The first photos of the F-22 Raptor which shot down the spy balloon have been published – as it emerged the U.S. used U2 spy planes, first deployed during the Cold War, to monitor the Chinese balloon.
This comes as reports suggested that similar balloons were spotted previously in two more highly-sensitive military sites in Virginia and California, but the intelligence community classified them as UFOs.
The U-2S Dragon Lady spy planes were enlisted as part of last week’s scramble to assess the balloon because they are able to fly at extremely high altitude.
The balloon was at 60,000ft, and U-2S routinely fly above 70,000ft: most fighter jets fly at an altitude between 45,000 and 51,000ft.
The U-2S was deployed both to observe the Chinese balloon from above, and to potentially block the transmission of any data which it was collecting.
It is not clear when the U-2S was deployed, or for which parts of the spy balloon’s seven-day odyssey across the U.S.
The F-22 Raptor is seen taking off on Saturday from Joint Base Langley-Eustis
A U-2S Dragon Lady is seen in action. The planes can fly at an altitude of 70,000ft, and were used last week to fly above the Chinese spy balloon
The spy balloon is seen drifting above the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of South Carolina, on Saturday – with a fighter jet and its contrail seen below it
The use of the U-2S was first reported by The War Zone.
The single-seat, single-engine planes were first launched in 1955, and even today are widely seen as the most difficult aircraft in the world to fly.
Pilots must wear a full pressure suit similar to those worn by astronauts, and landing is extremely precarious, due to limited visibility thanks to the plane’s long nose.
‘The U-2 is capable of gathering a variety of imagery, including multi-spectral electro-optic, infrared, and synthetic aperture radar products which can be stored or sent to ground exploitation centers,’ the Air Force states.
‘In addition, it also supports high-resolution, broad-area synoptic coverage provided by the optical bar camera producing traditional film products which are developed and analyzed after landing.’
The United States air force has 33 U-2S, based at the 9th Reconnaissance Wing, Beale Air Force Base, California.
The U-2, with its glider-like wings, is seen on a reconnaissance mission
A U-2 pilot is seen being assisted with their special pressurized suit. The planes are widely considered the hardest to fly
Officials said the first spy balloon that traveled across the US fell six miles off the coast of South Carolina in waters about 47 feet deep. They noted that a proper salvage vessel won’t be on the scene for days as the race is on to secure the wreckage
They are often deployed worldwide to give ‘indications of recent activity in areas of interest’, the Air Force states,
They are also used to ‘reveal efforts to conceal the placement or true nature of man-made objects’, and assist in humanitarian disasters such as floods or earthquakes.
As the row about the spy balloon continues, and Republicans repeatedly ask why Joe Biden did not order it to be shot down when it first entered U.S. air space, the Pentagon confirmed two more sightings of spy balloons.
The first spy balloon under the Biden administration was described as arriving ‘early’ in his term, with the balloon described as passing over continental U.S.
Officials did not specify where.
A second spy balloon crashed into the Pacific off Hawaii four months ago, around October 2022.
And the third spy balloon, the most recent, entered U.S. airspace above Alaska on January 28, and was seen from the ground and from commercial airliners above Montana on February 1. On February 4 it was shot down off the coast of South Carolina.
Biden wanted to shoot it down as soon as he was informed, on February 1, but Pentagon chiefs told him it was too risky, and could injure people and damage property below.
An F-22 Raptor fighter jet fired a single AIM-9X missile to take down a Chinese spy balloon and its payload, which was equipped with cameras, sensors and radars
A SHORT HISTORY OF SPY BALLOON SIGHTINGS
Under Donald Trump
Under Joe Biden
Early in 2021: over continental USA
Oct 2022: Balloon crashed off Hawaii
Jan-Feb 2023: Balloon flies over US, from Alaska to South Carolina, and is shot down on February 4
Feb 2023: Balloon flying above South America, spotted over northern Colombia
Donald Trump has led criticism of Biden for not shooting it down, but Pentagon bosses subsequently said there were several incursions while Trump was in the White House.
He angrily denied their claim, and both his Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, and National Security Advisor, John Bolton, said they too were surprised to hear there were Chinese spy balloons over the U.S. under their watch.
General Glen VanHerck, the head of U.S. Northern Command, said on Monday that the Defense Department ‘did not detect’ the previous balloons, adding that the intelligence community was made aware of them through other means of information collection.
Reports then suggested that these officials were aware of the incursions, but did not raise the matter with the top leaders in the Pentagon or White House, classifying them instead as ‘unidentified aerial phenomena,’ or U.F.O.s, sources told The New York Times.
Officials, working in recent years with renewed energy to investigate U.F.O.s, then concluded that sightings previously noted were in fact spy balloons.
‘We did not detect those threats,’ VanHerck told reporters.
‘The intel community after the fact — I believe as has been briefed already — assessed those threats from additional means of collection and made us aware of those balloons that were previously approaching North America or transited North America.’
A growing number of sightings has now been recorded as Chinese spy balloon incursions.
The spy balloon is pictured being shot out of the sky on Saturday above South Carolina
Last week, it was confirmed that Hawaii and Guam had both detected spy balloons – both island sites have large military bases.
At the weekend, Florida and Texas were confirmed as locations for a sighting under the Trump administration.
On Monday, Bloomberg reported that Chinese spy balloons had additionally been sighted over Norfolk, Virginia and Coronado, California, while Trump was in office.
Both locations are home to air craft carriers.
The tally now stands at six incursions during Trump’s administration, and three under Biden – with a fourth balloon currently drifting above South America, heading north across Colombia.
VanHerck said that it was troubling that the Pentagon did not detect and correctly identify the balloons immediately, and said they were now working with urgency to improve their detection capabilities.
‘I will tell you that we did not detect those threats,’ he said.
‘And that’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out.’
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