Last February, the US Air Force scrambled its F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jets to intercept an uncanny object, allegedly a spy balloon, floating in the air off the shore of the Hawaiian island of Kauai.
There seems to be a somewhat repeat of the stated incident but this time over the continental United States itself. The US Pentagon revealed on February 2 that it was tracking a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon hovering over the United States for several days.
Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, the balloon has been tracked by the US government for the last several days as it traveled over the northern United States.
One of the states where the balloon was noticed was Montana, which is home to Malmstrom Air Force Base, which houses one of the country’s three nuclear missile silo fields.
He added that the balloon was “traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and did not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.”
According to reports, the USAF considered shooting down the intelligence-gathering balloon but decided against it. President Joe Biden had reportedly been persuaded not to shoot it down because of concerns that the debris could endanger those on the ground.
Interesting day above the Western US today… Billings, MT airport was put on a ground stop for, “Special military missions” A balloon was spotted over the city. F-22s (RAMBO & RAPTOR) were refueled by KC-10 / KC-46 (ABATE), AWACS also in the area. F-22s went back to Nellis. pic.twitter.com/dAlno3NeGj
— Thenewarea51 (@thenewarea51) February 2, 2023
The United States took “custody” of the balloon when it entered American airspace and had observed it with piloted US fighter jets, an official told reporters.
The US military scrambled two Air Force F-22 Raptors from Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., on February 1 to intercept the Chinese spy balloon that poses a security risk. According to local media reports, the residents in Montana noted an unusual object in the sky.
A user on Twitter captured a video of the two F-22s refueling over Utah.
Not just that, another Twitter user, @Jonahbevan8, posted a video of an F-22 Raptor flying above Salt Lake City. The user, who identifies as a military enthusiast, said that the jet was headed to a Chinese balloon in Montana. The video was shot on February 1. The USAF regularly dispatches its F-22 for quick reaction alert roles.
(ABATE21) KC-10 along with callsign (RAPTOR) x2 F-22 above Salt Lake City heading to observe Chinese spy balloon in Montana. Date February 1st 2023. Sorry for terrible quality of footage only had my phone on me pic.twitter.com/DuxwB5YZgg
— Jbev ✈️??? (@Jonahbevan8) February 2, 2023
In last year’s Hawaii incident, the F-22s were scrambled because that was the only aircraft available then.
The 199th Fighter Squadron (199 FS) is part of the 154th Wing of the Hawaii Air National Guard, based at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Honolulu, Hawaii. The unit is equipped with the F-22A Raptor.
Balloons Are Alarming Spy Instruments
The incident is significant as it alludes to a far bigger problem, i.e., the rampant use of balloons to gather intelligence over sensitive military installations. These spy balloons are used to collect intelligence on radar and communications systems.
Their presence over a protected military asset like Montana could be alarming. Before entering the United States, the balloon was tracked close to the Aleutian Islands and Canada, according to Reuters.
However, the Pentagon dismissed it as an incident that had a limited impact on the security of the city. An unnamed defense official told the media, “We assess that this balloon has limited value from an intelligence collection perspective,” the official said.
“We are confident that this high-altitude surveillance balloon belongs to the [People’s Republic of China],” a senior defense official said. “Instances of this activity have been observed over the past several years, including before this administration.”
Balloons may be launched inexpensively, unlike satellites, which need expensive space launchers that cost hundreds of millions of dollars. On the other hand, spy drones could pose a greater risk if sent to adversarial airspace.
According to a 2005 research for the Air Force’s Airpower Research Institute, the balloons are not directly steered but can be generally guided to a target region by altering height to catch different wind currents.
Retired US Colonel Steve Ganyard told ABC News that it’s probable that the balloon drifted rather than being intentionally released. He claimed that setting up a spy balloon over the US on purpose would be highly controversial and of little use.
Even the Pentagon is investigating the use of spy balloons. The US military reportedly tested high-altitude, solar-powered balloons in 2019, enabling the Pentagon to maintain continuous surveillance across America.
However, China’s use of a spy balloon to spy over the United States could be a recipe for further alienation between the two countries. It comes against the backdrop of CIA Chief William Burns calling China the “biggest geopolitical challenge” the US is currently facing.
Further, the timing of the incident is also significant as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to travel to China next week for a visit discussed in November 2022 by US President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
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