A Chinese blimp was shot down in the sky over the United States because it was suspected of being an intelligence tool. How advanced is spy hot air balloon technology?
Previously, the United States (US) military shot an object suspected of being a Chinese spy balloon over the Atlantic Ocean on Saturday (4/2).
Before firing, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued an order to close three airports in the eastern area as a “national security measure”.
China was also angry with the shooting. Beijing insists the blimp was a civilian research tool that accidentally flew to the US.
“The US used force to attack our civilian drones, which is clearly an overreaction. We express serious protest against this action by the US side,” Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Tan Kefei said Sunday (5/2), quoted by CNN.
What is the sophistication of the balloon that made the US take militaristic action?
Iain Boyd, a professor of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, said a reconnaissance balloon is a sophisticated balloon equipped with high-tech imaging equipment, which points downward.
The device, said Boyd, could offer close-up imaging and monitor areas in its flight path. Balloons sometimes fly according to weather patterns. But this device is equipped with “guide equipment” to control the path.
Although it is considered that satellite technology can be used to spy on target areas, Boyd believes that hot air balloon technology is preferable because it can fly lower than the flight altitude of commercial airlines.
That way, imaging of the area is considered to be clearer than low orbit satellites, aka LEO.
Separately, a professor at the Center for Strategic Near East Asian Studies at the National Defense University in Washington, DC assesses reconnaissance balloons can also collect electronic signals and prevent radar scans.
According to him, this Chinese reconnaissance blimp that was shot down by the US could be used to gather information on what type of signal the US used to track it, so that it might be able to identify and classify the radar detection.
This aims to map radio signals that the US uses if China wants to launch an attack.
US officials also disclosed that foreign balloons entering US airspace have been relatively common in recent years. Chinese government surveillance balloons transit briefly over the continental United States at least three times during Donald Trump’s administration from 2017 to 2021.
US officials said the second balloon observed over South America last week was also a Chinese reconnaissance balloon.
History of spy balloons
Quoted from Al Jazeera, a primitive form of reconnaissance balloon came into use in the 1800s.
France used manned balloons for surveillance in the Franco-Austrian war in 1859. Manned balloons returned to use shortly after during the US Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865.
Reconnaissance balloons became more common in World Wars I and II. During the last war, the Japanese military used balloons to throw incendiary bombs over US territory.
No military objectives were damaged. However, several civilians were killed when one of the balloons crashed into the Oregon jungle.
Right after World War II, the US military began exploring the use of reconnaissance balloons called Project Genetrix. The program says photographic balloons flew over Soviet bloc territory in the 1950s, according to documents