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Chinese Spy Balloon: Unidentified Objects over North America

Image Credit: US Department of Defence
Chinese Spy Balloon: Unidentified Objects over North America

On 4 February 2023, the United States (US) military shot down a high-altitude balloon, which they suspect to be a Chinese surveillance balloon, off the coast of South Carolina. The shootdown took place a week after the balloon had initially entered US airspace over Alaska. This shootdown marked the first kill for the F-22 Raptor, and it is also possible that this could have been the highest recorded air-to-air kill. After the shootdown, the Department of Defence (DoD) confirmed that they used U-2S high-altitude surveillance plane to gather data on the balloon and keep a visual track of its movement. The DoD also stated that there had been three previous incursions into US airspace. Still, none of them lasted for such prolonged periods. These incursions dated back to the Trump Administration and remained undetected. Former president Donald Trump and members of his national security team said that they were never briefed on any aircraft or object of Chinese origin intruding into US airspace, leading to the current administration offering to brief them on the incursions.

The US Navy was able to successfully recover the debris of the balloon after a search which included multiple ships, including a specialised survey ship. Only after a detailed analysis of the wreckage the exact capabilities of the balloon be fully known. This will also give a clear idea of how and of what specific type of intelligence the balloon was able to gather. The initial assessment was that the balloon was around 200 feet tall, the payload was a few thousand pounds and the size of a regional airliner.

China now claims that ten balloons from the US have intruded into Chinese airspace in the past year alone. This has been refuted by the State Department stating that it is China, not the US, which uses high-altitude balloons for surveillance.

This incident has also led other nations to believe that their territories have been overflown by similar Chinese balloons in the past. An example is India which believes that a similar balloon passed over its Andaman and Nicobar Islands in early 2022 after a military exercise.

Then on 10 February 2023, another unidentified object was observed off Alaska’s coast, flying over US territorial waters. This object was also shot down by an F-22 at an altitude of 40,000 feet after being classified as a hazard to civilian air traffic. As both the intercept and the shootdown took place at night, which is why it was not initially known what was intercepted. The government refrained from fuelling any speculation, but an unnamed official reportedly stated that the object was “silverish-grey.” The process of recovering the object was extremely difficult as it was being undertaken in a mix of snow and ice and was resultantly called off on 17 February 2023.

On the following day, 11 February, another F-22 shot down another object, this time over the Canadian Yukon. The announcement of this shootdown was made by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He also stated that Canadian forces would recover the object. Canada is part of the North American Aerospace Defence Command or NORAD, a joint system of monitoring threats to US and Canadian airspace, which has been directing the interceptions and shoot downs. This object was also small, cylindrical, and flying at 40,000 feet, according to Canadian Defence Minister Anita Anand who refrained from any speculation regarding the origin of the object.

The next day, on 11 February, another object was shot down over Lake Huron in Michigan. According to the DoD, the object was said to be flying at an altitude of 20,000 feet. The object was first detected over Montana and had flown close by sensitive DoD sites. They also stated that the object had most probably landed in Canadian waters, and that the search for it had begun. Then on 17 February, the search for this object was also called off, as it was difficult to locate this object in the Lake Huron area.

The DoD in a press conference after the Lake Huron shoot down stated that since the initial incident with the Chinese balloon, NORAD had started monitoring the airspace under its purview in much greater detail. They also did not categorise the three objects as balloons, and that these objects according to analysis did not pose any sort of kinetic threat nor did they take any hostile acts against the aircraft which intercepted them. Four successive shoot downs in a matter of two weeks has prompted the Biden Administration to form an inter-agency team to look at the policy implications for increased detection, and analysis of unidentified aerial objects which may pose a safety or security risk. President Biden, on 16 February 2023, announced that his administration is seeking new policies and procedures to handle such intrusion in the future. He also stated that the three objects shot down in addition to the Chinese balloon are still being identified, and it is not certain what they were. However, he did suggest that they were related to the Chinese balloon. President Biden has stated that he would like to diplomatically engage the Chinese government on this matter.

These incidents have also sparked a war of words between the US and China, as China now claims that ten balloons from the US have intruded into Chinese airspace in the past year alone. This has been refuted by the State Department stating that it is China, not the US, which uses high-altitude balloons for surveillance. Anthony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, cancelled his trip to China over the initial detection of the balloon. The US has also sanctioned six Chinese companies, which according to them are linked to People’s Liberation Army’s high altitude surveillance balloon programme.

These incidents have shown that there are gaps in the detection and classification of objects flying over the continental United States, which poses threats to civilian and military aircraft as well as sensitive military and civilian infrastructure.

Syed Zulfiqar Ali

Syed Zulfiqar Ali has completed his Masters in Defence & Strategic Studies from Quaid-i-Azam University, and is currently serving as a Research Associate at the Centre of Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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