Cost to US military of shooting down 3 mystery flying objects after Chinese 'spy balloon' row could top US$2 million

·3 min read

The United States military may have spent over US$2 million shooting down three unidentified flying objects last month in the wake of the row over an alleged Chinese spy balloon.

The three objects were downed over Alaska, Michigan and the Canadian province of Yukon, days after the shooting down of the Chinese balloon off the Atlantic coast by an F-22 fighter on February 4.

Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek told The Detroit News that the four missiles used in the later operations alone cost between US$400,000 to US$500,000 each - but that price tag did not account for the support provided by other warplanes and operations to recover the debris.

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The row over the first balloon heightened tensions between China and the US after Beijing accused the US of overreacting by shooting it down with an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile in an operation that involved several warplanes and branches of the military.

The Chinese balloon entered US airspace over Alaska on January 28, then moved over Canada and the contiguous United States, crossing over sensitive military sites, Pentagon officials said. The incident prompted US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone a planned visit to China.

China said the balloon was designed for meteorological research and had strayed off course into American airspace because of strong winds and limited ability to self-steer. It also said it reserved the right to respond further after it was shot down, but did not specify what action it may take.

Following that incident, another mystery object spotted over northern Alaska was shot down by another Sidewinder fired by an F-22 on February 10.

Two days later the same type of plane and missile were used to down another unidentified flying object over Yukon.

On the same day, an F-16 fighter needed two attempts to bring down a "octagonal structure" over Michigan with the same type. The first missile missed and landed in Lake Huron before the second hit the target.

The US has yet to provide any indication what the three objects might be.

General Glen VanHerck of the US Air Force said the heat-seeking Sidewinder was used in these operations because the objects were too small to track using radar.

The incidents prompted a last-minute request by the Pentagon for an extra US$90 million or so in funding for next year's budget to improve the military's ability to detect, track and analyse high-altitude balloons.

"I would tell you that the sensors that we have today are capable of seeing the high-altitude balloons. They're capable of tracking them," Vice Admiral Sara Joyner, director of force structure, resources and assessment on the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a press conference on March 13.

"It's a matter of tuning and optimising those systems to try to get after all forms of intrusions into our airspace."

She said the military had been focused on high-end, fast-moving threats, such as hypersonic weapons and cruise missiles, but it was necessary to ensure that the military's equipment could also detect balloons and other slower moving objects.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2023 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2023. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.