UK to arm itself with spy balloon fleet after £100m research deal

China defends claims that US ‘spy balloon’ was a ‘weather balloon’

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The UK is considering buying its own fleet of spy balloons, in the wake of a number of incursions by similar devices in recent weeks. The Government signed a £100million research deal last year with a US-based company to develop “stratospheric uncrewed air systems”. This comes amid growing concern over the threat from China.

The US last month shot down a balloon floating over American airspace, believing it was spying on key military sites across the US.

Ben Wallace admitted that Chinese balloons may have spied on the UK, saying he too would have ordered it to be shot down.

The deal, signed by the Ministry of Defence as part of Project Aether, will see the UK develop surveillance balloons which fly between 50,000ft and 80,000ft.

The height of the balloons means they are less likely to be battered by turbulence.

The devices underwent test flights in autumn, and then the MoD confirmed it is interested in buying “balloon-based” systems.

Ross Corbett, part of the MoD’s procurement wing, said the lower levels of turbulence in the stratosphere would allow devices to float more steadily above a target.

He told the Times: “Successfully exploiting this space could mean huge potential benefits but there’s still a lot left for us to learn about how to operate there, especially for long periods of time.”

Mr Corbett added: “Our working theory is that the turbulence we’ve all experienced in aeroplanes cruising at 40,000ft doesn’t exist to the same degree in the stratosphere.

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“If that’s right, we could send up really light aircraft for long periods of time, without worrying about them being battered by turbulent air. This could be a layer of the atmosphere with, we think, very little traffic or weather.”

He said the MoD is looking at both “balloon-based” and “fixed-wing systems”, adding that it would be better to have “a range of capabilities”.

Mr Corbett said the department is evaluating the use of “platforms that loiter in the stratosphere for longer periods of time” and others that can stay there “for shorter fixed durations instead”.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: “We regularly keep our capabilities under review and while assessment activity is ongoing it would be inappropriate to comment further.”

The US Department of Defence confirmed its fighter jets brought down the balloon over US territorial waters. Footage showed the balloon falling to the sea after a small explosion.

China’s foreign ministry expressed “strong dissatisfaction and protest against the US’s use of force to attack civilian unmanned aircraft”.

Beijing has strongly denied that the object was being used for spying purposes, and claims it was a weather device blown astray.

However, Washington has said it believes that the balloon from China is part of a wider fleet that has spanned five continents.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: “The United States was not the only target of this broader programme.

“We’re not alone in this. We’ve already shared information with dozens of countries around the world both from Washington and through our embassies.

“We’re doing so because the United States was not the only target of this broader programme which has violated the sovereignty of countries across five continents.”

The Secretary of State added the US had shared information gathered from the balloon debris with dozens of other countries.

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