In a daring aerial reconnaissance mission, a U-2 pilot managed to capture a close-up photo of a large white Chinese spy balloon just a day before it was shot down by the US Air Force off the South Carolina coast. The image, released by the Pentagon on Wednesday, shows the top of the pilot's helmet inside the cockpit of the U-2 Dragon Lady spy plane, with the balloon visible below. The photo was taken on February 3, as the balloon reportedly "hovered over the Central Continental United States."
The Pentagon's decision to release the image more than two weeks after the balloon made international headlines has raised questions about the US military's handling of the incident. The balloon, which was reportedly part of China's surveillance program, was downed on February 4 by an F-22 fighter jet firing an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile. The strike took place when the balloon was no longer over land, but still within US territorial waters.
The U-2 Dragon Lady, a high altitude spy plane that has been in service since the 1950s, played a crucial role in the mission to track and take down the Chinese spy balloon. The successful operation marked a significant victory for the US military, which has been engaged in an escalating standoff with China over surveillance and military activity in the Pacific region.
Following the shootdown, Navy ships and submersibles were deployed to recover the massive balloon and its payload, which fell in pieces into the Atlantic Ocean. The Pentagon announced on Friday that the recovery mission had been completed, and the recovered payload was being analyzed by the FBI.
In the aftermath of the incident, three other smaller objects were also shot down by US Air Force jets within a period of eight days, including one over Alaska, one over Canada, and one over Lake Huron. The searches for the Alaska and Lake Huron objects have now ended, but the incident has raised concerns about the proliferation of Chinese surveillance activities in US airspace.
The US military has been stepping up its efforts to counter China's military activities in the Pacific region, with the Biden administration announcing plans to invest heavily in the development of advanced military technologies and bolstering the US military presence in the region. As tensions continue to escalate between the two superpowers, it remains to be seen what further measures the US will take to counter China's growing military capabilities.