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The Saga of a Spy Balloon in US Airspace

Context:

Last week, the U.S. shot down a Chinese ‘spy’ balloon, days after the surveillance device was first spotted over American airspace, bringing the dramatic saga to a climax and dealing yet another blow to the already strained diplomatic relation between the two sides.

Relevance:

GS II: International Relations

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. What are spy balloons?
  2. What happened?

What are spy balloons?

  • Spy balloons are high-altitude surveillance tools that usually operate at 80,000-1,20,000 feet — well above the cruising altitude of commercial aircraft — to gather intelligence and carry out other military missions.
  • Typically, a spy balloon is equipped with cameras and imaging devices suspended beneath the gas-filled white object to capture things of interest.
  • Unlike satellites, balloons are economically viable.
  • Due to their proximity to the Earth’s surface, they can widely scan an area from close quarters and capture clearer, high-resolution images of the target.
  • The disadvantage is that these are not directly steered, but can be roughly guided by changing altitudes to catch different wind currents, as per a study by the Air Force’s Airpower Research Institute.
  • They are also a relatively easy target.
  • Taiwan has accused the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) of using spy balloons in the past.
  • A similar sighting was reported over Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
  • There has, however, been no official confirmation or evidence that establishes its link with China.

What happened?

  • A massive white orb, estimated to be the size of three school buses, was spotted floating above the state of Montana, capturing global attention.
  • American defense and military officials confirmed that the object was a reconnaissance balloon from China that entered the air defense zone north of the Aleutian Islands and traveled across Alaska, Canada, and Idaho before reaching Montana.
  • President Joe Biden was briefed on the matter and the military considered shooting down the balloon, believed to be a Chinese surveillance tool, but decided against it due to the risks to those on the ground.
  • The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration temporarily paused aerial activity at three airports as a precautionary measure.
  • The Chinese Foreign Ministry acknowledged the balloon was from China and stated that it was an errant civilian airship used for meteorological research that went off course due to winds, but rejected claims of spying.
  • Beijing expressed regret over the incident and emphasized respect for the sovereignty of other countries.

-Source: The Hindu


February 2024
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