News Analysis

The Chinese spy balloon that navigated through U.S. and Canadian airspace for a week before being shot down may have been conducting reconnaissance for a potential conflict with the United States, though experts believe its mission is only just beginning to be understood.

When the spy balloon first entered U.S. airspace over Alaska’s Aleutian Islands on Jan. 28, American officials believed it would keep traveling on a northern trajectory over sparsely populated areas.

Two days later, however, the balloon slowed down over Canada and abruptly changed course, and headed south on a new trajectory that would take it over much of the continental United States.

Over the next several days, the balloon traveled over some of the United States’ most sensitive military sites, conducting surveillance and, potentially, rehearsing for a future attack.

The Biden administration has declined to specify which sites the Chinese balloon surveyed, but it visibly traveled near at least three sites vital to the United States’ nuclear capabilities.

These sites included Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, which oversees 150 nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile silos; Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, which is home to U.S. Strategic Command; and Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, which operates the Air Force’s B-2 bomber.

Paul Crespo, president of the Center for American Defense Studies, said that the balloon’s trajectory could “absolutely” suggest that communist China was conducting a dry run for an attack using balloon-mounted weapons.

Particularly, Crespo warned that the regime could use high-altitude balloons to conduct electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attacks on vital U.S. bases and infrastructure.

“While China has tested hypersonic missiles launched from balloons in the past, that isn’t a likely use for these airships,” Crespo told The Epoch Times in an email.

“The biggest threat is sending one or more of these high altitude balloons over the U.S. with a small nuclear EMP device.”

The EMP Threat

EMPs are bursts of electromagnetic energy that disrupt communications and damage electronic equipment. An EMP can be created by nuclear missiles, radiofrequency weapons, and natural phenomena such as geomagnetic storms.

While any nuclear weapon can create an EMP, specialized EMP weapons such as so-called super-EMP bombs generate particularly strong gamma radiation that multiplies the effect of the pulse, extending the destruction over a greater range.

It has long been believed that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which rules China as a single-party state, is developing such weapons for a potential conflict with the United States.

“Detonated at extremely high altitude, EMPs could knock out power and communications across the U.S., wreaking widespread havoc for a year or more without firing a shot on the ground,” Crespo said.

In most scenarios, such a detonation would need to occur at a higher elevation than the Chinese spy balloon was at in order to cause destruction across a vast swath of territory.

If the EMP’s purpose were to knock out a smaller target, however, such as a nuclear command and control facility, a balloon like the one shot down over the weekend would be a near-perfect delivery device.

Crespo, who previously served as a Marine officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency, said that the spy balloon also likely provided the CCP with unprecedented intelligence on U.S. nuclear facilities.

“Despite those who claim otherwise, the unprecedented slow-moving Chinese surveillance balloon across the entire U.S. gave China intelligence it couldn’t otherwise get on nuclear, communications, and other critical targets,” Crespo said.

Political Fallout

Though perhaps not as terrifying as an electromagnetic attack on the United States’ nuclear facilities, Crespo said that the spy balloon incident gave the CCP something nearly as important: A propaganda victory designed to undermine the will of the United States and its allies.

“The balloon tested U.S. surveillance and counter-surveillance abilities and reactions,” Crespo said. “But, most importantly, it tested political will, and Biden’s willingness to let it cross the U.S. before finally downing it failed that test.”

“Biden’s weak response gave China a major win on all counts.”

Crespo is not the only one who has expressed ire over President Joe Biden’s apparently slow response to the violation of U.S. sovereignty.

“China’s brazen and unapologetic violation of American sovereignty last week demonstrates how little the CCP respects the Biden administration,” said Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-Wisc.) in an email to the Epoch Times.

“Communist China is the number one threat to American national security and economic security, and it is time to start treating them that way.”

Similarly, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said that the Biden administration should never have allowed the spy balloon to enter U.S. airspace.

“The administration should have taken care of this before it became a national security threat,” McCaul told The Epoch Times in an email.

“I hope we will be able to recover the wreckage to help determine what intelligence the CCP collected while its spy balloon was over our country for days.”

A spokesperson for the House Foreign Affairs Committee said that the committee requested both classified and unclassified briefings on the incident to inform members and staff as to why the balloon was allowed to fly over so much of the United States before being shot down.

Adding to the intense political fallout was the Biden administration’s apparent intent to conduct business as usual with China.

Indeed, the Biden administration initially decided not to disclose the existence of the spy balloon to the American public, fearing that knowledge of the violation of U.S. sovereignty would derail Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s then-planned trip to Beijing.

The administration’s plans to conceal the incident were thwarted, however, when images of the balloon taken by Montana photographers Larry Mayer and Chase Doak and published in the Billings Gazette burst the story wide open for the whole world to see.

“This is exactly what journalism is designed for,” Doak said in a tweet. “Americans had a right to know that a foreign government was spying on them. Glad I could be a part of bringing it to light.”

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, said that the administration’s decision to conceal the existence of the balloon was of grave concern, and referred to the entire incident as a national security failure.

“I remain deeply concerned by the Biden administration’s decision to allow the spy balloon to traverse the United States,” Rogers said in a prepared statement.

“It’s clear the Biden administration had hoped to hide this national security failure from Congress and the American people. Now, the White House must provide answers about why they decided to allow a CCP spy balloon to cross the United States and what damage to our national security occurred from this decision.”

The White House and Department of Defense did not return requests for comment.

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