1,000 pounds and appears to be powered by solar panels. The Pentagon described the balloon as having propellers, suggesting it would have been capable of maneuvering, unlike regular weather monitoring devices. The path of the balloon also took it near a number of strategic defense facilities in the United States, including ones for strategic warning, missile defense, intercontinental ballistic missile silos, and the headquarters of both U.S. Strategic Command and the main U.S. base for B-2 strategic stealth bombers.

Q4: Is this the first time China has used a balloon this way?

A4: No. According to a senior defense official, there have been at least four previous instances of People’s Republic of China (PRC) balloons overflying some part of the United States, three times during the Trump administration and once earlier in the Biden administration. This suggests that using balloons for surveillance is both a repeated activity by China and one to which the United States has potentially not responded to until this past week.

Q5: Now that the balloon has been shot down, what should come next?

A5: The rush in Washington—which started after news of the balloon captured the news cycle—is to prove how “tough” each party is on China. The American people will expect public explanations, likely through congressional hearings. There is plenty of time for that. Now is the time for U.S. leaders to understand the situation further (though quickly) before starting to press for additional response actions. If the United States is at the front of a potentially long and nuanced competition with the PRC, it will need to develop a thick enough skin to ensure that U.S. responses are pragmatic, strategic, and generate advantages for the country. The executive branch should offer closed-door briefings on what it knows, what type of threat surveillance balloons pose, and how they might be connected to other PRC actions in the world. In open hearings to follow, Congress should expect to hear views on how to think about—and respond to—similarly troublesome instances in the future. Experience shows we will likely be surprised again.

John Schaus is a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

John Schaus
Senior Fellow, International Security Program