Analysing the Balloon Drift: Another Perspective
Air Marshal GS Bedi (Retd)

The US Department of Defense released a photo of the alleged Chinese spy Balloon on February 22. The photo was taken by a U-2 aircraft as it sailed over the balloon on February 3, according to the caption.

A U.S. Air Force pilot looked down at the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon as it hovered over the Central Continental United States February 3, 2023. (Image credit: Department of Defense) [1]

China has maintained that it was a weather balloon that flew off course, in contrast to the US's assertion that it was carrying spying equipment. China has strenuously disputed that it had enough steering ability, despite US claims to the contrary. Whatever it is, it had travelled a great distance before being discovered on the other side of the globe. It was at 60,000 feet in the air when an AIM-9X missile launched by an F-22 Raptor aircraft brought it down.


While there seems to be a general consensus on the Easterly path followed by the balloon under the influence of winds blowing from West to East known as Westerlies, some assertions are intriguing and merit more investigation. An effort has been made to refute the widely held belief and present an alternative viewpoint. The intent is to prompt a fresh perspective on the entire episode.

Probable Launch Site

According to an article from NBC News dated February 18, the balloon's likely launch place was Hainan Island in southern China. It draws the conclusion that the balloon was launched from this island based on the testimony of a US official and a former senior US military officer who are both seemingly familiar with the situation[2]. According to a US official who spoke to Reuters on conditions of anonymity, the initial course of the balloon would have taken it over Guam and Hawaii but it was blown off course by the prevailing winds[3] – implying that the US was tracking the Chinese balloon since its launch from Hainan”. Hainan, therefore, can be assumed to be the launch site of the balloon.

The Travel

The voyage of the balloon is explained date-wise in an article by Helene Cooper and Edward Wong that was published in the New York Times on February 4. According to the report, the balloon was over US territory for seven days before it first appeared over the Aleutian Islands on January 28, which also indicates that all along US authorities were aware of it. It left US territory on January 30 for Canada before returning on January 31 over Idaho, apparently startling NORAD and military authorities. On February 1st, it was over Montanna, and that is when it was first closely watched [4]. This journey of the balloon has also been corroborated by another report published in ‘The Warzone’ dated Feb 06.[5]

After the US raised concern, the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated on 03 Feb that “the machine was a civilian weather balloon that had strayed far — very far — off course and entered U.S. airspace by accident”, as per the NYT report quoted above[4].

The balloon seems to have been influenced, supposedly, by the strong westerly current prevailing in upper atmosphere or stratosphere. As per a report in the Associated Press dated Feb 4th, Dan Jaffe, a professor of atmospheric chemistry at the University of Washington, finds the travel of the balloon in consonance with the Westerly wind pattern prevalent over China [6].

Pictorial Travel Plot

Based on the facts about the balloon's journey mentioned above and using the fundamental knowledge of distances on earth, the balloon's route can be predicted. The distance travelled in one degree along the equator and at any particular longitude is fairly constant at 60 NM. It decreases along a latitude as a function of the cosine of the latitude you are measuring it at due to the convergence of longitudes as you move North or South. For instance, a change of 1 degree in longitude at the Equator will measure 60 NM and only 30 NM at latitudes 60 degrees north or south. On a flattened map, the balloon's journey will resemble the illustration shown below.

Was the Balloon Controllable?

China has vehemently denied for it to have any steering ability and that it simply drifted off under the influence of winds. The US on the other hand, appeared confident in stating that the balloon was steerable. China, however, seems to have the requisite technology. As per a report in Forbes, dated Feb 7, China has been working on steerable stratospheric balloons. It reported that, “In particular, the Academy of Opto-Electronics in Beijing, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing… is working on high-altitude balloon systems and “Modern airship including stratospheric airship[7].”

As per National security spokesman John Kirby the balloon was not merely drifting from above Alaska, but had propellers and steering to give it a measure of control, even as it was swept along in the high-altitude jet stream winds[8].

Gaps in the Story

Although winds can be anything, at those heights they are less likely to change significantly in speed and direction. The balloon is supposed to have changed direction from Northeast to Southeast in Canada, almost through 90, travelling roughly twice as fast between Aleutian Islands and Montanna as it did between Montanna and South Carolina. Although it must be acknowledged that this is merely an observation and that it is not possible to claim that it is an aberration in the absence of genuine wind data, it nevertheless serves as a crucial link in the chain.

