Montana officials want details on China’s spy balloon

Mansfield Center expert on China: Incident adds more strain to tense relations

By: - February 3, 2023 5:39 pm

A balloon from China flies above Billings, Montana. U.S. officials said they suspected it was spying; China said it was a research balloon blown off course. (Photo by Chase Doak, used with permission.)

Montana and U.S. officials aren’t buying China’s explanation that the surveillance balloon detected over Billings this week was mostly collecting information on the weather and floated off course by accident.

“(China) regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace due to force majeure,” said a statement from the People’s Republic of China. “The Chinese side will continue communicating with the U.S. side and properly handle this unexpected situation.” 

In a phone call Friday, however, Dexter Roberts, a senior fellow with the Mansfield Center at the University of Montana, said the U.S. and China are likely each other’s No. 1 espionage targets.

He also said a surveillance balloon from China that flies across a state with nuclear missile silos isn’t a surprise.

“If China wants to spy on the U.S., and particularly look at military capability, well, they should look at Montana. And it appears that’s what they were doing,” said Roberts, also a senior fellow of the Atlantic Council’s Indo-Pacific Security Initiative.

In emails, both U.S senators from Montana said the balloon, heading east and located over the middle of the continental U.S. this morning, represents a danger.

“This is not the first time a Chinese balloon has entered American airspace over sensitive national security areas — I don’t think anyone believes this was merely a civilian aircraft,” said Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, who worked in China in the 1990s. “This is why I’m asking for a full security briefing from the Pentagon. Balloons don’t just enter our airspace haphazardly.”

Montana’s senior U.S. Sen. Tester, a Democrat, said he wants to know how the balloon entered U.S. airspace in the first place. 

“This provocation is completely unacceptable, and I am in close contact with Department of Defense and Intelligence officials,” said Tester, chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. “We are still waiting for real answers on how this happened and what steps the Administration took to protect our country, and I will hold everyone accountable until I get them.

“I will always defend Montana and our national security from hostile adversaries like China.”

Thursday, NBC reported U.S. officials saying the balloon that temporarily shut down the Billings Logan International Airport one day earlier was a suspected spying device.

Although Roberts, an expert on China, said the situation has captured people’s imaginations, he also said it ratchets up the already “extreme” strain in relations between the U.S. and China and may cause further damage.

“It does up the tension by a lot,” Roberts said.

On social media, of course, the balloon elicited some levity as well.

“China flying a balloon over Montana just to see Yellowstone and figure out where the best IPA in Bozeman is,” said @calcartermaine on Twitter. 

On the same site, David Quammen, an author and journalist based in Bozeman, said, “I suspect they’re scouting for Bozeman real estate deals.” (Also: “Yikes.”)

The Pentagon held a briefing Friday, and most reporters asked questions about the balloon, including about its time over Montana. Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, though, declined to offer many specifics.

He said the balloon does not present a military or physical danger, and the U.S. is monitoring its path at some 60,000 feet. He also said the balloon is big — without offering dimensions — and a “basket” under it is the part that’s doing the surveilling.

In response to a question, he declined to discuss whether the balloon had the ability to collect sensitive data given its position over nuclear sites in Montana. Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls controls 150 nuclear warheads.

Ryder said he would not comment on intelligence. 

“As we mentioned in our statement last night, once the balloon was detected, we acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information,” Ryder said. “And I’ll just leave it at that.”

In response to a question about China’s statement the balloon was for research and adrift by accident, Ryder said the U.S. knows it’s a surveillance balloon. He also said it is violating U.S. airspace, and U.S. officials are in communication with China about it. 

He declined to answer whether China is controlling the balloon’s movements or if it’s drifting with the air streams — but he did estimate it would be over the U.S. for just a few days, and he confirmed it is maneuverable.

He didn’t address a question about whether it was leaving sensors in its wake.

The “basket” is big enough that defense officials decided against shooting down the balloon for fear the debris would kill people and damage property. However, Ryder wouldn’t talk about whether they may still choose to shoot it down once it’s over an area where it wouldn’t hurt people.

In an email, a Pentagon duty officer declined to provide the Daily Montanan the balloon’s flight path across Montana — information Roberts said would likely not be available to the public — and at the briefing, Ryder said a play-by-play of the balloon’s travel would not be provided.

“We’re just not going to get into an hour-by-hour ‘where the balloon is,’” Ryder said.

Others, however, have. The Capital Weather Gang from the Washington Post posted a graphic on Twitter of where the balloon would be projected to drift based on “atmospheric steering currents.” (At least on Twitter, it didn’t post an estimate of the balloon’s earlier trajectory.)

The U.S. has approximately 400 nuclear missiles in the ground in states including Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota.

In the phone call, Roberts said the spying is a given.

“China spies on the U.S. The U.S. spies on China,” Roberts said. “That’s what big nations do all the time.”

In this incident, though, Roberts said the timing isn’t good because the relationship between the countries is already troubled. He said friction exists over human rights issues, China’s mercantilist policies, and its perceived support for Russia in invading Ukraine.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken had planned a trip to Beijing just this weekend, and it isn’t happening, which Roberts said is unfortunate. 

He said it means the dialogue that could have been a continuation of President Joe Biden’s and President Xi Jinping’s talk in November in Bali won’t take place. 

“I think that we all need to be mindful of the fact that the relationship continues to deteriorate between the two countries, and that’s a problem,” Roberts said. “We’re very entwined.”

U.S. businesses make a lot of money in China, and especially with technology, rely on China as a big part of the supply chain, he said. It’s a concern for all Americans, and he said people will be affected by U.S and China relations down the road.

At the same time, he said the balloon story resonates with the public and gives politicians a reason to express their outrage: “How can we possibly tolerate this?” 

All of Montana’s congressional delegation have responded to the balloon.

U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, a veteran and Republican, was unequivocal in his response to the sighting of the balloon: “Shoot. It. Down.“ He said the spy balloon was clear provocation and Montanan’s “do not bow.”

Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale called on the Biden administration to do more and to find out the true purpose of the balloon and to prevent spying on Americans: “This incident is only the most recent example of China’s brazen espionage attempt.”

Friday, Gov. Greg Gianforte also sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin requesting answers about the balloon and its capabilities.

“What actions are being taken by DoD and the administration to take down the (Chinese Communist Party’s) spy balloon?” asked Gianforte, a Republican. “If there are none, why not?”

In Great Falls, Malmstrom counts 3,324 military personnel and 548 civilian personnel.

Malmstrom directed questions about how operations at the air force base were affected by the balloon sighting to NORAD, North American Aerospace Defense Command, whose press officer could not be reached Friday for comment.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect a response from the Pentagon for details on the balloon’s path across Montana.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.