The Pentagon released this Thursday (2) the detection of a Chinese spy balloon, first sighted in the Aleutian Islands, in Alaska, before passing through Canada and re-entering American airspace.
On Wednesday, the object flew over Billings, Montana, where a military base with intercontinental ballistic missile silos is located. Washington decided not to shoot down the balloon, arguing that the item has limited intelligence-gathering capabilities and its debris could fall over civilian areas.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that the instrument is of civilian origin, is used mainly for meteorological research and has deviated from its course due to wind currents.
What exactly is the balloon and how is it operated?
A high-altitude spy balloon uses wind currents to move around and can contain radars and cameras for monitoring from 24 km to 37 km in altitude. A commercial plane reaches a maximum altitude of 12 km. The size of the balloon used by the Chinese is still unknown. The object’s altitude is remotely controlled to take advantage of air currents. It can run on solar energy.
Why a spy balloon instead of satellite imagery?
Spy balloons are a cheap alternative to satellites, which cost tens of millions of dollars to launch. Furthermore, recent improvements in lasers can temporarily blind satellites, preventing photographs and eventually damaging objects.
Another alternative to blocking artificial satellites, albeit dangerous, is their destruction. In 2021, for example, Russia launched a missile, starting from Earth, which destroyed one of its own space machinery in a show of force – a move that had already been made by China, in 2007, and by India, in 2019, in addition to from the USA. Other satellites laden with explosives can also attack. Violent actions, however, can cause accidents with other civil space instruments.
What is the US doing about it?
Initially, US Air Force F-22 jets were deployed to follow the object, which was not shot down due to the risk that its debris could fall on civilian areas, according to a defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Biden government says it immediately sought out Beijing for clarification, but China did not publicly manifest itself at first. Later, the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement that the object had civilian origins, was mainly used for meteorological research and had deviated from its course due to wind currents.
John Culver, a former CIA officer, the US intelligence agency, published on his Twitter profile that any alternative to shooting down the balloon would cost millions of dollars due to the altitude, which makes it difficult for missiles to reach and be accurate, even if launched from combat aircraft.
Has this ever happened before in US airspace?
US defense officials claim that this is not the first time spy balloons have been sighted in the country, but that this time the object’s permanence time is longer than on other occasions. Another official, also on condition of anonymity, told the New York Times that the balloon posed no military risks or threat of physical harm, and it collected limited information.
What is the context in which the current incident takes place?
The Chinese spy balloon in American airspace is yet another chapter in the recent rise in tensions between China and the United States, which have been exchanging barbs and making diplomatic and military moves.
This Wednesday (2), Washington extended an agreement with the Philippines to increase its presence in military bases in the Asian country. The alliance allows greater monitoring and response capacity to possible Chinese incursions in Taiwan, an island in the northern Philippines that Beijing considers a rebel province.
Earlier, a document had been strategically leaked with the prediction of a war between the two powers, made by General Mike Minihan, head of the US Air Mobility Command and seconded by Republican Representative Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The balloon incident also comes just before US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the head of US diplomacy, is due to visit Beijing where he is due to meet Xi Jinping. It is the first time in nearly six years that a US secretary of state has met with the Chinese leader.
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