Exploding Chinese balloon/Joe Biden. Screenshot from YouTube/Facebook

US President Biden orders ‘spy’ balloon to be shot down

The US President gave the order to shoot down China's "spy balloon". The balloon had caused US Secretary of State Blinken to cancel a trip to Beijing. In the meantime, a second balloon was sighted.

Published: February 5, 2023, 8:44 am

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    The US shot down the balloon which the Chinese had described as a weather balloon that had veered off course. The object floating in the stratosphere was a high-altitude balloon that can be operated in this region of the atmosphere (15 to 45 km in altitude), which is too low for satellites and too high for aircraft.

    President Joe Biden approved the shooting down by the military off the US coast on Saturday, officials said. Shooting down the Chinese balloon only after it had traversed the entire US, makes it hard to believe that it had been a security threat.

    Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the Air Force stopped the balloon off the South Carolina coast. According to the US, China used the balloon to attempt surveillance of strategic facilities on the US mainland, but Beijing denied the allegations.

    According to official sources, Biden had already decided on Wednesday that the balloon should be destroyed as soon as it could be done without endangering the lives of US citizens. TV images and eyewitness videos showed a white balloon going up in smoke. The object sighted over the United States had put a damper on efforts to improve relations between the two great nuclear powers.

    China alludes to a research balloon

    China expressed its strong dissatisfaction and protested against the use of force to shoot down China’s civilian airship. “China clearly requires the US to properly handle the incident in a calm, professional and restrained manner,” the foreign minister said in a statement.

    A trip to China by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been postponed, according to the US President’s Office. The Foreign Ministry in Beijing had said it was a civilian balloon launched for research purposes. China said it regretted that the balloon had drifted into US airspace. Blinken had called the “surveillance balloon” entering US airspace “unacceptable” and “irresponsible”. China firmly rejected the allegations on Saturday, speaking of a research balloon that went off course due to “force majeure”.

    For a brief moment, the exploded balloon looked like a cloud in the sky.

    “We do not accept groundless speculation and propaganda,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry quoted top foreign policy leader Wang Yi as saying to Blinken from the telephone conversation the two leaders had. The US Secretary of State has canceled his visit to Beijing, which was expected for Sunday. It would have been the first visit by a US Secretary of State to China since 2018. According to media reports, Blinken would have been received by China’s head of state and party leader Xi Jinping.

    A second balloon?

    Although the expectations of the visit were not high, there were hopes that it would calm the turbulent and difficult relations. Blinken underscored that the United States wanted to keep the lines of communication with Beijing open and that the visit would be rescheduled soon “if conditions allow”. The world expected the US and China to handle their relations responsibly, Blinken said in Washington.

    According to a document, the FAA had closed an area of ​​about 100 square miles over the Atlantic Ocean and the South Carolina coast to civilian flights. Meanwhile, according to US information, another possible espionage balloon is hovering over Latin America. “We are seeing reports of a balloon flying over Latin America. We are in the process of finding out if this is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder said in Washington. There has been no information about the second balloon from Beijing.

    It is unclear exactly where the balloon is, a US official told CNN, but “it does not appear to be currently heading to the United States”.

    Pentagon: ‘It’s a Surveillance Balloon’

    A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said the balloon over the US was used “for meteorological and other scientific research”. It is a civilian aerostat used for meteorological research purposes which deviated from its planned course after being affected by westerly wind and due to its limited self-steering capability, as per Chinese authorities.

    “Due to the westerly wind drift and limited control options, the airship has deviated far from the planned route,” Beijing said. The spokesman added: “Some politicians and media in the US have taken advantage of the situation to attack and discredit China.”

    The Pentagon dismissed Beijing’s explanation. “We know it’s a surveillance balloon,” Ryder said. The Ministry of Defense announced the sighting of the first balloon on Thursday evening. The balloon was sighted over the US state of Montana, Central America and also Missouri – and expected to hover above US airspace for a few more days. The Pentagon spokesman contradicted the Chinese version, saying that the flying object was very manoeuvrable.

    Balloons particularly difficult for radar to detect

    Such balloons are considered important observation platforms. Unlike satellites, they can stay in one place and don’t have to make a new orbit around the earth to take more pictures, experts said. One could observe from a closer distance, while difficult to detect for radar. They could also intercept communications. The navigation options are significantly improved today, so that they no longer depend solely on the wind.

    The fact that the balloon flew near the US Air Force base in Montana, where Minuteman III ICBMs with nuclear warheads are stored, caused a stir in the US. However, it was unclear why China would undertake such a provocation just before Blinken’s eagerly awaited visit to Beijing. Both sides had expressed their strong interest in the visit and noticeably reduced the rhetoric.

    Where does US airspace end?

    There is no international agreement on the vertical extent of sovereign airspace, with suggestions ranging from about 30 km – the extent of the highest aircraft and balloons – to about 160 km, approximately the lowest extent of short-term stable orbits. (The satellite Lixing-1 had a stable orbit with an apogee of 140 km for three days).

    The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale has established the Kármán line at an altitude of 100 km, as the boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space, while the United States considers anyone who has flown above 80 kilometres to be an “astronaut”.

    Descending Space Shuttles flew closer than 80 km over other nations, such as Canada, without requesting permission first. Nonetheless, both the Kármán line and the US definition are merely working definitions, without any real legal authority over matters of national sovereignty.

    Platforms, such as blimps, balloons and high-altitude long endurance (HALE) fixed-wing platforms can perform the same function as drones or satellites in a more technically and commercially viable manner.

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