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The Chinese 'Spy Balloon' Over USA

What Are The Concerns, And How Has The USA Responded?

By Abhi KumarPublished 2 months ago 4 min read
The Chinese 'Spy Balloon' Over USA
Photo by Florian Klauer on Unsplash

The Chinese spy balloon over the United States has raised US-China tensions. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said it's 'unacceptable as well as irresponsible'. He postponed a planned visit to China in response to the balloon's incursion.

Two days after a Chinese spy balloon was tracked flying over the United States, the US military on Friday found another Chinese balloon over Latin America.

The sightings of the two Chinese spy balloons, one of whom is in US skies at the moment, has raised US-China tensions. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has postponed a visit to China that was supposed to start on Friday night.

China has claimed that the balloon in the US skies is a weather balloon that has deviated from its path, but US officials have rejected the explanation and have said it's a spy balloon.

Here we explain what are these spy balloons, what are their purposes, how the episode has escalated US-China tensions, and what's happened over them so far.

The Chinese spy balloon was spotted over the US state of Montana on Wednesday. Montana hosts a US nuclear missile base.

The balloon is the size of three buses and appears like a white orb when seen from Earth. It's flying in the West-to-East direction.

The BBC reported, "The object flew over Alaska's Aleutian Islands and through Canada before appearing over the city of Billings in Montana on Wednesday, according to officials."

Though the Chinese government has apologised over the incident and has said it's a weather-research balloon that has gone astray as it has limited steering capacity, the US Department of Defence (DoD) has said it's a spy balloon that can very well change its course.

The DoD has said the balloon is carrying sensors and surveillance equipment. It has added it's maneuverable and has shown it can change course. It has loitered over sensitive areas of Montana where nuclear warheads are stored, prompting the military to take actions to prevent it from collecting intelligence.

The Chinese spy balloon is moving east over America at an altitude of about 60,000 feet (18,600 meters). The US government has said it was being used for surveillance and intelligence collection, but officials have provided few details.

President Joe Biden was briefed about the balloon on Friday and was advised to not shoot it down. Biden also ordered to not shoot down the balloon as the falling debris could affect civilian and military settlements on ground and cause casualties and damange to private and public property.

The Biden administration has maintained there is no current civilian or military threat from the balloon. Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said on Thursday evening that the balloon was not a military or physical threat - an acknowledgement that it was not carrying weapons. He also said that "once the balloon was detected, the US government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information".

A second spy balloon has been spotted over Latin America but the US government has not provided its exact location.

“We are seeing reports of a balloon transiting Latin America. We now assess it as another Chinese surveillance balloon. We have no further information to provide at this time,” Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said on Friday.

Spy balloon to test US air defence, find weak spots: Expert
Even if it's not armed, the balloon poses a risk to the United States, says retired Army General John Ferrari, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Ferrari said the flight itself can be used to test America's ability to detect incoming threats and to find holes in the country's air defense warning system. It may also allow the Chinese to sense electromagnetic emissions that higher-altitude satellites can't detect, such as low-power radio frequencies that could help them understand how different US weapons systems communicate.

Ferrari also said the Chinese may have sent the balloon "to show us that they can do it, and maybe next time it could have a weapon. So now we have to spend money and time on it" developing defenses.

Despite modern equipment like drones, spy balloons do have some relevance, notes Financial Times. This helps explain why China might have deployed these balloongs.

The FT notes, "The Pentagon said the balloon did not provide China with capabilities that went beyond its spy satellites, but military and intelligence analysts said that the slow speed and high altitude of balloons — they usually operate at around 80,000ft, far higher than commercial airliners — does allow them to record over a larger area than satellites in orbit and pick up more detail.

"They are also harder to spot than metal drones or aircraft using traditional anti-surveillance equipment such as radar, while they can remain in the air for weeks, providing a lengthy assessment of activity on the ground."

Fox News host Jesse Watters also said that the violation of US airspace could work as a test-run for a future offensive. He also compared it with a historic Japanese air raid in the United States.

He said, "America's spy balloons can carry suicide drones and deploy them to take out targets on the ground like a floating hive with killer bees. So, how do we know what the Chinese have in their balloon? During World War II, the Japanese used balloons to drop bombs on us. They killed six Americans in Oregon, the only deaths in the continental United States during the war. This could be a test run for the Chinese."

Watters also expressed the possibility of the balloon having the potential of being used as a bio-weapon.


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