Home / News / World /  Why can't US shoot down China's Spy Balloon? Know all about the mystery object

The US Defense Department on Thursday said that it is monitoring a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon floating over the western state of Montana, underscoring mutual suspicion between the world’s two largest economies just as top diplomats prepare to hold talks in Beijing.

Later on Friday, the Pentagon issued a statement saying that the Chinese surveillance balloon will probably be over the US for a few days.

On Saturday, the US alleged that another Chinese spy balloon was spotted flying over Latin America on Saturday. United States' press secretary Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said, “We are seeing reports of a balloon transiting Latin America. We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon." 

Replying on this, Beijing on Friday said that it regretted an "unintended" breach of US airspace by what it described as an unmanned civilian airship, after the Pentagon said it was tracking a Chinese spy balloon. 

A spokesperson for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, "The airship is from China." "It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes." "The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure," the statement said.

This presence of the Chinese orb sweeping across the US prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a weekend trip to China that was aimed at dialing down tensions that were already high between the countries.

On Saturday, Beijing said that the US media and politicians had taken advantage of US allegations that China flew an espionage balloon over US territory. "Some politicians and media in the United States used the incident as a pretext to attack and smear China," the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

What is this China Spy Balloon?

The Pentagon and other U.S. officials say it's a Chinese spy balloon - about the size of three school buses - moving east over America at an altitude of about 60,000 feet (18,600 meters). US officials said the Biden administration was aware of it even before it crossed into American airspace in Alaska early this week, as reported by Associated Press. 

Spy balloons aren't new - primitive ones date back centuries, but they came into greater use in World War II. 

Would it possess any risk?

Even if it's not armed, the balloon poses a risk to the US, said retired Army Gen. John Ferrari to Associated Press who is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. The flight itself, he said, 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.

He 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.

Why can't US shoot down China's Spy Balloon?

The first Chinese surveillance balloon that the Pentagon found flying over sensitive US ballistic missile sites may be guided by advanced artificial intelligence technology, a US expert said Friday. A second Chinese surveillance balloon was later spotted over Latin America, the Pentagon said, without specifying its exact location. William Kim, a specialist in surveillance balloons at the Marathon Initiative think tank in Washington, told AFP that balloons are a valuable means of observation that are difficult to shoot down. He further added that as satellites become more vulnerable to being attacked from the Earth and space, balloons have distinct advantages. Firstly, they don't easily show up on radars. "These are materials that don't reflect, they're not metal. So even though these balloons expand to quite large, detecting... the balloon itself is going to be a problem," he said. And the payload, if small enough, can be overlooked.

Earlier, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin advised President Joe Biden against shooting the balloon down because of the possible risk of falling debris. At one point the authorities were counting on the idea of shooting it down but later assessing its size they concluded that it was large enough to cause potential damage. It’s floating well above the altitude used by civilian aircraft, so is unlikely to pose any immediate danger to the public.

Earlier incidents of Spy Balloons

Administration officials as reported by AP said on Friday that there have been other similar incidents of Chinese spy balloons, with one saying it happened twice during the Trump administration but was never made public.

Craig Singleton who is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said that Chinese surveillance balloons have been sighted on numerous occasions over the past five years in different parts of the Pacific, including near sensitive US military installations in Hawaii. The high altitude inflatables, he said, serve as low-cost platforms to collect intelligence and some can reportedly be used to detect hypersonic missiles. 

During World War II, Japan launched thousands of hydrogen balloons carrying bombs, and hundreds ended up in the U.S. and Canada. Most were ineffective, but one was lethal. In May 1945, six civilians died when they found one of the balloons on the ground in Oregon, and it exploded.

According to military research documents and studies, the U.S. began using giant trains of balloons and sensors that were strung together and stretching more than 600 feet as part of an early effort to detect Soviet missile launches during the post-World War II era. They called it Project Mogul.

There was one incident when one of the balloon trains crash-landed at the Roswell Army Airfield in 1947, and Air Force personnel who were not aware of the program found debris. 

The unusual experimental equipment made it difficult to identify, leaving the airmen with unanswered questions that over time -aided by UFO enthusiasts - took on a life of their own. The simple answer, according to the military reports, was just over the Sacramento Mountains at the Project Mogul launch site in Alamogordo.

In 2015, an unmanned Army surveillance blimp broke loose from its mooring at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland and floated over Pennsylvania for hours with two fighter jets on its tail, triggering blackouts as it dragged its tether across power lines. As residents gawked, the 240-foot blimp came down in pieces in the Muncy, Pennsylvania, countryside. It still had helium in its nose when it fell, and state police used shotguns - about 100 shots - to deflate it.

(With inputs from agencies)

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