Some politicians are demanding that the Pentagon shoot down the Chinese balloon that has invaded America's skies, but security experts told NBC News on Friday that's easier said than done.
The United States has missiles in its arsenal capable of obliterating the balloon even at an altitude of 60,000 feet, but the falling wreckage could pose a danger to people on the ground, they said.
“You also have to look at the optics," said Joshua Fitt, a security expert at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington D.C.-based think tank. "What if we missed? It's still a tricky target. And it's not as easy to pop a balloon like this as you might expect."
Brynn Tannehill, an analyst at the Rand Corp., agreed. Using a missile to shoot down the balloon is “a risky proposition,” because most available weapons, including advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles (AMRAAM) and surface-to-air Patriot missiles, aren’t normally used on targets at such high altitudes, she said.
“These are exquisite weapons systems designed for high-end purposes, but balloons were never part of that purpose,” Tannehill said. “Patriots and AMRAAMs are like Lamborghinis or Ferraris — super high-end, super expensive — but you wouldn’t take either of them to an off-road rally.”
There could also be safety concerns if the missile veers off course.
“Even on a good day, missiles don’t hit 100% of the time,” Tannehill said. “When you miss something at that high altitude, the missile is going to keep going for quite a ways, and where it’s going to come down is not super predictable.”
Still, this kind of intrusion by the Chinese calls for a decisive response from the U.S. government, said Tom Karako, who runs the missile defense project at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.
“I know the Chinese are saying this is a weather balloon, but I don’t think anybody in the Pentagon believes that,” Karako said, adding that Chinese surveillance of the U.S. has become increasingly aggressive in recent years.
“It is possible to shoot it down and, frankly, I think we should,” Karako said. “It sets a very bad precedent to let this go.”
The experts weighed-in after Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced Friday he was postponing a trip to Beijing next week while a growing chorus of mostly Republican lawmakers, as well as former President Donald Trump, called on the Biden administration to shoot the balloon down.
“This is a gross violation of American sovereignty,” Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said in a letter to Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chair Gary Peters, D-Mich. “China’s foray into America’s sovereign airspace is deeply disturbing and calls for an immediate investigation.”
The Chinese government has expressed regret over the incident and insisted the balloon was for civilian research and had “deviated far from its planned course.”
But Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said the Defense Department is confident that the balloon, which has been flying eastward across the continental U.S. at an altitude of 60,000 feet, was doing surveillance.
Still, the U.S. military has not made any move to knock it out of the sky because, among other things, falling debris poses a risk to people on the ground — a concern that has been relayed to President Joe Biden.
Karako agreed that shooting it down poses a legitimate risk to people on the ground. “You don’t want to do it over a populated area,” he said.
But the U.S. could also use lasers to blind the surveillance cameras aboard the balloon, he said.
“You can jam the heck out of it,” Karako said. “This could be a teachable moment because the cost of doing nothing here is way too high. Blinken did exactly the right thing by calling off the trip to Beijing.”
Blinken's canceling the China trip "is more damaging to Beijing than blowing up one of their 'spy' balloons," Fitt said.
Tannehill said it’s not clear why China might be using a balloon for surveillance.
“Why would you use a balloon when you can use a satellite?” she said. “What you gain by using a balloon might be a little better than a satellite in some cases, but not strikingly.”
Karako said balloons are a much cheaper way to collect intelligence. They can be outfitted with high-powered cameras and are capable of lingering over a specific area, unlike a satellite orbiting the earth.
Rob Fesen, a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth, said the Chinese balloon appeared to have solar panels and a small “payload” unusually close to its body.
Still, Fesen said, there’s nothing in the public images he’s seen that suggests it’s a spy craft, as opposed to a lost research balloon.
“Why does the military think this is a spy thing? What makes this a spy balloon? I don’t know that,” Fesen said.
This particular balloon is round and does not appear to have propellers, which likely means its maneuverability is limited, he said.
“You can maneuver a little bit with a regular balloon by losing gas and changing altitude,” taking advantage of different wind directions at different altitudes, Fesen said. “We’re very sophisticated these days at knowing what high-altitude winds are doing.”
China is not the only country that deploys research balloons, Fesen added.
NASA has, in the past, launched much larger “Yankee Stadium-sized” research balloons more than 80-90,000 feet above the Earth’s surface, he said. Generally, they can be used by scientists to study cosmic rays, infrared light and particle physics.
To land a balloon like the Chinese one that has the Pentagon on high alert, Fesen said researchers typically trigger a small explosive, which deploys a parachute that allows the payload to float to the ground or, more likely, the ocean.
“They could explode the payload and catch it or not catch it in the ocean,” Fesen said.