What the Chinese Spy Balloon Has to Do With the Pentagon's UFO Obsession

UFO sightings are up across the country, but more stuff is also moving through the sky than ever before.
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The biggest story in the United States is the apparent Chinese spy balloon discovered floating high over Montana. Last night, the Pentagon scrambled F-22s and announced it was tracking the balloon. This discovery is worth thinking about in the context of the hundreds of UFO sightings the Pentagon has published over the past few years. 

The Pentagon has used the possibility of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAPs) being secret Chinese or Russian spycraft to push for more military funding. The fact is, many of the UAPs that the government and private pilots have reported over the years are balloons, according to reports that claim to have categorized some of the sightings. This means that there are balloons of unknown provenance floating in American airspace all the time. 


That raises the question of why the Pentagon has felt comfortable attributing this specific balloon to China, and what the other balloons are. The timing of the discovery coincided with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken's planned trip to China, which has now been postponed.

Congress has tasked the Pentagon with investigating hundreds of reports of Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon (UAP), and has uncovered hundreds of sightings. The Chinese balloon floating above Montana points to what might be the most plausible explanation for the recent rash of sightings. In its initial report on UAPs, the Pentagon noted that "UAP PROBABLY LACK A SINGLE EXPLANATION," and said that one UAP was "airborne clutter, specifically a deflating balloon." It also stated that some sightings came "from known aerial objects such as weather balloons, high-altitude or super-pressure balloons, and wildlife," adding that as it learns more about the behavior of known balloons, it can "pre-assess UAP reports to see if those records match similar events already in the database."

A 2015 Federal Aviation Administration report, meanwhile, classified various weather balloons and blimps as "drones." 

The Pentagon has decided not to shoot down the balloon currently weaving above the midwest, citing the risk of falling debris to civilians. China has said the balloon isn’t a spy at all, but a civilian research airship that was carried adrift by Westerly winds. The government of Canada announced on Thursday night that it is assisting the US in tracking the balloon, and indicated that there may also be a second spy balloon currently in North America. 


"Canadians are safe and Canada is taking steps to ensure the security of its airspace, including the monitoring of a potential second incident," the Department of National Defence said in a statement

A rash of UFO sightings from credible witnesses like U.S. Navy pilots pushed Congress and the Pentagon to take a more proactive and public stance towards the phenomenon of people seeing strange things in the sky. The Pentagon’s All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO) has been tasked with sorting through the sightings and explaining what, exactly, is going on.

In January, the AARO issued a report that put the total of reported UAP sightings at around 510. According to the report, 163 of these were “characterized as balloon or balloon-like entities.” During a DoD press conference late Thursday night, a reporter asked about the 163 balloon-like sightings and if what’s floating above Montana is some kind of advanced spy system.

“I'm not going to go into the exact nature of the technology,” a senior defense official said. “I wouldn't characterize it as revolutionary.”

The flourishing of cheap hobbyist drones has people flying quadcopters and other strange devices. The ubiquity of cheap flying devices is also revolutionizing warfare and intelligence gathering. One of the fears lingering behind the sudden surge of UFO sightings is that they’re not unexplainable alien visitors, but advanced technology from foreign adversaries like Russia and China.


This isn’t the first time the Pentagon has scrambled F-22s to deal with the threat of a strange balloon. Just a year ago, the U.S. Air Force announced it was tracking a strange unmarked balloon in the skies above Kauai, Hawaii. Photos of the balloon from a year ago are remarkably similar to what’s being seen above Montanna now.

The location of both of these sightings is also telling. The Hawaii sighting last year occurred near the Kauai Test Facility and the Pacific Missile Range Facility, places where the U.S. government tests rocket launches. Montana hosts Malmstrom Air Force Base, the location of more than 100 silos housing nuclear-tipped intercontinental-ballistic missiles.

“The current flight path does carry it over a number of sensitive sites,” a senior defense official said during the Pentagon’s press conference. The official then explained that the Pentagon thinks the surveillance equipment on the balloon isn’t any better than what China can see with a spy satellite. “But out of an abundance of caution, we have taken additional mitigation steps.  I'm not going to go into what those are.  But we know exactly where this balloon is, exactly what it is passing over.  And we are taking steps to be extra vigilant so that we can mitigate any foreign intelligence risk.”

The sighting comes amid increasing acrimony between the US and China. Even as China has sought to take a publicly neutral stance on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, tensions between China and the US are heating up around the strategically important island of Taiwan. China has also vowed to quadruple its arsenal of nuclear warheads by 2025, putting it on more equal footing with the US. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken was expected to meet President Xi Jinping in China this weekend, the first time a secretary of state has done so in six years. The trip has now been postponed.