The Chinese balloon exposed the problems in US air defense

/ The United States shot down a Chinese balloon over its territory because of an “intelligence threat”. Beijing protested the attack on the “civilian target”. The incident led to the cancellation of State Department head Blinken’s visit to China. What conclusions should the USA, China and Russia draw after what happened? Could the launch of the probe be the result of behind-the-scenes intrigues of influence groups in China?

The US shot down a Chinese balloon that had been flying over US territory for a week. One of two F-22 fighter jets taking off from Langley Air Force Base attacked a high-altitude balloon with an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile, the object fell into the Atlantic Ocean on the evening of Saturday, February 4, about 11 km off the coast of USA near the resort town of Myrtle Beach in South Carolina.

US Navy divers then began work at the probe’s wreckage site to collect debris scattered over an 11km radius at a depth of 14m. Two warships and coastguard vessels approached the area, including one carrying a heavy crane, the BBC reported.

A Pentagon spokesman said: “The flight of a balloon over United States territory poses an intelligence threat to us.” He also pointed out the value of studying the probe itself and its equipment. Solar panels are known to have been attached to the balloon to power its engine, cameras and monitoring equipment.

A few hours later, China’s foreign ministry said: “The weather probe entered US space due to force majeure, it was an accident.” Beijing protested and said the destruction of a “civilian object was an overreaction”. China stressed that it “reserves the right to take further action”. Beijing also announced the dismissal of the head of the China Meteorological Service, Zhuang Guotai.

The incident caused a diplomatic scandal: US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken immediately canceled a trip to China planned for this weekend due to “irresponsible action”. The head of the State Department called this “a clear violation of US sovereignty and international law.”

The balloon first entered US airspace at an altitude of about 20 km over the Aleutian Islands last Saturday. Then it flew over western Canada, and even then Pentagon officials assured Canadians that the balloon was under the control and surveillance of the military.

The probe then re-entered US airspace over Idaho and Montana, where the airport was even closed for a while due to the incident.

Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana is home to the 341st Missile Wing. It is one of three bases that operate and maintain intercontinental ballistic missiles. In total, there are about 150 silo-based missiles, according to the New York Times.

US President Joe Biden approved a plan to attack the probe on Wednesday, but the Pentagon said it should wait until the object is above water to avoid putting people on the ground at unnecessary risk.

At the same time, the head of the White House was criticized for the work of the Air Defense. For example, the US Border Patrol union tweeted that China is monitoring the US border more closely than the Biden administration.

The operation began Saturday afternoon when the US Federal Aviation Administration temporarily suspended civilian flights at three airports off the coast of South Carolina in the interest of “national security.” The Coast Guard also advised mariners to leave the area.

Hayley Walsh, a local resident, said she saw three fighter jets circling the area where the balloon was located. “And then we heard a loud bang, the house shook,” she said.

Interestingly, the previous day the Pentagon reported that it had spotted a second Chinese spy balloon, this time over South America, as well as over Costa Rica and Venezuela. The probe then disappeared in an unknown direction.

“Apparently the Americans have been trying to bring down the balloon all these days since it was discovered, but it didn’t work. However, this is completely natural, because it is difficult to direct a missile at it. The incident pointed to a gap in US air defense that was not so dangerous before because no one was launching balloons over American territory,” said Vasily Kashin, director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the Higher Institute of Technology.

“As for the US side’s claims that the object was shot down as soon as it ceased to pose a danger to people on the ground, it is difficult to believe their credibility. If the United States could successfully hit the Chinese balloon with a missile, they would shoot it down before it even reached the American border. Also, it flew over very sparsely populated areas, not over Singapore or the Netherlands,” the source noted.

“To destroy the site, the United States used an F-22A fighter jet with good altitude and flight characteristics, which launched a Cywinder missile with an infrared homing head from a fairly short distance. “Apparently this became possible because the envelope of the balloon was warmed by the direct sun and began to stand out in temperature from the background of the environment,” he said.

“Neither air defense nor military aviation can ‘work’ on the balloon’s engine because the balloon has no engine of its own. And all the air injection equipment is small and placed in a special capsule so that it does not come out,” the specialist explained.

“Thus, the specifics of the bubble led to the fact that the prestige of the United States was dealt, if not a strong, at least an unpleasant blow. Now US air defenses, as well as military aviation, will be clearly adjusted to be able to identify and shoot down balloons approaching the borders. This task is not super difficult for Washington, but it will require certain costs and time,” the analyst believes.

“Incidentally, the Chinese balloon flew over one of the three positioning areas where US medium-range ballistic missiles are deployed. This suggests that China has equipment to determine the location of nuclear facilities by the composition of the atmosphere, changes in the chemical composition of the air,” Kashin added.

“Could a balloon pose a military threat to the US, at least theoretically? Of course, you can attach a bomb to it, but the problem is that it is impossible to accurately calculate the point of the balloon over some object. It is also impossible to predict exactly when it will reach the target. Japan during World War II tried to adapt balloons to attack the United States, but nothing worked. I think that such methods can only be used by terrorist organizations,” the expert summarized.

“Apparently the balloon was launched to torpedo the visit to China by the head of the State Department, Anthony Blinken. The most important thing here is that this was done on Xi’s direct orders or at the initiative of the military. However, one thing is clear: this was the result of a certain split in the internal Chinese elites, which was also seen at last year’s 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China,” says Boris Mezhuev, an expert in American studies, associate professor at Moscow State University.

“The main loser in this situation is the American diplomatic corps – and especially Blinken himself. Washington heralded the visit as the start of a “detente” with Beijing, and here such an incident leads to the cancellation or delay of the warming. I think that such a failure of the foreign policy apparatus of the White House can lead to the resignation of the head of the State Department and a change of the diplomatic leadership, “explained the expert.

“Theoretically, Russia can also be considered a winner. First of all, Moscow must convey to Washington the idea that its attempts to split such a conditional, not pro-Russian, but anti-sanctions coalition are doomed to failure. Well, a change in the leadership of the State Department, if it happens, will also play in Russia’s favor,” the analyst emphasized.

Translation: V. Sergeev

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