How high-altitude balloons work
The Cost of Chaos: An Interview with Peter Bergen, National Security Analyst and Former Air Force Spy Balloon Organizer Tom Bergen
Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. The Cost of Chaos is a book written by Bergen. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
And it reminded me that when my father, Tom Bergen, was a lieutenant in the US Air Force in the mid-1950s, he worked on a program to help send balloons into Soviet airspace.
In 1954 he was assigned to Headquarters Air Material Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. He was part of the project that deployed balloons over the Soviet Union. Turkey is where those spy balloons were launched.
My dad didn’t talk about this part of his career much, likely because the work was secret, but the program has long since been declassified since it happened around seven decades ago.
The Fly of the USA by the Spy Balloon: Implications for the US National Intelligence Mission and the All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office
Despite the latest revelations about the capabilities of the spy balloon, the Pentagon has insisted since the vessel was first acknowledged publicly that it does not give China capabilities above and beyond what they already have from spy satellites or other means.
Now the United States and its rivals have these new-fangled gizmos called “spy satellites,” which can take photos! They can make a full- motion video. They can take thermal imagery that can detect people at night. When the skies are clear, they can spy on pretty much anything, with a resolution of centimeters.
Indeed, commercial satellite imagery is now getting so inexpensive that you can go out and buy your own close-up images of, say, a Russian battle group in Ukraine. Two months ago a private equity firm acquired Maxar Technologies for $6 billion and they have built up a profitable business on this model.
In other words, the overflight of US territory by China’s balloon is not a national security catastrophe as a bunch of hyperventilating Republican politicians from former President Donald Trump on downward have implied.
But it may help explain, at least in part, an element of a little-noticed report published by the US Office of Director of National Intelligence last month.
Over the past two decades, there have been 500 reports of unidentified objects in the sky, many of them reported by Navy and Air Force personnel. These reports were assessed by the Pentagon’s All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office, a fancy name for the office that tries to examine UFO sightings.
The Case for the Shootdown of an F-35 Spyball: State Department Officials, Capitol Hill Hearings and Sensitivities
But China has arguably done much worse. It has been accused by US officials of being benefited from the work of people who stole design data for the F-35 fighter aircraft as China builds its own new generation of fighters, and of sucking up personal information of 20 million Americans who were members of the US government. China called the F-35 theft report “baseless” and denied responsibility for the OPM hacking.
Questions have arisen about the handling of the Chinese spy balloon that floated across the nation before being shot down off the coast of the Carolinas.
But senior Biden officials faced pointed questions on Capitol Hill from lawmakers in public hearings and classified briefings as Congress is demanding more information about why the balloon wasn’t shot down sooner.
A senior State Department official said Thursday that the balloon was capable of conducting signals intelligence collection operations, and was part of a fleet that had flown over more than 40 countries across five continents.
Lawmakers were told Thursday that the order to send the balloon was dispatched without Chinese President Xi Jinping’s knowledge, sources familiar with the briefing said.
According to the officials, the US has already established that the balloon was using electronic technology, despite the fact that the recovery operation is still ongoing.
One official told reporters that the FBI has only evidence of the surface of the ocean, which includes theopy itself, the wiring, and a small amount of electronics. The official said analysts have not yet seen the “payload,” which is where you would expect to see the “lion’s share” of electronics.
“We did not assess that it presented a significant collection hazard beyond what already exists in actionable technical means from the Chinese,” said Gen. Glenn VanHerck, the commander of US Northern Command and NORAD, on Monday.
In the classified congressional briefings, the administration officials argued that the US didn’t move earlier to shoot down the balloon in part over fears it could provoke an escalation of military tensions with China or even a military conflict. Biden gave the order to shoot down the balloon whenever the Pentagon felt it was safe to do so, the sources said, so the Pentagon ultimately made the call on when to shoot it down.
The officials told lawmakers one of the reasons the balloon was not first shot down when it entered Alaskan airspace is that the waters there are cold and deep, making it less likely they could have recovered the balloon, according to the sources.
