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Spy balloon: Hobbyists say $12 pico balloon may have been shot down by US as Biden rules out China

US president makes ‘no apologies’ for shooting down Chinese surveillance balloon

Alex Woodward,Shweta Sharma
Friday 17 February 2023 13:56 GMT
US shoots down four ‘flying objects’: What we know so far

A group of amateur balloonists has revealed that a pico balloon – which cost as little as $12 – may be among the three unidentified aerial objects shot down by the US military.

The Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade told Aviation Week that one of its research balloons last signalled its position on 10 February off the coast of Alaska, putting it on track to float towards Canada’s Yukon territory the next day. It was deemed “missing in action” on 15 February.

On 11 February, the US military shot down an object over Alaska – one of three unidentified objects downed that weekend.

In a speech on Thursday, President Joe Biden said that the three objects were “most likely tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions” and that “nothing right now suggests that they were related to China’s spy balloon program”.

Mr Biden said that the US military raised its radar sensitivity levels “to pick up more slow-moving objects above our country and around the world” in the days after the Chinese spy balloon flew over North American airspace.

The president said he makes “no apologies” for shooting the spy balloon down off the coast of South Carolina.


Biden could deliver remarks this week on shot-down objects, report says

President Joe Biden could deliver remarks this week addressing the Chinese surveillance balloon and three other objects recently shot down by fighter jets in North American airspace.

CNN reports that administration officials are “actively weighing” a potential address, noting that officials have been wary of the president giving public remarks until more information was uncovered.

Members of Congress over the weekend were calling on the administration to provide them with more information on the three latest objects after receiving closed-door briefings on the surveillance craft. Senators were briefed in classified hearings on Tuesday, and Republican Senators later demanded that the president address the public on the issue.

“The American people deserve to hear more from the president on all of these issues,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters on Tuesday.

Alex Woodward16 February 2023 12:00

Top US and China officials could meet face to face in Munich

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is reportedly considering a meeting with Chinese diplomat Wang Yi at the Munich Security Conference starting this week, marking what would be the first face-to-face talks between the nations after the US shot down a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon on 4 February.

Sources told Reuters that a meeting was possible at some point during the conference, though nothing has been confirmed.

If they don’t meet there, Mr Blinken also could meet with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang at the G-20 Foreign Ministers meeting in India next month, where both officials are scheduled to attend.

Vice President Harris also is attending the Munich conference, potentially setting up another chance for in-person encounters between American and Chinese officials after the balloon incident.

US officials including Ms Harris have insisted that the incident has not changed the nation’s relationship with China, though Chinese authorities have repeatedly accused the US of violating international accords and have threatened “countermeasures” after alleging American surveillance balloons were deployed in their own airspace. The White House has denied the allegation.

Defense secretary Lloyd Austin, however, unsuccessfully tried calling his Chinese counterpart in the balloon aftermath. China had refused the call.

Alex Woodward16 February 2023 13:00

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken explains why he cancelled his trip to China

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he intended to keep lines of communication open with Beijing to reflect the Biden administration’s push for “diplomacy and engagement” with China, but the surveillance balloon sighting did not create the “right conditions” for his trip to China that was abruptly canceled.

“We’re committed to responsibly managing the competition between the United States and China, and we look to Beijing to do the same,” he told NPR.

The ballon incident was an “irresponsible act and a violation of our sovereignty and international law,” he added.

“But it doesn’t take away from the fact that we are committed to finding ways to responsibly manage it. We believe that diplomacy and engagement are important,” Mr Blinken said. “In fact, this only underscores the importance of having lines of communication. That was in part the purpose of the trip I had intended to take, but in the context of the surveillance balloon, those weren’t the right conditions to go forward with the trip.”


The trip was canceled as administration officials weighed their response to the balloon sighting. It was ultimately shot down over the Atlantic Ocean near the coast of South Carolina on 4 February.

The White House has said the trip was not canceled but postponed and stressed that the incident has not stopped diplomats from both countries from keeping up talks and open lines of communcations.

“We still have an embassy there,” the National Security Council’s John Kirby said on Tuesday. “We still have an ability through Secretary Blinken’s good offices to communicate with senior Chinese leaders.”

Alex Woodward16 February 2023 14:00

Joe Biden to deliver remarks on downing of aerial ‘objects’

President Joe Biden is expected to address the shooting down of a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon and three other objects that entered North American airspace in his most extensive public remarks on the incidents yet.

The president could deliver remarks as early today but the exact timing of his address has not been settled yet. CNN reported on Wednesday that the White House was considering remarks, and NBC News reported that the remarks are in the works.

Members of Congress over the weekend were calling on the administration to provide them with more information on the three latest objects after receiving closed-door briefings on the surveillance craft. Senators were briefed in classified hearings on Tuesday, and Republican Senators later demanded that the president address the public on the issue.

“The American people deserve to hear more from the president on all of these issues,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters on Tuesday.

