The story so far: Last week, the United States shot down a Chinese ‘spy’ balloon, days after the surveillance device was first spotted over American airspace, bringing the dramatic saga that played on televisions and social media to an explosive climax and dealing yet another blow to already strained diplomatic relations between the two sides.
The balloon controversy: what happened?
Reports of a massive white orb, believed to be the size of three school buses, tracked floating high above the U.S. State of Montana captured global attention earlier this month as theories emerged about its origin and people attempted to track the craft’s real-time position.
Ending speculations, American defence and military officials confirmed that the reconnaissance balloon had travelled from China, entered the air defence zone north of the Aleutian Islands on January 28, subsequently moved over land across Alaska and into Canadian airspace and crossed back into the U.S. over Idaho.
President Joe Biden was briefed on the matter and the military considered shooting down the balloon which Pentagon believed was a Chinese surveillance tool carrying sensors and equipment to collect information about military and other strategic sites like Montana, which is home to one of the nation’s three nuclear missile silo fields. Officials discovered that the balloon was manoeuvrable and could change course. “We saw it do that. It loitered over certain sites. It went left, right. We saw it manoeuvre inside the jet stream. That’s how it was operating,” an official said. They added that the balloon had propellers and rudders.
Though Pentagon acknowledged that the balloon was unarmed, it decided against aerial action at the time due to risks for those on the ground owing to its massive size and altitude. As a precautionary measure, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration paused aerial activity at three airports.
As the news of the ‘spy’ balloon traversing American skies caused a sensation, the Chinese Foreign Ministry acknowledged that the balloon was from China after initial reluctance, but rejected claims of spying. It insisted that the balloon was an errant civilian airship used mainly for meteorological research that went off course due to winds. “The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure. The Chinese side will continue communicating with the US side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure,” the statement said. Beijing also expressed “regret” over the incident while it insisted that it respects the sovereignty of other countries.
After it spent days traversing the country, President Biden approved the plan to bring down the balloon on February 1. However, the mission was delayed as the military waited until the balloon was over water off the coast of South Carolina to ensure no one was harmed on the ground.
The dramatic downing: How was the balloon shot down?
Long before the shoot down, U.S. officials took steps to protect against the balloon’s collection of sensitive information, mitigating its intelligence value to the Chinese. Ahead of the mission, NASA assessed the debris field based on the trajectory of the balloon, weather and estimated payload of sensors. Multiple fighters and refuelling aircraft, including F-15s and tanker aircraft, were part of the mission. But it was an F-22 Raptor fighter jet that took off from an air force base in Virginia that took down the balloon by firing a short-range AIM-9X Sidewinder missile.
The F-22 fired the Sidewinder at the balloon from an altitude of 58,000. The missile punctured the balloon as it hovered between 60,000 and 65,000 feet (18-20 km). As per reports, debris was strewn across 11 km, with most landing in shallow water.
A video capturing the downing of the balloon showed a small explosion after which parts of the deflated balloon dropped into the ocean. After the mission was complete, the U.S. informed China of its action.
The downing of the balloon by a missile drew a strong reaction from China which insisted that the flyover was an accident and criticised America for an “obvious overreaction”. The decision to shoot down the balloon has “seriously impacted and damaged” relations between the two countries, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said.
What are spy balloons?
Spy balloons are high-altitude surveillance tools that usually operate at 80,000-120,000 feet — well above the cruising altitude of commercial aircraft — to gather intelligence and carry out other military missions. Typically, a spy balloon is equipped with cameras and imaging devices suspended beneath the gas-filled white object to capture things of interest. Unlike satellites, balloons are economically viable.
Due to their proximity to Earth’s surface, they can widely scan an area from close quarters and capture clearer, high-resolution images of the target. The disadvantage is that these are not directly steered, but can be roughly guided by changing altitudes to catch different wind currents, as per a study by the Air Force’s Airpower Research Institute. They are also a relatively easy target.
Have surveillance balloons been used before?
Spy balloons aren’t modern military devices. The use of such balloons dates back to the 18th century during the Battle of Fleurus, but they came into greater use during World War 2. At the time, the Japanese launched thousands of hydrogen balloons carrying bombs. One of the balloons crashed in Oregon and exploded, killing six civilians.
After the war, the U.S. military used high-altitude balloons to spy on the Soviet Union. The project was known as Project Genetrix, as part of which the U.S. military sent hundreds of camera-equipped balloons across the Soviet bloc, as per official records.
Another U.S. project, which was christened Project Mogul, saw the use of giant trains of balloons and sensors that were strung together to detect Soviet missile launches. The use of such balloons, however, faded after the emergence of satellite technology, but not entirely in China.
Taiwan has accused Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) of spying using balloons in the past. A similar sighting was reported over Andaman and Nicobar Islands in January last year. There has, however, been no official confirmation or evidence that establishes its link with China.
Why is China interested in high-altitude balloons?
China first employed balloons for surveillance with the use of Chinese lanterns. The lanterns were used for transmitting messages, spying and alerting allies. Since then, China has been working on developing advanced balloon technology.
In a recent paper published by one of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) institutes, researchers underlined that one of the useful military applications of balloons was to test enemy air defences. “[The balloon can] induce and mobilise the enemy’s air defence system, providing the conditions for the implementation of electronic reconnaissance, assessment of air defence systems’ early warning detection and operational response capabilities,” researchers wrote.
Reuters analyzed government tenders which as per the news agency show that Chinese military units and state-run research institutes have bought high-altitude balloons and related technology in the past two years.
The Aerospace Information Research Institute has been frequently publishing articles about high-altitude balloons on an official WeChat account.
One of the papers also addresses the reason why the superpower is resorting to the use of simple balloon technology when it can employ more discrete and sophisticated ways to gather intelligence on its rival including its network of spy satellites. China should further deploy balloons due to the low cost of using them, the paper says.
- Last week, the United States shot down a Chinese ‘spy’ balloon, days after the surveillance device was first spotted over American airspace, bringing the dramatic saga that played on televisions and social media to an explosive climax and dealing yet another blow to already strained diplomatic relations between the two sides.
- President Joe Biden was briefed on the matter and the military considered shooting down the balloon which Pentagon believed was a Chinese surveillance tool carrying sensors and equipment to collect information about military and other strategic sites like Montana, which is home to one of the nation’s three nuclear missile silo fields.
- China first employed balloons for surveillance with the use of Chinese lanterns. The lanterns were used for transmitting messages, spying and alerting allies.