WASHINGTON, Feb 6- When a suspected Chinese spy balloon first entered U.S. airspace north of the Aleutian Islands on January 28, U.S. authorities believed it was highly likely to continue on its way to the north over sparsely populated areas.
But two days later, the balloon did something unexpected: it slowed down, moving close to Canada. Then it changed course and headed south, on a new trajectory that would eventually take it over the state of Idaho, in the United States, according to the country’s authorities.
“That’s when we knew it was something different,” a US official said on condition of anonymity.
Chinese spy balloons have entered US territory in the past, but the way the balloon maneuvered, heading for sensitive locations in the United States, set off alarm bells at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), a joint Canadian-US agency, according to authorities.
The United States has a military base and nuclear missile silos in Montana, a state bordering Idaho.
The appearance of the Chinese balloon, which caused a political uproar in the United States, caused the head of US diplomacy, Antony Blinken, to cancel a trip to Beijing scheduled for February 5 and 6, with which both countries hoped to improve their relations. difficult relationships.
US President Joe Biden on Tuesday called for military options to deal with the growing – but as yet unrevealed – crisis.
On Wednesday, military commanders developed a plan to shoot down the balloon as it flew over Montana.
Planning advanced to the point that the Billings airport ordered a ground stop on Wednesday to clear nearby airspace, while the military mobilized F-22 fighters in case Biden ordered the downing of the balloon.
“Even with these protective measures in place, our military commanders felt that we had not reduced the risk sufficiently, so we are not going ahead with the operation,” a senior US defense official told reporters on Thursday.
Another US military commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the debris would have fallen at least within a radius of 11 kilometers, which would pose a fatal risk to the population and could damage infrastructure.
Instead, the best and safest option was to lower the balloon over the water, the officials concluded, a move that could also help US intelligence services recover the Chinese equipment for study.
The US government has refused to say which places the Chinese balloon inspected. It appears to have moved near sensitive US bases, including Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, which oversees 150 ICBM silos, and Offutt Base in Nebraska, home to US Strategic Command, which is in charge of intercontinental ballistic missile forces. nuclear.
It also appeared to fly over Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, where the Air Force’s B-2 bomber operates.
A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the balloon was able to stay aloft over specific areas.
“We have seen it. It hovered over certain places. It went to the left, to the right. We saw it maneuver within the jet stream. This is how it worked,” the official said, adding that the craft had propellers and rudders.
China claims the balloon was a civilian craft used for meteorological and other purposes, and that it strayed into US airspace “entirely accidentally.”
On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his deputy secretary, Wendy Sherman, met with senior officials from the Chinese embassy to deliver “a series of hard-hitting messages,” a senior Washington official said.
Biden had already ordered his team to protect places with sensitive information from Chinese surveillance, while NORAD tracked the globe’s movements across the US mainland.
The United States also began collecting information about the balloon itself, including its operation.
Following sightings along the balloon’s path and mounting public outcry, Blinken decided on Thursday to officially postpone his trip to China, according to a US government official. On Friday, the US Department of Defense said it expected the balloon to continue flying over the country for several more days.
But after those public statements, the balloon picked up speed and headed toward the South Carolina coast. Officials said it was unclear how much of that acceleration was due to the jet stream or using the balloon’s own steering.
Biden approved a plan to shoot down the balloon on Friday night, launching full-time military preparations to coordinate the mission.
The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) analyzed and assessed the debris field, based on the balloon’s trajectory, weather conditions and the estimated “payload” of the sensors, and deployed a military operation at sea and in the sky.
Several fighter and resupply planes joined the mission to shoot down the Chinese balloon, but only one – an F-22 fighter from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia – fired at 2:39 p.m. local time. (1939 GMT), using a single AIM-9X Sidewinder missile.
The missile pierced the balloon when it was at an altitude of between 18,000 and 20,000 km, and the payload plunged into the sea. The debris field spread over 11 km, as planned, but most of it landed in relatively shallow water, only 14 meters deep.
“That will make it quite easy,” a military official said of the recovery operation in the Atlantic.
Upon completion of the mission, the US government notified China of the result while the US State Department informed its allies.
China condemned the action, saying the US was “obviously overreacting”.
Melissa Galbraith is the World News reporter for Globe Live Media. She covers all the major events happening around the World. From Europe to Americas, from Asia to Antarctica, Melissa covers it all. Never miss another Major World Event by bookmarking her author page right here.