Senators to Propose Balloon Tracking Mandate

March 15, 2023

Two Senators planned to introduce bipartisan legislation Wednesday that would mandate tracking high-altitude weather and research balloons in order to help the U.S. military differentiate between potential threats.

Sens. Mark Kelly (D-AZ) and Ted Budd (R-NC) said in a statement that their proposed legislation seeks to ensure balloons operating in U.S. airspace can be identified. 

The issue has arisen since the Pentagon shot down a Chinese spy balloon in early February over South Carolinian waters after it had crossed U.S. airspace. 

The Pentagon went on to bring down three additional flying objects before President Biden addressed the issue on February 16, saying he had directed his team “to come back to me with sharper rules for how we will deal with these identified flying objects moving forward, distinguishing between those that are likely to pose safety and security risks that necessitate action and those that do not.”

Biden has since assigned National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan to preside over a task force of various agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), to propose guidelines on how to address unidentified objects going forward.

The Senators’ proposed legislation would require the FAA to issue regulations within two years that would mandate equipping tracking systems to balloons that operate at 10,000 feet above sea level or higher. The tracking systems would have to transmit altitude, identity, and location.

The proposed mandate would also require the FAA to work with the Civil Aviation Organization to develop equivalent standards for high-altitude balloons worldwide. 

Kelly, a former astronaut and Navy pilot, said that “at a time when our adversaries are using hostile surveillance tactics, there is no reason why our country should have to wonder whether an object in our airspace is a threat, weather balloon, or science project.”

Budd, who’s also a pilot, said that the recent downing of the Chinese spy balloon “highlights the immediate need for the FAA to re-evaluate how we track objects flying over American airspace.”

The U.S. has said the Chinese balloon that spent more than a week crossing U.S. airspace was used for surveillance. The Chinese have pushed back, saying it was merely a weather tracker that blew off course. The incident is one of several driving factors behind heightened diplomatic tensions between the two world powers. 

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