New Delhi: In a new flashpoint between the US and China, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called off his upcoming visit to Beijing, a move that came after the US Air Force nearly shot down a Chinese spy balloon hovering over western parts of the country.
China earlier claimed it was an airship that strayed into the US by mistake and that it “regretted” the incident.
While several reports say fighters scrambled to take down the balloon, TheDrive, an online military magazine, suggests that the US Air Force moved F-22 Raptor stealth fighters into position to take down the object.
However, military advisers cautioned against taking down the balloon, due to debris that could fall on the ground and damage civilian structures, and perhaps even hurt individuals.
“We do not doubt that this is a PRC (People’s Republic of China) balloon. And that is an assessment shared across our intelligence and analytic community,” Pentagon press-secretary Brig. General Patrick Ryder said at a press conference.
Brig. General Ryder added that such events took place in the past, alluding to previous Chinese reconnaissance activities through spy balloons.
Further, not limited to the US, reports suggested that China has adopted the same technique to spy on India from Tibet. Specifically, satellite imagery showed that in 2019 China deployed ballon-borne radars in Nyingchi and NamTso to spy on India.
This isn’t the first time that a spy balloon was operated for reconnaissance. From the time of the American Civil War in the 19th century to the Cold War, this technique has been used for various clandestine information-gathering operations.
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What is a spy balloon?
While the specific dimensions of the balloon remain unclear, US defense officials clarified, “our best assessment at the moment is that whatever the surveillance payload is on this balloon, it does not create significant value added over and above what the PRC is likely able to collect through things like satellites in Low Earth Orbit.”
Specifically, spy balloons involve an information-capturing apparatus like a camera attached to their lower end. These can fly over vast areas to shoot imagery of different locations. The attached apparatus may also include radars and could be solar-operated.
Balloons, including the one over the US, usually fly between 80,000-120,000 ft above sea level. This ceiling is above the cruising altitude of around 42,000 ft for commercial flights.
While satellites provide the capacity to gather intelligence and information from space, reports suggest that technologies like spy balloons are making a comeback as cheaper, smaller, and more efficient alternatives.
Further, the use of kinetic and laser weapons to target satellites has also promoted the readoption of these spy balloons.
When have spy balloons been used?
During the American Civil War, those from the Union army would use binoculars whilst perched on hot air balloons to monitor the activities of the Confederates.
As the Cold War progressed through the 1950s, the US Air Force launched a mass surveillance programme over the Soviet Union, China, and eastern Europe. Referred to as Project Genetrix or WS-119L, the operation involved using balloons manufactured by General Mills to collect intelligence and take photographs.
While 516 of them were reportedly launched, only 31 provided usable intelligence in the form of photographs.
“The plans for Genetrix called for free flight of balloons from west to east across the Soviet land mass from launching sites in either England, northern Europe, or the eastern Mediterranean,” adds the US state department.
Significantly, US defence officials declared at the presser that such reconnaissance balloons were spotted in the recent past in the US as recently as February last year.
In February 2022, the US scrambled F-22s to investigate a mysterious high-altitude balloon off the coast of Hawaii.
“In regards to aerial activity over Kauai on 2-14:U.S. Indo-Pacific Command detected a high-altitude object floating in air in the vicinity of the Hawaiian Islands. In accordance with homeland defense procedures, Pacific Air Forces launched tactical aircraft to intercept and identify the object, visually confirming an unmanned balloon without observable identification markings,” the Adjutant General for Hawaii had tweeted.
Recently, the US Department of Defense’s report to Congress highlighted that there had been 366 newly categorized unidentified aerial phenomena in US airspace in 2022.
(Edited by Tony Rai)
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