Speed Reads

Big Balloon

Suspected Chinese spy balloon was 200 feet tall, carried airliner-sized payload, U.S. general says

The Chinese suspected spy balloon the U.S. shot down Saturday was huge — about 200 feet tall, carrying an array of equipment the size of a regional airliner and weighing more than 2,000 pounds — but North American air defenses still missed previous balloon flights over U.S. territory, Gen. Glen VanHerck said Monday. 

At 200 feet, the Chinese airship was about the size of a 20-story building, the wingspan of a Boeing 747, or four times the size of the Snoopy balloon in Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, NBC News notes

The balloon's sheer size, and the bulk of its payload, figured in the U.S. military's advice to wait until it was over open water to shoot it down, said VanHerck, commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and U.S. Northern Command. Allowing it to traverse the U.S. also "gave us the opportunity to assess what they were actually doing, what kind of capabilities existed on the balloon, what kind of transmission capabilities existed," he added. "We were able to get significant analysis throughout this process."

U.S. officials said over the weekend that at least four other Chinese surveillance balloons had flown over the U.S. in the past six years. The U.S. intelligence community "made us aware of those balloons" afterward, VanHerck said. "As NORAD commander, it's my responsibility to detect threats to North America," he said. "I will tell you that we did not detect those threats. And that's a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out." The U.S. has known about China's spy balloon program for the past few years, retired Air Force Gen. Charlie "Tuna" Moore told The Washington Post

Calling the airship a "balloon" gives the wrong impression about these sophisticated aircrafts, Moore added. They are maneuverable, can get better photo resolution than spy satellites, and by swapping out sensor packages on the apparatus below the balloon, "you could pretty much do any type of mission you wanted with technology that's available today." 

Balloons are also much cheaper than $300 million satellites, the Post notes, and because of the height they fly and their slow speed, they are "very difficult to see on radar, although the sensor bay underneath will be more visible," said Malcolm Macdonald at Scotland's University of Strathclyde. A U.S. official said China's spy balloon program has been around 12 to 15 years.