The US military shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the East Coast in the United States (US) floating at an altitude of about 60,000 feet. Though the balloon did not pose any military or physical threat, its intrusion into American airspace over several days is being viewed as an unacceptable violation of U.S. sovereignty.
According to U.S. Department of Defence officials, the balloon and its payload U.S. was first detected on January 28 when it entered U.S. airspace near the Aleutian Islands. The balloon traversed Alaska, Canada and re-entered U.S. airspace over Idaho.
After taking stock of the situation President Biden authorized the US military to take down the Chinese surveillance balloon as soon as possible without undue risk to us civilians under the balloon’s path.
Armed with orders from the top, the US military commanders, took all necessary steps to protect against the PRC surveillance balloon’s collection of sensitive information and mobilized an F-22 Raptor fighter from the Langley Air Force Base, Virginia to fire one AIM-9X Sidewinder missile at the balloon. Another main consideration for them was to keep an eye on the movement of the balloon to ensure that there was an undue risk of debris causing harm to civilians.
The balloon finally fell approximately six miles off the coast in about 47 feet of water and no one was hurt.
The engagement was carried out by the F-22 Raptor which fired the Sidewinder from an altitude of 58,000 feet at the balloon which was at that time between 60-65 thousand feet.
F-15 Eagles flying from Barnes Air National Guard Base, Massachusetts as well as tankers from Oregon, Montana, South Carolina, and North Carolina, supported the F-22. The Canadian forces too chipped in and helped track the overflight of the balloon.
The US Navy has deployed USS Oscar Austin (destroyer), USS Philippine Sea (a cruiser), and USS Carter Hall (an amphibious landing ship) in support of the effort.
According to U.S. Department of Defence officials, this is not an isolated incident and at least three times during the prior administration similar Chinese balloons had transited the continental United States.
This has raised a diplomatic standoff between the US and China. The Pentagon termed the intrusion in its territory as “unacceptable and irresponsible”.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken called off his scheduled visit to Beijing in protest during which he was going to discuss a wide range of issues, including security, Taiwan, and Covid-19.
Mao Ning, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman however rejected the US claim. She said: “It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes.”
China’s Foreign Ministry in retaliation accused the US of “overreacting” and “seriously violating international practice.”
“The Chinese side has repeatedly informed the US side after verification that the airship is for civilian use and entered the US due to force majeure – it was completely an accident,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s statement said.
Interestingly, China has already expressed regret and has given an explanation that it was their weather airship, which has gone awry into American airspace. It is not known what were China’s pressing requirements (!) to pick up weather data in that part of the world by using balloons when they have other means to do so. Also, a second Chinese balloon has been spotted over Latin America.
Two important locations, where this balloon was sighted in the continental US are Montana and Missouri. The distance from Beijing to Montana is 9,305 km, while from Beijing to Missouri is 10,884 km. There are various US military installations around, both in Montana and Missouri. Montana has mainly some radar installations and few Air force bases, while Missouri has a US Army training base and a bomber wing of the US Air force.
The Chinese balloon was found traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic. The US assessment indicates that there is no danger to life or property from this balloon, which means this is not a ‘weaponized’ balloon.
Exploring the atmosphere with weather balloons is an age-old practice. Even today weather balloons are launched daily by various weather observatories and such balloons carry weather sensors like radiosondes and dropsondes. Observations like windspeed and direction and temperatures at different altitudes are gathered. In the case of cyclonic storms/hurricanes, dropsondes head into the center of storms and collect useful information, which gets used for forecasting the strength and the movement of the direction of the storm. Many weather balloons are tethered (tied) balloons.
Obviously, there is no logic for China to use untethered (unstrapped) balloons and fly them over the continental US over the stratospheric region (between approximately 12 and 50 km above the earth’s surface). Normally, commercial airliners fly at an altitude between 10 to 12 km above the earth’s surface and military aviation may happen at a bit higher altitudes (based on the requirement).
Normally, high-altitude balloons could drift depending on the wind direction and speed at that altitude. However, under normal circumstances, the drift can be around 200 to 250 km and not the thousands of km as is the case with the Chinese balloon. It is important to note that the size of the balloon expands as it climbs higher altitudes since the higher you go, and there is decrease in air pressure.
This case appears to be a Chinese plan gone astray. There is also a possibility of China testing the US level of preparedness. All in all, this case brings to the fore the less-discussed issue of near-space technologies. Near-space technology started gaining prominence in military thinking at the beginning of the 21st century. It is said that the US was experimenting with such platforms possibly during the 2003 Iraq war.
This is a new frontier of technology being discussed and researched for the last few years, which is cost-effective and could provide most of the benefits, the satellites offer. Near Space, technology is gaining prominence in the security thinking of a few states particularly with the US after the 2003 Iraq war. Like satellites, this technology also has its utility in the civilian field. The term ‘Near Space’ gets identified as a region between 20 and 200/300 km altitude.
Normally, above 20 km no aircraft fly and Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites are above 300/400 km altitude. Hence, this could be safely used for putting balloons and aerostats. An aerostat is a high-altitude balloon free-flying or tethered. In this region blimps also fly. They rely on the pressure of the lifting gas inside the envelope and the strength of the envelope itself to maintain their shape. Then there are ideas like Stratellite, which can be used as a stationary communications platform. Already in some parts of the world for some time now, near-space systems are in use for various purposes like weather information, communication nodes, and intelligence gathering.
Near Space, assets can provide almost similar services as those provided by a small satellite in LEO. Placing a platform in Near Space is technologically not much challenging and is also much less expensive than launching a satellite into orbit. Such vehicles could cost 25 to 30 times lesser than launching a satellite in LEO. More importantly, such platforms are known to offer almost a similar coverage as that of an LEO satellite and if not, two such platforms could be placed and still the investment would be much lesser. Particularly, from the military point of view such platforms could be launched on demand and even a loss of an asset would not be a major issue.
India needs to undertake a critical analysis of China’s investments in near-space systems. In 2016, there was a story that Chinese company KuangChi would be investing around US$ 1.6 billion for offering an experience of (a balloon) flying up to 24 km above the ground. The idea was to take a human on a balloon ride to the stratosphere (commercial activity). There are some atmospheric challenges in regard to putting balloons at high altitudes over sub-tropical regions. The Subtropical Jet Stream (SJI) in the northern hemisphere, flows between 25° to 35° N in the upper troposphere at a height of about 12-14 km with a windspeed of around 450 km per hour (more than 240 knots). Technology developers are aware of such limitations.
Possibly, in the post-Covid-19 era, China is trying to recalibrate its military expenditures and looking for alternative (and cost-effective) options for intelligence gathering and hence could be revisiting, the age-old balloon technology for intelligence gathering. There is also a possibility that China is looking at this technology as an add-on to its existing intelligence-gathering mechanisms and communications practices. They know that Taiwan’s ‘contest’ is becoming more and more complicated day by day.