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China has spy balloons, India has aerostats. But IAF’s had mixed results from 16-yr-old project

After Kargil Review Committee's recommendation, air force purchased 2 aerostats worth over Rs 300 crore for surveillance in 2007. IAF favours AWACS for vigilance operations.

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New Delhi: Sixteen years after they were first inducted, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has had mixed results from two aerostats it had deployed along the western borders with Pakistan. As a result, replacing these is now much further down in the list of priorities, ThePrint has learnt.

An aerostat is a helium-filled balloon tethered to the ground but operating at an altitude of about 15,000 feet, in contrast to the Chinese spy balloons, which fly at over 60,000 feet.

While China is in the news over its spy balloon — which the US says was also deployed against India — sources said weather conditions don’t allow New Delhi to operate such balloons, which are more of a “nuisance” than their utility to pick up actual key intelligence inputs.

However, The Washington Post reported that the Chinese spy balloon that crashed off the Hawaiian islands last June yielded helpful information, including about the nature of the technology Beijing is using, besides giving insight into how it actually flies.

Some of the balloons are fitted with electro-optical sensors or digital cameras that, depending on their resolution, can capture highly precise images, the report said, citing officials. They are also equipped with radio signal and satellite transmission capability.

In 2019, ThePrint had reported that China deployed balloon-borne radars across the Indian frontier in Tibet, similar to India’s aerostats.

Also Read: What does IAF’s new doctrine contain & why air force put it out — everything you need to know

India’s aerostat project 

Following the recommendation of the Kargil Review Committee, the IAF had purchased two aerostats — also known as the Tethered Aerostat Radar System or TARS — for surveillance at a cost of over Rs 300 crore in 2007.

Sources in the defence and security establishment said that while the balloon itself was American, there was a lot of Israeli equipment on board.

Aerostats are fitted with long-range radars, signal intelligence systems and meteorological instruments, among others. While military radars do have the ability to operate at long distances, being high in the air allows them to beat the limitations of the Earth’s curvature and other surface blocks.

The aerostat has the ability to pick up all take-offs and landings or large-scale military movements within a range of 100-600 km, depending on the kind of equipment on board and weather conditions.

“The aerostat operations are limited by weather conditions. For example, if the weather is bad, it has to be brought down. If there is cloud or smog, the radars don’t work effectively. The response of the aerostats has been mixed,” a source said.

Sources explained that the IAF wanted to purchase more aerostats but eventually gave up the idea, and that the issue has moved much further down in its list of priorities.

“When the IAF had got it first, it was an excellent system for surveillance” the source said.

The IAF feels that the answer to continuous surveillance is more airborne early warning and control aircraft (AWACS).

“AWACS is not weather dependent and can be deployed any time. It is able to move rather than remain stationary in one location,” a second source said.

Sources said the IAF has been upgrading the equipment on board the aerostat from time to time and is looking at indigenous systems.

Wind factors going against India

The wind conditions are not favourable for India to deploy spy balloons, one of the sources said, explaining that the wind in this region is from west to the east, i.e. from Pakistan towards India. This means that while Pakistan can deploy such a balloon, it is not feasible for India.

Similarly, China also cannot deploy spy balloons targeting India unless they are operated from Pakistan.

However, despite the Chinese claims that it was the wind that took their balloon over American territory, Forbes reports that atmospheric modeling and smart algorithms allow a balloon to change altitude to catch wind in any desired direction, and even to circle around a given point on the ground.

The U.S. military has been carrying out trials of similar balloons for years. Not only did algorithms allow a balloon to stay within in a 30 mile circle by 2018, there has been a steady improvement as well.

US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby has said that the Chinese balloon was not merely drifting 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. Thus, there’s a lot of technology that goes into these balloons, which rely on much more than just wind for navigation.

(Edited by Tony Rai)

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