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Some questions about the Chinese spy balloon still in the air

WASHINGTON (AP) — What the hell was that thing?

The giant white globe that soared over US airspace this week and was shot down by the Air Force across the Atlantic on live television on Saturday set off a diplomatic whirlwind and erupted on social media.

China insists the balloon was just an errant civilian aircraft, mainly used for meteorological research, that turned downwind and had only limited “self-steering” capabilities. He also issued a threat of “further action”.

In a statement after the ship was shot down, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the US use of force was “an obvious overreaction and a flagrant violation of international practice”.

He added: “China will resolutely defend the rights and legitimate interests of the affected company, and at the same time reserves the right to take further measures in response.”

The United States says it was undoubtedly a Chinese spy balloon. His presence prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a weekend trip to China aimed at easing already high tensions between the countries.

The Pentagon says the balloon, which carried sensors and surveillance equipment, was maneuverable and demonstrated it could change course. He stayed in sensitive areas in Montana where nuclear warheads are isolated, prompting the military to take steps to prevent him from gathering information.

A US Air Force fighter jet shot down the balloon Saturday afternoon off the Carolina coast. Television footage showed a small explosion, followed by the balloon slowly heading toward the water. An operation is underway to recover the remains.

A look at what is known about football – and what is not:


The Pentagon and other US officials say it was a Chinese spy balloon – the size of three school buses – floating east over America at an altitude of about 60,000 feet (18,600 meters). The United States says it was used for surveillance and intelligence gathering, but officials have provided few details.

US military and defense officials said Saturday that the balloon entered the US air defense zone north of the Aleutian Islands on January 28 and moved over land through Alaska and into Canadian airspace over the Northwest Territories on January 30. The next day he went back. in the territory of the United States in northern Idaho. US officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive subject.

The White House said Biden was first briefed on the balloon on Tuesday. The State Department said Blinken and Assistant Secretary Wendy Sherman spoke with a senior Chinese official in Washington on Wednesday night about the issue.

In the first public statement by the United States, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, said late Thursday that the balloon posed no military or physical threat, an acknowledgment that it was unarmed. He said that “once the balloon was detected, the US government took immediate steps to protect itself from the collection of sensitive information.”

Even if the balloon was unarmed, it posed a risk to the United States, said retired Army Gen. John Ferrari, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. The flight itself, he said, could be used to test America’s ability to detect emerging threats and find holes in the country’s air defense warning system. It would also have allowed the Chinese to detect electromagnetic emissions that high-altitude satellites cannot detect, such as low-power radio frequencies, which could help them understand how various US weapons systems communicate.

As the balloon hovered over Montana on Wednesday, Biden authorized the military to shoot it down as soon as it was in a place where there would not be excessive risk to civilians. Because of its massive size and altitude, the debris field from its sensors and the balloon itself would have had to stretch for miles. So top defense and military leaders advised Biden not to shoot him down, even when he was over sparsely populated areas.

At 2:39 p.m. Saturday, while the balloon was flying in U.S. airspace about 6 nautical miles off the coast of South Carolina, a single F-22 fighter jet from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia — flying to an altitude of 58,000 feet – fired a target. -9X Sidewinder inside. The Sidewinder is a short-range missile used by the Navy and Air Force primarily for air-to-air engagements, the missile is about 10 feet long and weighs about 200 pounds.

Live news feeds showed the moment of impact as the balloon collapsed and began a long fall into the Atlantic.

The F-22 was supported by a number of Air Force and Air National Guard fighters and tanks, including Massachusetts F-15s and tankers from Oregon, Montana, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and North Carolina. All pilots returned safely to base and there were no injuries or other damage on the ground, a senior military official told reporters at a briefing on Saturday.

As the deflated balloon slowly descended, US Navy ships were already in, waiting to pick up the debris.

The Federal Aviation Administration temporarily closed airspace along the Carolina coast, including airports in Myrtle Beach and Charleston, South Carolina, and Wilmington, North Carolina. And the FAA and Coast Guard worked to clear the airspace and water below the balloon.

Once the balloon crashed into the water, US officials said, the debris field stretched at least 7 miles and was 47 feet deep. That depth is shallower than planned, which makes it easier to retrieve parts of the sensor package and other recoverable parts.

Officials said the USS Oscar Austin, a Navy destroyer, the USS Carter Hall, a dock landing ship, and the USS Philippine Sea, a guided-missile cruiser, were part of the recovery effort and a rescue ship would arrive in a few days. . . They said Navy divers will be on hand if needed, along with unmanned vessels that can retrieve the debris and take it back to the ships. The FBI will also be on hand to classify and evaluate anything recovered, officials said.

As for the value of the information, US officials said the balloon’s trip across the US gave experts days to analyze it, gather technical data and learn a lot about what it does, how it does it and why it would. could use China. like this. They declined to elaborate, but said they expect to hear more as they collect and examine the remains.

Spy balloons have a history

Sight balloons aren’t new – primitive ones date back centuries, but were most used during World War II.

US officials said on Saturday that similar Chinese balloons have briefly transited the continental US at least three times during the Trump administration and once before during the Biden administration. But none of those incidents lasted that long.

During World War II, Japan launched thousands of hydrogen balloons carrying bombs, and hundreds ended up in the United States and Canada. Most were ineffective, but one was fatal. In May 1945, six civilians died when they found one of the balloons on the ground in Oregon and it exploded.

After the war, America’s ballooning effort ignited extraterrestrial stories and lore related to Roswell, New Mexico.

According to military research studies and documents, the United States began using giant trains of balloons and sensors that were strung together and stretched over 600 feet as part of an early attempt to detect Soviet missile launches after the World War II. They called it Project Mogul.

One of the balloon trains crashed at Roswell Army Airfield in 1947, and Air Force personnel unaware of the program found debris. The unusual experimental equipment made identification difficult, leaving the aviators with unanswered questions, which over time, aided by UFO enthusiasts, took on a life of their own. The simple answer, according to military reports, was just over the Sacramento Mountains at the Project Mogul launch site in Alamogordo.

Associated Press writers Zeke Miller, Ellen Knickmeyer, Matthew Lee, Aamer Madhani and Michael Balsamo contributed to this report.

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