Unidentified stratospheric balloon flies over Montana
Unidentified stratospheric balloon flies over Montana
© Reuters

| Gaétan Powis | Source : Air&Cosmos 407 mots

Unidentified stratospheric balloon flies over Montana

An unidentified stratospheric balloon has flown over the American state of Montana. The nationality of this balloon has not been confirmed, but the American media seem to lean towards a balloon of Chinese origin. The theory that the balloon took images of intercontinental missile silos in the state is highly unlikely.

A balloon in the stratosphere

On February 2, the Canadian Department of National Defense and the U.S. Department of Defense have both announced that they are tracking a balloon that is flying in the stratosphere.

Many media outlets have specified that the balloon is of Chinese nationality and that it is equipped to take images of military ICBM sites in Montana. Both of these hypotheses are unverifiable at this time, but:

  • No official statement has confirmed the nationality of the balloon in question
  • China already has very high resolution images of these silos

Montana's strategic silos

Montana is home to some of the U.S. strategic intercontinental missile silos. However, Chinese observation satellites have already taken pictures of these silos. The latter, moreover, are monitored almost constantly by a myriad of foreign satellites. This is the very heart of deterrence for countries with nuclear weapons : you have to be able to show your deterrence but also look at foreign delivery systems. 

In the case of Montana, if a satellite takes an image of the open silos, it suggests the beginning of a large-scale attack. So you need to be able to put your own vectors on alert and know the target. The taking of images by a sounding balloon is therefore not at all necessary, whether it is of Chinese or even Russian nationality !

What is the USAF's reaction?

In any case, the still unexplained presence of a stratospheric balloon in the northern United States represents a flaw in the NORAD (command in charge of the air defense of the United States and Canada) detection system. On the other hand, as demonstrated by the tweet (attached) from the online aircraft tracking site FlightRadar24, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) responded by sending three refueling aircraft to Montana to support fighter jets in the area. The latter were unable to fly next to the balloon in question because it was flying at too high an altitude.

At the same time, some regional airports were closed for a while but air traffic returned to normal. Finally, the U.S. President, the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were informed of this incident but the order to shoot down this balloon was not given.

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