Operators of China’s vast aerial surveillance program may not have intended the spy balloon shot down on Feb. 4 to pass over the continental U.S., officials told the Washington Post on condition of anonymity.
Unexpected winds that ushered in a cold front across the far northeast have caught China off guard, blowing the balloon northward, the Post reported, citing several U.S. officials. When U.S. officials began tracking the balloon after it launched from Hainan Island, near China’s southern coast, nearly a week before it penetrated U.S. airspace over Alaska, the projected flight path did not show it flying over the mainland U.S., officials said.
Instead, monitors determined the balloon would pass over Guam, a U.S. territory that houses critical military bases, according to the Post. (RELATED: ‘We Learned Nothing’: Senators Still In The Dark On Aerial Object Takedowns After Classified Intel Briefing)
Analysts are now seeking to determine whether China intended the balloon’s northward turn or whether unexpected strong air currents arrested the surveillance device, the officials said. The new course presented China with a critical opportunity to get a closer glimpse at some sensitive U.S. military sites within the contiguous U.S.
The balloon took an ultimate flight path that covered Alaska’s Aleutian islands and much of the Canadian landmass before reentering the U.S, where it then flew over sensitive U.S. sites that may include nuclear silos in Montana.
While U.S. officials assessed the balloon was maneuverable, remote pilots manipulate direction with propellors and a rudder, rendering it partially dependent on existing air currents, the Post reported.
Computer modeling conducted by the Post showed the balloon’s apparent swerve northward coinciding with an unusually strong cold front that encompassed northern China, the Korean Peninsula and Japan.
In briefings on the downed aircraft, defense officials repeatedly declined to say when they began tracking the balloon.
When asked if the balloon changed course after it was identified in Alaska’s air defense identification zone, Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said on Feb. 3 that “the balloon has changed its course, which is, again, why we’re monitoring it, but that’s about as specific as I can get.”
“Lock your doors tonight.”
— Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) jokes with reporters after receiving a classified briefing about the Chinese spy balloon and unidentified flying objects shot down pic.twitter.com/dFx6h5z6Go
— The Recount (@therecount) February 14, 2023
After the U.S. disclosed the Chinese military’s spy balloon program to the public, diplomats scrambled to come up with a cover story amid confusion in Beijing over what had happened, the U.S. officials told the Post.
China initially denied ownership of the balloon, but then claimed the airship was a benign weather balloon blown off course. Beijing accused the U.S. of overreacting and said Washington had deployed at least 10 similar spy balloons to violate China’s sovereign airspace.
U.S. intelligence officials remain confident that the balloon was intended for surveillance, even if it deviated from its planned course, according to the Post. After entering the U.S. mainland, the surveillance craft deliberately hovered over sensitive U.S. military sites, the officials said.
“This was a discrete program — part of a larger set of programs that are about gaining greater clarity about military facilities in the United States and in a variety of other countries,” one senior U.S. official told the Post.
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