NEW DELHI: Ripples from the Chinese spy balloon downed by a USAF F-22 Raptor off the coast of South Carolina on February 4 have reached Indian shores.
The massive balloon, bristling with surveillance equipment powered by solar panels, entered US air space over Alaska on January 28. After crossing over Canada into continental United States, it moved slowly southeast over the US mainland, lingering over several strategically sensitive sites including nuclear missile silos in Montana, until President Joe Biden ordered its downing.
Although China repeatedly insisted that it was a weather balloon gone astray, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken cancelled his scheduled visit to China.
Three other, smaller UFOs were downed by US warplanes over Alaska, Canada and the Great Lakes region between February 10 and 12.
In his address to the nation February 16, President Biden said the three objects were “most likely balloons tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions, studying weather or conducting other scientific research.”
Subsequently, US officials said the spy balloon downed off South Carolina was part of a major Chinese surveillance programme run for several years from the southern island province of Hainan, home to a massive PLA base and satellite launch facilities.
Similar balloons had collected information on military assets of countries and regions of strategic interest to China, including India, they said.
While officials in India remained tight-lipped over this revelation, media reports noted that a balloon similar to the one shot down by the US was spotted over the Andamans in early January last year.
The Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC), the solitary tri-service theatre command of Indian armed forces, is headquartered in Port Blair. The strategically located islands in the Bay of Bengal host some of India’s most critical and cutting-edge military assets, including ships, submarines, aircraft, high-end radars and other surveillance and communication equipment.
In a report dated January 6, 2022, the Andaman Sheekha, a Port Blair based daily, said both the PRO of the Andaman and Nicobar Command and the Indian Meteorological Department had denied any connection with the large white object, which was seen and filmed hovering over the port city’s late afternoon sky by hundreds of curious residents.
Titled ‘Unidentified Flying Object over Port Blair city triggers curiosity and rumours,’ the report said that “while weather balloons are balloon shaped, this Unidentified Flying Object was round, weather balloons gain height with time, but this object was maintaining height and drifting in almost same altitude.” (sic)
“Zoomed photograph showed some eight dark panel shaped equipment/objects attached to the flying object, which were hanging in disorderly manner, as if some parts are damaged,” it added.
“If this object is not released by any agencies in Andaman then was it sent for spying? But in this age of ultra-advanced satellites, who will use a flying object to spy?” it asked.
That question is being asked again by a lot of people after the Chinese spy balloon hit the world headlines earlier this month.
Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retd), Director General of the Centre for Air Power Studies, or CAPS, has an answer.
“Surveillance is of two types. One is construction etc, which can be done through satellite passes. But there are some things, like a moving convoy, which might not be there when the satellite returns,” he said.
Noting that “the Chinese are past masters in balloons,” he said balloons have been used for hundreds of years for observation and intelligence gathering. Besides, “satellite launch is an expensive exercise. Balloons are comparatively cheap, with a few thousand balloons going up every day for weather monitoring and other data collection,” he added.
“Then, balloons can be manoeuvred. It can have motors which ensure that it doesn’t drift too much. Now we even have geo-stationary balloons, which means the balloon monitors its position on its own and uses the motors automatically to make sure it doesn’t shift.”
Usually made from a nylon-polythene combination, with foils to give it the strength to carry heavy loads, modern balloons can go up to great heights.
The Chinese spy balloon over the US, for instance, was travelling at about 60,000 feet, or 18.28 km above sea level. But based on the fact that it was carrying solar panels, some experts opine that it could have been a helium-filled stratospheric balloon, which can climb to almost 100,000 feet, or 30.5km above sea level.
The current world record for a balloon is 173,900 ft, or 53 km, a region known as ‘near space’. Space officially begins at 100 km above sea level.
In comparison, most modern commercial aircraft have a ceiling of about 43,000 feet, or 12.5 km, although some private jets can operate up to around 45,000 to 51,000 feet (15.5 km).
The F-22 Raptor, which has the highest ceiling rating among US fighter aircraft, fired the missile at the Chinese balloon from 58,000 feet, or 17.7 km above earth.
The highest ceiling rating among the Indian Air Force’s inventory is the Sukhoi Su-30MKI, a multi-role air superiority fighter with a certified ceiling of 56,800 ft, or 17.3 km.
“So apart from having a very small radar signature, balloons are very difficult to shoot down,” said Air Marshal Chopra. “Which is why the Americans had to use an F-22 class of aircraft to shoot it down,” he said.
There are also reports citing declassified American documents that claim Chinese balloons had been spotted dropping leaflets and a radio some 50 km away from the Indian city of Allahabad in July 1978, although no mention is made of what happened to them afterwards.
In a February 16 report, Nikkei Asia said the Strategic Support Force (SSF), a special unit of the PLA ordered by Chinese President Xi Jinping, could be behind the balloon operations from Hainan Island.
It then cited a Global Times report which said the SSF comprises three units: the cyber warfare unit, which defends against hacking attacks; the space warfare unit, which has jurisdiction over spy satellites and China’s own BeiDou Navigation Satellite System; and the electronic warfare unit, which disrupts enemy radar systems and communications.
“The huge balloon shot down off the coast of South Carolina was equipped with antennas believed to be related to intercepting communications, hinting at its connection to the SSF,” it concluded.
Asked what steps India could take to identify and intercept Chinese balloons in its airspace, an Indian official said advertising these measures to the Chinese would only serve to dilute their effectiveness. “But rest assured, we are prepared,” he said.