“Knock down that balloon!
As a man of action, former President Donald Trump was quick to give his opinion on Friday on the best way to put an end to the Chinese aircraft which is currently flying over United States territory.
A radical solution which is reminiscent of that which the former American president had suggested in 2019, during the fire of Notre-Dame de Paris: send Canadair to, quite simply, drop tons of water on the building on fire.
The idea is however much less absurd, and the Pentagon has indeed examined the possibility of shooting down the balloon, detected for about two days - another has since been identified in South America -, at the request of President Joe Biden .
Fighter jets even approached the craft over Montana, according to a senior US defense official.
But the decision was taken to do nothing for various reasons, starting with the safety of the inhabitants of the areas overflown by the balloon.
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“We considered that it was large enough for the debris to cause damage” if it had been shot down in a populated area, according to the same source.
Contacted by Le Parisien, David Stupples, professor of electronic engineering at City University of London and specialist in military intelligence and electronic warfare, did not say anything else.
“The ball is too big.
If you shoot it down, you can't really know where it will land because it will float and it will drift with the wind, he explains.
Imagine if it goes down a highway!
“And to conclude:” If it does not cause any problem, then why not let it float?
In fact, the American authorities considered that the balloon, even if it would be able to record sensitive data, was not dangerous in itself.
“The balloon is currently flying at an altitude well above commercial air traffic.
It poses no military or physical threat to people on the ground,” Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder said, noting that the United States and Canada Aerospace Defense Command (Norad) was monitoring the ball trajectory.
The Canadian example
Added to this is the question of the effectiveness of such a maneuver.
For William Kim, a surveillance balloon specialist at the Marathon Initiative think tank in Washington, quoted by AFP, shooting down the balloon is not as simple as Donald Trump seems to think.
“These balloons run on helium (…) You can't just shoot it and set it on fire” like an airship, explains the specialist.
“These are not things that explode or burst,” he continues.
If you puncture it, it will just deflate very slowly.
The expert points to an example dating back 25 years as proof.
In 1998, the Canadian Air Force sent an F-18 fighter jet to try to shoot down a weather balloon considered rogue.
"They riddled it with a thousand rounds of 20 millimeter ammunition," recalls William Kim.
And it still took six days before he came back down.
Not to mention that it is not clear whether surface-to-air missiles work against this type of balloon, their guidance systems being designed to track down fast targets.
So the Americans just have to… wait.
While US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the priority is to “get this spy craft out of our airspace,” he will have to rely on the help of the wind.
The balloon should indeed remain above American territory for "a few more days", Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder said on Friday.
The craft, which is heading east, was Friday afternoon “over the central United States” at an altitude of some 18,000 m.