The Chinese “spy” balloon, roughly the size of three buses, spotted off the coast of South Carolina in the United States has heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing. After much planning, the balloon was shot down over US territorial waters.

While China claimed that it was a weather ship that had gone astray, America believes the balloon was monitoring sensitive military dies. After observing the object, which spent several days flying over North America, President Joe Biden decided to “take care” of it.

According to reports, multiple aircraft were used for the operation. But it was a missile fired by the F-22 Raptor which finally brought the balloon down.

Also read: Spies in the Sky: Why was a Chinese balloon lingering over the US? Is this an old tactic?

The F-22, the first-ever fifth-generation fighter jet to enter service, is among the world’s most advanced aircraft. Known as the crown jewel in America’s military arsenal, the jet made by Lockheed Martin, provides the country with air security and it is said that no other capability will come close to the F-22 for years to come.

Why was the F-22 used?

Multiple fighter and refuelling aircraft were involved in the mission, but only one – an F-22 fighter jet from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia – took the shot, using a single AIM-9X supersonic, heat-seeking, air-to-air missile, a senior US military official said, according to a report by Reuters.

“F-15 Eagles flying from Barnes Air National Guard Base, Massachusetts, supported the F-22, as did tankers from multiple states,” the US Department of Defence said in its release.

The deployment of expensive weapons – the $200 million F-22 Raptor and the $400,000 Sidewinder missile – to bring down the balloon was questioned by many. The balloon was soaring at an extremely high altitude – more than 60,000 feet – and the F-22 is the jet most capable of conducting a precision strike at that height.

The F-22 fired the missile at an altitude of 58,000 feet while the surveillance balloon was between 60,000 and 65,000 feet, the defence department said.

According to defence analysts, it’s the first time the F-22 fighter jet has shot down an airborne target. “Shooting down China’s balloon was indeed the F-22’s first air-to-air kill,” Rebecca Grant, an Air Force systems specialist and president of IRIS Independent Research, was quoted as saying by Bloomberg.

The War Zone, a defence publication, said on its website that the incident “may be the highest altitude air-to-air kill ever”.

Explained How the US shot down Chinas spy balloon using its most advanced and expensive F22 fighter jet

A F 22 Raptor fighter jet was used to shoot down the Chinese spy balloon. This was the F-22’s first air-to-air kill. Representational picture/AFP

What is the F-22 capable of?

According to Lockheed Martin, the F-22 is the best air dominance fighter in the world. It boasts a unique combination of stealth, speed, agility and situational awareness and has lethal long-range air-to-air and air-to-ground weaponry. The US Air Force has a fleet of 195 Raptors.

The fighter jets made their debut in 2015, almost nine years after they were considered ready for warfare. They were used to carry out guided air strikes against the Islamic State positions in Syria and Iraq, reports Bloomberg.

Explained How the US shot down Chinas spy balloon using its most advanced and expensive F22 fighter jet

Graphic: Pranay Bhardwaj

According to the US Air Force, the F-22 Raptor is a combination of stealth, supercruise, manoeuvrability, and integrated avionics, coupled with improved supportability. Its sensor capability, integrated avionics, situational awareness, and weapons provide it with a “first-kill” opportunity against threats.

The engines of the F-22 produce more thrust than any fighter engine in the world. The sleek aerodynamic design and increased thrust allow the F-22 to cruise at supersonic airspeeds (greater than 1.5 Mach) without using an afterburner, a characteristic known as supercruise.

It has a radar cross-section of 0.0001 sq. m., about the size of a bumble bee. It makes it impossible for enemy detection systems to track it.

The best military aircraft in the world comes at a price. The Pentagon spent USD 67 billion to buy the 187 supersonic jets, according to the Bloomberg report. The cost of one jet is around $137 million.

Flying the F-22 is also an expensive affair. According to the US defence ministry, the average cost per flying hour is around $68,000, which is more than triple of most Russian jets, reports The Indian Express.

Why was there a delay in shooting the balloon?

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J Austin III said in a statement that the balloon was an attempt by China to “surveil strategic sites in the continental United States”, calling it an “unacceptable violation” of sovereignty.

US officials first detected the balloon and its payload on 28 January when it entered US airspace near the Aleutian Islands. The balloon traversed Alaska and Canada and re-entered US airspace over Idaho.

US president Joe Biden said on Saturday that he had ordered the military to shoot down the balloon as soon as possible when he was briefed about the matter on Wednesday. However, national security officials had warned Biden “the best time to do that was when it got over water” because of safety concerns associated with shooting it down over land.

Explained How the US shot down Chinas spy balloon using its most advanced and expensive F22 fighter jet

The map shows the path of the suspected spy balloon. AP

“US military commanders had determined downing the balloon while over land posed an undue risk to people across a wide area due to the size and altitude of the balloon and its surveillance payload,” Austin said.

What is China saying?

China is upset with the shooting down of the balloon. Its foreign ministry said that the decision has “seriously impacted and damaged” relations between the two nations.

The balloon incident led to the United States calling off a planned visit to Beijing by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Explained How the US shot down Chinas spy balloon using its most advanced and expensive F22 fighter jet

This photo provided by Jason Sellers shows US Air Force fighter aircraft shooting down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the Carolina coast on Saturday. President Joe Biden said that he ordered US officials to shoot down the suspected Chinese spy balloon earlier this week and that national security leaders decided the best time for the operation was when it got over water. AP

Beijing, which claimed the balloon was a civilian aircraft that was blown off course, lodged an official complaint with the US embassy in China. “The United States’ actions have seriously impacted and damaged both sides’ efforts and progress in stabilising Sino-US relations since the Bali meeting,” vice foreign minister Xie Feng said in the complaint, according to a foreign ministry statement. He was referring to a summit between presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping in November.

Pentagon officials on Friday described the airship as a “high-altitude surveillance balloon”, adding that Washington had taken steps to block it from collecting sensitive information.

With inputs from agencies

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