You say to-may-toe, I say to-mah-to, you say weather balloon, I say unmanned aerial spy ship — Leeeeet’s call the whole thing off!
Except, calling it off is exactly what didn’t happen when a balloon of Chinese origin floated into American airspace at the end of last month.
Depending on who you ask, this balloon was either a fairly standard piece of technology designed to measure weather patterns that got blown way off course by strong winds, or it was a deliberate attempt to steal top-level military secrets of strategic importance by China. America responded to the balloon in the same way it responds to most things it fears or doesn’t understand: by shooting it.
That shot has caused an international diplomatic maelstrom as each side tries to lay the blame on the other.
China said the shooting was: “an obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice”.
America said the balloon “was clearly for intelligence and surveillance” and that they were well within their rights to shoot it down.
The long-standing tension between the nations has been radically amped up by the incident, and the cogs of their respective propaganda machines are whirring at full pace. The Chinese Communist Party have been drumming up nationalistic sentiment on social media, accusing the US of anti-intellectualism and overt politicisation.
“Some American politicians and media, without any factual basis, jumped to conclusions, [fanned] the flames and orchestrated a farce,” they wrote on their Sina Weibo channel.
The US, for its part, has revealed detailed images of the balloon. They claim the balloon had equipment on board that was “inconsistent” with the equipment usually found on weather balloons.
“It had multiple antennas to include an array likely capable of collecting and geolocating communications,” one official said.
“It was equipped with solar panels large enough to produce the requisite power to operate multiple active intelligence collection sensors.”
The United States is now claiming that the balloon is part of a fleet that has been used to gather information from over 40 different countries.
If so, it does beg the question as to why China would fly something so massive and so visible over American airspace if they were trying to be discreet. The balloon itself was about the size of three buses and, despite flying at an altitude of 60,000 ft, was clearly visible to the naked eye.
In addition, the balloon itself did not even belong to the Chinese state, or so they claim. Rather, it was supposedly the property of a Chinese weather company that floated this thing up into the air, before losing control of it due to its “limited steering capabilities.” China has promised “further actions” will be taken over the destruction of Chinese commercial property.
US President Joe Biden retorted that the balloon was in “violation of international law”.
“It’s our airspace,” he said. “And once it comes into our space, we can do what we want with it.”
The Americans have now captured the balloon and, while they haven’t released specific information about exactly what equipment the balloon had on it, they will no doubt be analysing it closely to figure out exactly what it is and how it worked.
Balloons do have a history of being used in both warfare and espionage. Despite the fact that they are notoriously difficult to control, humans have been using them to spy on each other for centuries. In 1794, French engineer Jean-Marie-Joseph Coutell flew a hot air balloon over rival Austrian troops, documenting their positions while avoiding gunfire. The Americans also used balloons in Afghanistan, flying them above military bases to keep a constant view over what was happening around them.
Perhaps one of the most famous “weather balloons” in history though is the one that crashed in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947 and was erroneously reported to be a UFO. Despite evidence that it clearly wasn’t, that particular balloon sparked decades of interest and conspiracy theories on what is really going on in the skies above us. This latest saga is perhaps just another manifestation of that same hysteria.