Five things to know after the discovery of a Chinese spy balloon in American skies

A stratospheric airship is reigniting tensions between Washington and Beijing, prompting the postponement of a visit by US Foreign Minister Antony Blinken to China.

On Thursday evening, the Pentagon confirmed that a Chinese spy balloon had entered northern United States airspace. The White House considered shooting down the balloon, but the decision was made not to do so due to the risks posed by possible falling debris.

1 – Spatial sovereignty

This type of balloon evolves in the upper layers of the atmosphere (between 12 and 50 km altitude). This one would fly at an altitude of more than 50,000 feet (more than 15.3 km). It thus violates the airspace of the United States whose sovereignty of the sky extends up to 66,000 feet (about 20 km). F-22 fighters, capable of reaching such altitude, were deployed but not engaged.

2 – A threat to the USA

This balloon is intended for surveillance and its current trajectory takes it over sensitive sites in Montana, including airbases and strategic missile silos. Washington of course raised the matter with the Chinese authorities. Beijing called for not to escalate things, stating that this meteorological balloon had deviated from its route.

3 – Precedents

This type of intrusion by a stratospheric balloon is not unheard of, but this one is characterized by a much longer overflight. In February 2022, a spy balloon flew over Hawaii and was intercepted by American F-22s. Other balloons, presumed to be Chinese, have recently been reported over Japan, the Philippines and India.

4 – Swarms of drones

Other intrusions took place above sensitive sites in US territory. Unidentified drones, solitary or in swarms, have flown over Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska and coastal areas of California since 2019. Last year, 366 unidentified aerial phenomena were spotted in the USA, including 163 related to balloon flights.

5 – The race to the stratosphere

Interest in stratospheric dirigible balloons is growing. In France, Thales Alenia Space is working on the Stratobus capable of carrying 250 kg of equipment to 19,000 m and with a range of almost a year.

This type of balloon, more enduring than drones and planes, is complementary to satellites for missions of surveillance of borders and critical sites, environmental control and telecommunications. And of course information.



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