The US claims to have tracked the balloon since its very launch even though the precise date and time of the balloon's launch from Hainan Island have not yet been disclosed. The image shot by the U-2 on February 3rd, which was made public on February 20th, does not identify the balloon's location. Why did the US government ostensibly overlook it when it initially appeared over the Aleutian Islands and crossed into Canada, only to be shocked when it later reappeared over US territory? When spotted over the Aleutian Islands, was it judged to be overhead from the island itself or from a mainland observatory, meaning it may have been considerably further north in Alaska, seen going into Canada? Only after it was reported over Montana on February 1st did NORAD take action. Is it conceivable that the balloon was only discovered over Montana at first even though it was claimed to be known right from its launch? Of course, this is a kind of circumstantial evidence based on the distinct urgency displayed by NORAD when it was seen over Montana as compared to the sighting over Aleutian Island. Sanya Mansoor said in an article published in TIME on February 3 that the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon was first spotted over Billings, Montana, on February 1 [9]. She must have cited this either through her research or sources, it is assumed.

On the part of China, a balloon that was launched for weather observation must have been tracked and it should have been in contact with the ground segment in order to communicate the data it was sent for, especially if it was not recoverable owing to claimed absence of any steering ability. The Chinese government should have alerted other countries about this balloon if it started to fly out of control unexpectedly, especially the US. Why did it not do that? It remained silent about it until it was detected. Was China accustomed to such misadventures in the past and certain that it would pass through undetected hence didn't bother? Generally, a responsible nation would warn others, likely to be affected about any incident that went wrong accidentally. Since China did not do that, it can be safely assumed that it was an intentional manoeuver.

The New Perspective

If the US claim of tracking the balloon right from its launch is temporarily set aside for a moment -taking into consideration the balloon comportment and its sighting over Montana as the most authentic one, and also assuming that the Chinese had some control over the balloon, there is a possibility that the balloon was launched on a Polar orbit to avoid detection. Steering it Northwards up to about 65N latitude would keep it mostly in Chinese territory, going little bit into Russia which of course was of no concern at the moment. It could then travel eastward to reach Northern Canada, aided by the westerly winds not requiring much power to propel it, and chances of detection in those Polar Regions would be minimal again. It is quite likely that it was sighted on 28 Jan over Aleutian Islands located at 55N, as reported by the US, but it is also possible that it may not have been exactly over it. Probably it was estimated to be over the island but was actually at even higher latitudes in Alaska thus seen to be going to Canada that did not cause any concern to the US authorities. From Northern Canada it would have been made to travel southward through relatively short distance down to Montana, apparently the place of interest it being the missile site.This would also explain the change in direction of the balloon travel. It would have been recovered back the same way, however, an alarm was raised when it reappeared over Montana. Once its presence was announced, the Chinese probably abandoned it and it was left to drift naturally. This could also explain the relative reduction in its speed as compared to the earlier travel. Rest, as they say, is history.

It is not a conspiracy theory but a legitimate concept, even though unconventional, to fill in the blanks to get a complete picture. Details of the equipment it carried are yet not known. Perhaps it would be possible to extract its track that could prove this hypothesis right or wrong. For now, there’s wait and watch.

Lessons for India

It has become clear that there is significant amount of vertical space – between 20 and 100 KM – that lies and unexplored. It is not free space, but belongs to the nation and in India the IAF is responsible for its air defence. It needs to build an appropriate capability and operational procedures to counter any threat that may emanate from this area. At the same time, this unutilised space is available for exploitation by innovating technology and adapting creative strategies. Today, steered balloons are a reality.

Balloons have been used for observation and tourism and there have been attempts to utilise balloons to launch a satellite into the low earth orbit. A balloon at a high altitude, say 30 to 40 kilometres, would not interfere with regular air traffic, could be configured to stay within the sovereign area while managing drift, and would be very challenging to target.

A unique platform can be designed by combining innovative technologies in HABs (High Altitude Balloon), space launch ability, space communications and long range weapon systems. This platform can sustain itself in near space and dominate the skies over a vast area providing effective A2AD (Anti Access Area Denial) capability. While the technology is feasible, the challenge will be the economy of effort. The industry has the capability; it just needs to be guided in this direction. It will become a reality the day it is more cost-effective to fly this platform than the several Air Superiority Fighters that would be needed to produce a comparable effect. India must get a head start in this new area of capability.











(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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