US expert on why it would be difficult to shoot down China’s spy balloon

It appears that there are advanced steering technologies that the US military is yet to air (File)


A US expert said Friday that the first Chinese surveillance balloon the Pentagon found flying over sensitive US ballistic missile sites could be guided by advanced artificial intelligence technology.

A second Chinese surveillance balloon was later spotted over Latin America, the Pentagon said, without specifying its exact location.

William Kim, an expert on surveillance balloons at the Marathon Initiative think tank in Washington, told AFP that the balloons are a valuable means of observation that are difficult to shoot down.

Guided by AI?

Kim said the first Chinese balloon looks like a normal weather balloon but with different features.

It carries a fairly large, visible “payload”, electronics for guidance and information gathering, powered by large solar panels.

And it appears to have advanced steering technologies that the US military has yet to air.

Kim said artificial intelligence has made it possible for a balloon, simply by reading changes in the air around it, to adjust its altitude to guide it as it goes.

“Before you either have to have a wire … or you just send it up and it goes where the wind takes it,” he said.

“What’s happened recently with advances in AI is that you can have a balloon … that doesn’t need its own motion system. It can control its direction by adjusting altitude.”

It could also include radio communications from its home base, he said.

But “if the point of it is to monitor (intercontinental ballistic missile) silos, which is one of the principles … you wouldn’t need to tell it to adjust its location,” he said.

What’s the advantage over satellites?

Kim said that as satellites become more vulnerable to attack from Earth and space, the balloons have distinct advantages.

First, they don’t show up on radar easily.

“These are materials that are not reflective, they are not metals. So even if these balloons get big enough, detecting … the balloon itself is going to be a problem,” he said.

And the payload, if small enough, can be ignored.

Balloons also have the advantage of keeping a relatively stable position over a surveillance target, compared to satellites constantly orbiting by spy agencies to take pictures.

“These things can stay overhead, they can stay in one place for months at a time compared to low-Earth-orbit satellites,” Kim said.

Could it have accidentally entered US airspace?

Kim called it a “real possibility” that a Chinese balloon could be aimed at collecting data outside US borders or much worse but.

“These balloons don’t always work perfectly,” he said.

He said balloons usually operate at an altitude of 65,000-100,000 feet, and this one at about 46,000 feet.

“It’s definitely a little low … If you want it to be harder to detect, if you want it to be harder to knock down, then working at a higher altitude would make sense.”

Why can’t America kill it?

Kim said that shooting down the balloon is not as easy as it seems.

“Helium is used in these balloons… This is not the Hindenburg, you can’t just shoot it and then it goes up in flames.”

“If you poke a hole in it, it’s going to ooze out very slowly.”

Kim recalled that in 1998 the Canadian Air Force sent F-18 fighter jets to try to shoot down a bad weather balloon.

“They fired a thousand 20-millimetre cannon shells into it. And it still took six days for it to finally come down. These are not things that explode or explode when you shoot at them.”

He said it was unclear whether the surface-to-air missiles would work because their guidance systems are designed to hit fast-moving missiles and aircraft.

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)

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