About a year ago, locals on a strategic Indian island chain that sits closer to Singapore than New Delhi spotted an unusual object in the sky: a giant balloon similar to the one the US downed earlier this month.
At the time, nobody really knew what it was. As hundreds of people on the Andaman and Nicobar islands ventured outside and snapped photos of the unusual flying object that lit up social media, India’s defense establishment became alarmed.
The islands are close to India’s missile testing areas in the Bay of Bengal and sit near the Malacca Strait, a key bottleneck for supplies of energy and other goods to China and other North Asian nations.
Now, in the aftermath of the US shooting down a balloon it alleged was part of Chinese surveillance, Indian officials are revisiting the incident while developing protocols to improve their ability to detect similar threats and respond more quickly in the future, the officials said.
Unlike the US, which used a pricey Aim-9X Sidewinder missile to bring down the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon, India favors cheaper options such as fighter jets or heavy machine guns attached to transporter aircraft, the officials added.
The object had appeared suddenly over the island chain, slipping past numerous Indian radar systems on the way, multiple officials with knowledge of the matter said this week. Before authorities could determine the balloon’s origin and reach a decision on whether to bring it down, the object drifted southwest into the ocean, they said.
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The Indian officials were reluctant to speculate on the origin of the balloon. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is hosting the Group of 20 meetings this year, and is seeking to avoid stoking diplomatic rifts as it looks to make progress on goals such as alleviating the debt burden of developing nations.
Representatives of India’s Ministry of External Affairs, the navy and the air force didn’t immediately respond to calls seeking comment.
The US-China balloon spat derailed a mini-thaw between the world’s two largest economies following President Joe Biden’s meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in November. Beijing has said the device was a civilian craft collecting weather data, and accused the US of overreacting by ordering a fighter jet to shoot it down.
The US is now analyzing debris that divers recovered from the sea off South Carolina. It has said the balloon is part of a yearslong surveillance program China has run and that similar aircraft have been deployed around the globe.
Images captured from the high altitude and slow-moving balloons could complement satellite imagery and help in better understanding the terrain, communication systems in use and soil quality of the areas, the people said.