Alex Woodward16 February 2023 14:30

Biden administration briefs Trump-era officials on balloon sightings

Biden administration officials on Wednesday briefed Trump-era national security officials and members of the former president’s cabinet on Chinese surveillance balloons that were recently uncovered having traveled over North American airspace during the last administration.

The briefings included former national security adviser Robert O’Brien, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and former National Intelligence Director John Ratcliffe, according to NBC News.

Former national security adviser John Bolton also said yesterday that he would be attending the briefing.

“It is something that [China has] been working on for many years, and that they have tried to improve … in terms of capability, range [and] communication,” White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters in a phone briefing on 6 February.

According to the White House and military officials, at least three similar balloons were above the US at some points during the Trump administration, which began in January 2017 and ended in January 2021,

Those previous flights were “brief” and “nothing like we saw” with the balloon that cruised across North America earlier this month, Mr Kirby said.

Here’s what we know so far about those balloons:

Alex Woodward16 February 2023 15:00

Biden administration likely ‘overcorrected’ by shooting down recent aerial objects, think tank chief says

Bruce McClintock, the head of global policy think tank the RAND Corporation’s Space Enterprise Initiative, told The Hill that the Biden administration likely “overcorrected” by shooting down three unknown objects above North American airspace in recent days.

Officials are reportedly mulling whether to rely on the Space Surveillance Network, which tracks and monitors objects in outer space, to help detect lower-altitude objects.

But Mr McClinktock said that “the lower you tune down things to pick up smaller objects … the more likely you are to have these kinds of false alarms,” he said.

“It’s not like any nation, including the United States, has unlimited bandwidth to look for these objects,” he added. “They have to make decisions about where to focus their sensors.”

Alex Woodward16 February 2023 15:30

No one has taken ownership of last three objects, US defense secretary says

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told NBC News on Wednesday that no one has taken ownership of three unidentified objects in North American airspace that were recently shot down by American fighter jets.

“We don’t know ... how frequently these things may or may not have appeared in our air space. We’re learning a lot more about that,” he said.

Alex Woodward16 February 2023 15:45

US military ‘opened the aperture’ of radars to better capture what’s up there, defense secretary says

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin acknowledged that a series of objects shot down by American fighter jets above North America may have been there for some time, as the US military tweaks its radars to better capture what’s in its airspace after the balloon incident.

He told NBC News that the military “opened the aperture” of radars and is analysing data differently, echoing other military officials who have recently explained how such filiter tweaks are bringing in all kinds of newer raw data that would have otherwise been filtered out as clutter in the past.

“We typically are focused on things that are moving fast, and so it’s a bit more difficult to collect on slow-moving objects like a balloon,” Mr Austin said.

He said that officials do not know how frequently such objects have appeared in US airspace. “We’re learning a lot more about that,” he added.

Alex Woodward16 February 2023 16:00

China blasts US lawmakers for ‘fanning the flames’ of tension between nations with congressional resolutions

China has warned the US against escalating tensions between the two nation’s in the wake of the surveillance balloon shoot down as Joe Biden prepares to deliver remarks on the incident.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin also has urged the US lawmakers to avoid escalating the situation, after the House and Senate unanimously passed resolutions condemning China for sending the balloon into US airspace.

Lawmakers “took advantage of the issue and fanned the flames, fully exposing their sinister intention to oppose China and contain China,” according to the statement from the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress

Alex Woodward16 February 2023 16:45

New details emerge about China and US diplomatic attempts to resolve balloon incident before its destruction

Emerging details about the decisions made among US and Chinese officials as a balloon made its way across America reveal some confusion and critical misreadings among the world powers that boiled over into partisan battles and media frenzy.

US officials told The New York Times that a self-destruct function did not operate when the Chinese surveillance balloon entered North American airspace over Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, though it is unclear whether the operators refused to detonate the device or if it failed.

Officials also told the newspaper that they believe that China then may have been reluctant to detonate the balloon once it was over the mainland, fearing political fallout if the debris had caused any damage below.

It also is unclear whether operators misread wind currents that carried the balloon in and out of American airspace or allowed it to drift to see what it could collect, The Times reported, echoing similar findings from intelligence officials who spoke with The Washington Post.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and deputy secretary Wendy Sherman reportedly issued a formal notice to a senior Chinese diplomat at about 6.30 pm ET on 1 February, telling him that his government must do something about the balloon.

More than 24 hours later, Chinese foreign ministry officials in Beijing spoke privately to diplomats in the US Embassy to tell them the balloon was a harmless civilian machine that had gone off course, according to the newspaper.

Early on 4 February, Chinese officials told their US counterparts that operators were trying to speed it out of the country, but by then the Biden administration was planning to shoot it out of the sky once it reached the coast of South Carolina.

Chinese spy balloon may have drifted into American mainland by mistake

Suspected surveillance craft likely took advantage of strong winds that inadvertantly changed its flight path to enter US airspace, reports find

Alex Woodward16 February 2023 17:10

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