Defense Committee Chairman Jon Tester: Pentagon Monitoring of the Chinese Surveillance and the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee
The House briefing Thursday morning was tense, the sources said, with several Republicans railing against the administration, including GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who said that the Pentagon made the president – whom she noted she doesn’t like – look weak by their actions.
The Pentagon told us they were able to mitigate in real-time, I believe it is true, Rep. Mike Quigley of Illinois said.
“I believe that the administration, the president, our military and intelligence agencies, acted skillfully and with care. At the same time, their capabilities are extraordinarily impressive. Was everything done 100% correctly? I can’t imagine that would be the case of almost anything we do. But I came away more confident,” Romney said Thursday.
Senators pushed defense officials at an Appropriations Committee hearing on Thursday over the military’s assessment of the Chinese surveillance, with Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana telling officials that he did not know how they could unequivocally say it was not a military threat.
“You guys have to help me understand why this baby wasn’t taken out long before and because I am telling you that that this ain’t the last time. We have seen short incursions, now we have seen a long incursion, what do we do? stated the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee.
“We don’t understand because quite frankly, we have been briefed in his committee over and over and over again, about the risks that China poses, both economically and militarily,” he said. “China tends to push the envelope all the time until a line is set down.”“
Pentagon Effort to Find Out What the Pentagon Spy Balloon Did Over Alaska After the December 23rd Airborne Collider Shootdown
Pentagon officials said at the hearing that the Defense Department was not concerned about the balloon gathering intelligence over Alaska as it was not close to sensitive sites.
Since the balloon was recovered on the ocean, it has been delivered to various locations, but the recovery of additional parts of the balloon has been hampered by bad weather.
It’s not yet clear where the balloon’s parts were manufactured, the officials said, including whether any of the pieces were made in America. Because analysts have yet to look at the bulk of the equipment on the balloon, the officials said that there has not been a determination as to everything the device was capable of doing and its specific intent.
Of the small portion they have examined, analysts have not identified any sort of explosive or “offensive material” that would pose a danger to the American public.
There was English writing on parts of the balloon that were found, one of the sources familiar with the congressional briefings said, though they were not high-tech components. The source declined to provide detail on what specific parts of the balloon contained English writing.
President Joe Biden suggested Wednesday that bilateral relations with China had not been affected by the balloon fallout, but China reacted angrily to the shootdown, refusing a call with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a high-stakes trip to Beijing on Friday. In response to the balloon, new sanctions will likely inflame the situation.
China countered U.S. accusations with its own claims, alleging that the U.S. “flew spy balloons into Chinese airspace more than 10 times since January 2022 without Beijing’s permission,” as NPR’s Emily Feng reported.
President Joe Biden told CNN that the shoot down a “high-altitude object” hovering over Alaska on Friday “was a success,” shortly after American national security officials disclosed that the commander-in-chief gave the US military approval to take the action.
The object was taken down by an F-22 fighter jet that was flying over US territorial water. Pat was told by a reporter on Friday.
The Department of Defense was looking over Alaska’s airspace in the last 24 hours, according to John Kirby.
The object was flying at an altitude of 40,000 feet and posed a reasonable threat to the safety of civilian flight, according to Kirby.
Two attempts were made to get closer to the object before it flew. The first engagement by fighter aircraft took place late Thursday night and the second Friday morning. Both engagements yielded “limited” information, Kirby told reporters.
The orders to shoot it down were made before we were able to get fighters up and around it.
Biden, at the recommendation of the Pentagon, ordered the military “to down the object and they did,” Kirby added. Fighter planes assigned to US Northern Command brought down the object in territorial airspace. It went down over frozen Arctic Ocean waters near the Canadian border and northeastern Alaska. The US expects to recover the debris.
The Alaska Command coordinated the operation with help from the Alaska Air National Guard, Federal Aviation Administration, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Unidentified Objects in Space: High-Altitude Balloon Launches, Popular Uses, and How They’re Used
We call this object because it’s the best description we have right now. We don’t know who owns it – whether it’s state-owned or corporate-owned or privately-owned, we just don’t know,” Kirby said.
