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Questions remain about the origin of 3 floating objects shot down by U.S. jets

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When the U.S. shot down a Chinese balloon that floated over American territory, part of China's response was whataboutism. China says the United States sends spy balloons, too, a claim that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken denies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: We do not send spy balloons over China. Period.

INSKEEP: For its part, China denies its balloon was designed for espionage, and it claims to have no knowledge of those other objects the U.S. has shot down in recent days. So where do they all come from? Dr. Timothy Heath, a senior researcher on defense and international issues for the RAND Corporation, spoke with A Martínez.

A MARTÍNEZ, BYLINE: So, Tim, just to be clear, as far as we know, these most recent balloons could have come from anywhere. If a balloon, though, is coming west of the continental 48, is it fair to say that it comes from China or Russia?

TIMOTHY HEATH: If it is a balloon and it does have a payload, China or Russia are the most likely candidates. However, we cannot rule out the possibility that these devices could have been launched by private actors, perhaps weather monitoring organizations or others. It's worth bearing in mind that balloons are difficult to control and navigate. At the end of the day, they are at the mercy of winds. And there is very limited capability to steer these devices once they go up into the atmosphere.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, you mentioned weather monitoring. What are some other nonmilitary uses of these things?

HEATH: Well, balloons have been used for law enforcement, surveillance purposes. The U.S. government has used balloons to monitor the border, the southern border with Mexico. In the past, U.S. government has deployed balloons to support law enforcement operations, to track drug traffickers in our country. And the U.S. military has invested in research about using balloons to conduct surveillance, intelligence collection and potentially to move small amounts of cargo across vast distances. The U.S. military also deployed balloons to support targeting and reconnaissance in its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

MARTÍNEZ: When it comes to cargo, what kinds of things could they use them to transport?

HEATH: You can move small amounts of military equipment across vast distances. This is an idea that is being explored but currently has not been operationalized by the U.S. military.

MARTÍNEZ: And when it comes to China's balloon program, what are they typically using them for?

HEATH: China has used balloons for domestic surveillance. They've used them to monitor their borders. And they have apparently deployed large numbers of balloons to carry out intelligence collections and surveillance in countries around the world.

MARTÍNEZ: Why would they use balloons instead of, say, satellites?

HEATH: First off, they're cheap and can be quickly deployed. Second, they are often difficult to detect because they have little metal in them. So you really have to have radars tuned to detect them in order to see them. Another reason that balloons can be favored over satellites is they are unpredictable. They follow weather patterns and have limited steering. And in addition to their low observable status, they can be harder to detect and anticipate compared to satellites, which follow a very predictable orbital path. Another advantage of balloons over satellites is that balloons can dwell over a period of time over a certain location and actually get closer to what you want to observe compared to a satellite.

MARTÍNEZ: Why wouldn't someone know that their device was captured or destroyed? Is that something that typically would not be surprising that no one would say, hey, that's mine?

HEATH: Yes, if it was a private actor, these objects clearly have some monetary value and probably represented at least some degree of investment. So a private actor would have a good incentive to try to claim ownership and try to recover the object and whatever information it may have collected.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Dr. Timothy Heath of RAND. Tim, thanks a lot.

HEATH: OK. No problem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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