Earlier Chinese spy balloon incursions went unnoticed, says US general

It could also encourage the US to take up more balloon missions.
Ameya Paleja
Chinese surveillance balloon over Billings, Montana.
Chinese surveillance balloon over Billings, Montana.

Wikimedia Commons 

The recent Chinese spy balloon incident has exposed the gaps in the U.S. air defense strategy. While the incident received much publicity, previous incidents of this nature went undetected, according to the general of the U.S. air defenses, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The sighting of the balloon was first publicized on February 2, as it flew over the skies in Montana. The U.S. military surveyed it closely to determine the type of payload it carried but decided not to shoot it over U.S. land as it did not pose an immediate threat. On February 4, the balloon was shot down with an AIM-9 missile off Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to minimize damage from its debris.

What does the Spy balloon say about U.S. strategy?

According to General Glen VanHerck, the commander of Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the U.S. military did not detect the previous flights made by such balloons, of which there are at least four on record.

Such lapses bring to light the shortcomings of ground-based radars in detecting such threats. The concerns become larger when one factor is that the Chinese spy balloon program has been in existence for over a decade and has probably been getting better with time.

When the balloon was recently surveyed by fighter jets, the U.S. military was confident that it did not carry advanced equipment that could allow it to collect more information than what Chinese spy satellites already do. The exact nature of the equipment will only be known when its debris is recovered from the sea.

However, experts told Defense News that such balloons could confer some advantages over space-based satellites or even modern-day drones. By hovering in sub-orbital areas, balloons may be able to tap into electronic and communication signals.

Using wind currents and automated controls, a balloon can hover in an area for prolonged periods, something that a satellite cannot. As the U.S. defense officials described, the military took evasive actions to prevent the balloon from capturing sensitive information as it flew over nuclear silos in Montana. However, in the case of a hovering balloon, that action would have to be prolonged, affecting the work and progress of an operation.

The advantages of balloons aren't lost on the Department of Defense either, which has increased its spending on research projects in the last fiscal, Politico reported previously. Like hypersonic weapons, advances made by other countries would perhaps force the U.S. to work on defending itself as well.

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