The object first came to the attention of the US government “last evening.” Kirby said Biden was first briefed as soon as the Pentagon had enough information.
Kirby said the object was not self-maneuvering and that it was at the mercy of prevailing winds.
The military took action against an object on Friday and the FAA issued a temporary flight restriction in the area.
While he stood by how he and his administration handled the balloon, he has faced criticism from Republicans because he allowed it to fly over the nation before shooting it down.
But in the briefing filled with unanswered questions, one statement from White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was as definitive as anything else: The US military had not shot down any UFOs from outer space.
The object shot down on February 4 in the east coast was called a “surveillance balloon” by the US, while the three others were referred to as “unidentified objects that were moving slowly through the skies.”
When balloons are used for authorized purposes, the Federal Aviation Administration approves their released ahead of time. A NOTAM can be issued by the agency, which will alert pilots that airspace is restricted around the location of the balloon. A similar process occurs every time rockets are launched to space.
There are high- altitude balloons in the US every day. What’s more, weather balloons, are deployed twice a day, every day, at the same time from almost 900 locations around the world.
Individual citizens can be involved in research, educational or entertainment by launching their own high-altitude balloon. Emily Calandrelli, an engineer and media personality, documented her sonogram on a high-altitude balloon as it was being launched in 2019. There are also a few companies exploring ways to use technologically advanced balloons to send paying customers on high-altitude adventures aboard a luxurious capsule.
Here’s a look at how high-altitude balloons work, what they’re commonly used for, and how they compare with the unidentified objects in all the latest headlines.
High-Energy Objects: Discovery Opportunities and Detection by Military Jets, Drell-Yan, and Sgr. Dan Dalton
He said the military is getting better at identifying and tracking objects, and it is likely that we will hear more about them in the future.
Melissa Dalton, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and hemispheric affairs, told reporters Sunday that the objects were taken down by military jets out of an “abundance of caution,” as they did not pose a physical threat to people on the ground.
Dalton also acknowledged that high-altitude objects can be used by a range of companies, countries and research organizations for “purposes that are not nefarious, including legitimate research.”
There are many different configurations and types of high-altitude balloon, but they all function using the same principles. There is gas in the balloon before it goes up. After release, as the balloon climbs and the air grows thinner, the gas expands and fully inflates the balloon.
The scientific instrument — called a radiosonde — that ascends attached to a weather balloon parachutes back to the ground once the mission is complete, according to the National Weather Service. NASA also states on its website that it uses a chase plane to track science balloons as they descend to ensure they land in safe locations.
Scientists have used balloons for research into things such as weather patterns and astronomy since the late 1800s.
The White House is not laughing about extraterrestrial activity: after four shooting down last week, Secretary of State John Kirby told the press corps
While Jean-Pierre’s reference to extraterrestrial activity prompted laughter from some members of the White House press corps, the White House is hardly dealing with a laughing matter. Following the unprecedented move by the president to shoot down four objects in the course of roughly a week – starting with a Chinese spy balloon earlier this month – White House officials have been besieged by a torrent of incoming questions about those objects and what had prompted Biden and his top military brass to take them down.
The White House has sought to assure the public that the objects were not from a hostile state or outer space. A top White House official said on Tuesday that they were likely harmless.
“The intelligence community’s considering as a leading explanation that these could just be balloons tied to some commercial or benign purpose,” John Kirby, the strategic communication coordinator at the National Security Council, said Tuesday.
After hearing from administration officials that there was no threat to the American people, senators emerged from a classified briefing reassured.
There were a lot of things up in the air, but Romney said he wasn’t worried about it.
Since three objects were shot down from the sky over North America in recent days, administration officials have emphasized efforts to recover the debris and the hope that finding their remains will be able to shed important light on their nature.
There was added urgency to that consideration given that the recovery of the fallen debris – and a comprehensive analysis of what those objects might have been – is a process that officials acknowledge could take some time.
