When US President Joe Biden learned that a suspected Chinese spy balloon was drifting through the stratosphere 60,000 feet above Montana, his first instinct was to shoot it down.
By then, however, it will be too soon and too late. After flying over large swaths of sparsely populated land, it is now expected to continue drifting over American towns. His senior officers told him that fragments of the balloon could endanger life on the ground.
The giant white sphere, carrying a payload the size of three coaches, had been floating in U.S. airspace for three days as Biden was briefed by his top generals, according to two U.S. officials.
Its arrival went unnoticed by the public as it drifted eastward over Alaska – first spotted by the North American Aerospace Defense Command on January 28 – on its way to Canada. NORAD continues to track and assess the balloon’s path and activity, but military officials have dismissed the intrusion into U.S. airspace as they routinely witness Chinese spy balloons gliding into U.S. skies. At the time, the balloon was not assessed as an intelligence risk or a physical threat, officials said.
This time, however, the balloon kept flying: high over Alaska, into Canada, and back to the United States, barely attracting the attention of anyone looking up from the ground.
“We’ve seen and monitored them and briefed Congress on the capabilities they can bring,” another U.S. official told CNN. “But we’ve never seen anything as brazen as this.”
It takes seven days from the time the balloon first enters U.S. airspace to the time an F-22 fighter jet fires a heat-seeking missile at the balloon on the other side of the country, sending its equipment and machinery into the Atlantic.
The weeklong U.S. trip by hot air balloon from the remote Aleutian Islands to the coast of the Carolinas left a preview of a new era of diplomatic ruptures, angry reprisals from Biden’s political opponents and escalating military tensions between the world’s two largest economies.
It also raises questions about why it wasn’t shot down sooner and what information, if any, it gathered along the way.