By Ajey Lele
Finally, the US has successfully shot down a giant Chinese balloon by using a F-22 fighter. As per the US authorities, it has been spying on key military sites across the US. A Chinese balloon (expected to be a spy balloon) entered the US airspace on Jan 28, 2023 over the north of the Aleutian Islands. Subsequently, it is known to have entered the Canadian airspace over the Northwest Territories on Jan 30. Further it travelled south and re-entered the US airspace over northern Idaho on Jan 31. It kept on travelling over the US airspace and its movement was being monitored by the US agencies. It is known that the US agencies had jammed the singles reaching to this balloon and finally on Feb 04, shot it down at the place of their choosing. Presence of this balloon over US airspace has been considered as an act of attack on its sovereignty by the US government.
Unfortunately, this balloon saga happened at a very incorrect time. For the first time in the last six years, some movement was happening at the diplomatic level in regards to taking the Sino-US relations back on track. The US Secretary of State, Mr Antony Blinken was to visit China during 05/06 Feb 2023 for mutual talks. However, now he has cancelled his visit owing to the sighting of this balloon over US airspace.
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Initially, China had expressed regret about the presence of this balloon over the US skies and did claim that it was an experimental weather balloon, which had lost its track and entered the US airspace. However, now after the US has shot this balloon, China is found taking a more stubborn stand and saying that the US is trying to demonise their image and unnecessarily making an issue about this simple civilian experiment gone wrong. They are of the view that there was no need to shoot down the balloon.
Within the US also there was some criticism about the US government for not ‘killing’ the balloon earlier. However, it appears that the US agencies had a plan in place. Immediately, after the siting of the balloon it was announced that, in order to avoid any damage to the population it would wait for a suitable opportunity to shoot the balloon down. There were some ‘windows’ available, when the balloon was sighted moving over the barren land, where no one was staying. However, they waited for the balloon to drift towards the oceanic region. Obviously, they were keen to collect the wreckage intact, as far as possible, hence they ensured that the wreckage would fall on the water surface.
An F-22 jet fighter engaged this China’s high-altitude balloon with a single AIM-9X missile. An AIM (Air Intercept Missile)-9X Sidewinder is an air-to-air missile and is in the service of the US armed forces (Navy and Air force) for more than six/seven decades. Various variants of this category of missiles have been produced. The Sidewinder does not get guided by the actual position of the target. In this case, the target was the balloon, a moving target.
Now, the issue is that, ‘why China was using balloons for the purposes of spying (or weather observations) when they have a good remote-sensing satellite network available’? There could be multiple reasons for this. Most likely, China was trying to get information to fill the gaps in observations of the satellite data. This is because low earth orbit (LEO) satellites are polar orbiting satellites and hence 24 by 7 visibility of every spot on the earth is not possible.
Assuming the balloon was flying on a pre- programmed path (and has not drifted possibly owing to the wind conditions, as claimed by the Chinese) then it was travelling over some of the key US military radar installations and training centres. There is also a possibility of it trying to pick up some radiation data from the US nuclear sites.
Historically, balloons have been used for the purposes of gathering weather data, intelligence data and for communications. It is the most cost-effective option available (to a certain extent) than using satellites. There are various types of balloon platforms and they are available, both in tethered and untethered variety. Some such platforms are Blimps, Aerostats and Stratellite. Such platforms are also known as Near-Space systems, which operate in the altitude range of 20 to 200 km above the earth’s surface.
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Now, after recovering the entire debris, which has fallen near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, the US would be able to study and dissect the balloon and its equipment (sensors). It would take some time for the truth to come out (provided that the US decides to share with the rest of the world), however it appears that the (unguided) travelling of one (weather) balloon has ended up bringing in lot of bad weather in the Sino-US relationship.
The author is a Consultant, MP-IDSA, New Delhi.
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