So far, those efforts have been hampered by what he described as “pretty tough conditions,” exacerbated by the geographic challenges on Lake Huron, in the Yukon wilderness and on sea ice north of Alaska.
Kirby said that there was a tough time of year in which high seas in the Atlantic Ocean hampered the Chinese spy balloon debris recovery off the coast of South Carolina.
On the three recently downed objects of interest to the General Relative Air Force and the Centre for Investigating their Extraterrestrial Activity
Kirby said the government was relying instead on information and expertise from the Federal Aviation Administration and the intelligence community to glean what they could about the mysterious airborne devices.
Trudeau said the search area was a large area in the wilderness. Other Canadian officials were candid about the challenges of recovering debris from high-altitude objects shot down.
There is no guarantee that we will locate them. The terrain in the Yukon is rather treacherous right now so it could pose some significant challenges to us in in terms of our recovery efforts the same could be said about what’s taking place in Lake Huron, the marine conditions are also not conducive at the moment,” said Sean McGillis, a spokesperson for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
An object that was shot down over Lake Huron was first detected in SouthernAlberta. Canadian officials said that they have brought in investigators with explosives, chemical, biological and radiological expertise to make sure they are safe.
An official said there was a risk with the lack of information that there could be a conspiracy.
A determination was made that even in the absence of much concrete information that could be shared with the public about the three recently downed objects, it would be prudent to publicly rule out – as quickly as possible – the possibility of extraterrestrial activity, sources said.
Administration officials continue to say their goal is to provide as much information as they can about the objects, but they have noted the circumstances are less than ideal for effective communication.
Biden himself has expressed a desire to be as transparent as possible about the devices with both Congress and the American public, according to officials, but the president has acknowledged that without a full picture of what the objects were, his ability to communicate on them is limited.
One lawmaker who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee had told CNN on Monday that it would be prudent for Biden to directly address the public, particularly given that the situation was ripe for conspiracy theories.
The U.S. Airborne Investigation of Unidentified Aircraft Objects and Other Non-Spy Balloon Incidents Prior to the 2021 February 4 Jump-Off
The researchers note that before the balloon mania began the US government monitored a number of aliens in its airspace. The US Office of the Director of National Intelligence is responsible for releasing reports about incidents of unidentified flying objects, also known as UAPs. Between March 5, 2021, and August 30, 2022, the All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office had 247 reports of UAPs. In a wider pool of 366 UAP reports that also includes newly discovered incidents that occurred before 2021, ODNI said that 163 were balloons “or balloon-like entities,” 26 were “Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” or drones, and six were “attributed to clutter.” So, not all UFOs are balloons, and not all unidentified balloons are spy balloons.
The heightened alert in recent days may have also led to other tweaks to US radar noise reduction methods to detect more small aircraft at altitudes where planes don’t usually fly.
The recovery operation has included the use of a crane to bring up large pieces of the airship, which was kept aloft by a balloon estimated to be up to 200 feet tall.
The payload’s size has been categorized by Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command or NORAD, as “a jet airliner type of size, maybe a regional jet,” weighing more than 2,000 pounds.
The United States was the first to dismiss the explanation, blowing the balloon out of the sky on Feb. 4, after it had flown over most of the U.S.
Even before that shootdown, analysts urged the Biden administration not to allow the craft to return to China — both to limit the data it might convey, and to allow the U.S. to gain its own insights by recovering the equipment.
News of the intrusive Chinese balloon touched off alerts in the U.S. and beyond. When the Pentagon said last week that a similar high-altitude balloon had been identified over Latin America, China responded by saying it was another research balloon that was badly off-course, deeming it “an unexpected, isolated incident caused by force majeure,” meaning events beyond the country’s control.
As for how the U.S. will handle cases of unidentified aerial objects objects in the future, Kirby said on Tuesday that the National Security Council likely will present new guidance by the end of the week.
Questions about the balloon and other objects that were recently shot down — and the U.S. approach to the airborne objects — prompted a classified intelligence briefing for the entire Senate Tuesday morning. The Senate Intelligence Committee is scheduled to hold a closed-door meeting at 2:30 pm.