Senator says U.S. should consider mandating transponders on high-altitude balloons

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Senator Mark Kelly says Congress should consider mandating transponders on high-altitude weather and research balloons to help the U.S. military differentiate between potential threats.

The issue has drawn new attention in recent days after U.S. fighter jets shot down a Chinese balloon and three other objects.

“If we require transponders on them we would make the military’s life a lot easier – we don’t want to be firing AIM-9X (missiles) at a NASA weather balloon,” Kelly, an Arizona Democrat, said in a Reuters interview on Wednesday.

“Since these things have now proliferated and now we know they are a problem, especially from the standpoint of China using them for surveillance, we need to get a better picture so the military can sort out what is what.”

Kelly, who previously served as a U.S. Navy pilot and NASA astronaut, said he is considering proposing legislation to mandate transponders that would allow air traffic controllers and the military identify balloons that are not a threat.

The United States has said the Chinese balloon was used for surveillance purposes while Beijing called it a weather balloon.

Since an American fighter jet shot down the 200-foot Chinese balloon on Feb. 4, three other objects have been downed. Kelly said there is still no clear understanding of what the other objects were.

The National Weather Service launches balloons at about 90 locations daily carrying an instrument tracked by specialized ground equipment.

White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said on Tuesday the U.S. intelligence community is considering the possibility that the objects were tied to a commercial or otherwise benign purpose.

Biden tasked national security adviser Jake Sullivan with presiding over a task force of various related agencies to come up with a set of guidelines on how to address unidentified objects going forward.

Acting Federal Aviation Administration chief Billy Nolen said at a Senate hearing on Wednesday the task force is working. “The FAA is part of that team,” Nolen said. “That team has already met and continues to meet.”

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Robert Birsel)