Rishi Sunak has said the government will do “whatever it takes” to keep the UK safe from the threat of spy balloons.
It comes after the US shot down another unidentified object flying over its airspace, with officials saying it came near to sensitive military sites and could have been used for spying. It is the fourth incident of this kind in just over a week, after objects were previously shot down in Alaska, Canada, and South Carolina.
The latest object, which a military commander said could be a “gaseous type of balloon” or “some type of a propulsion system”, was downed over Lake Huron in Michigan at 2.42pm local time on Sunday (12 February), on the order of President Joe Biden. A missile was fired at about 20,000 ft, amid concerns that its altitude and flight path could have interfered with commercial air traffic.
Speaking on the first incident, China stated that the device was a meterological tracker which has been knocked off-course. But US officials have said that they believe that the balloon is part of an international surveillance programme which spans five continents. This includes Europe, and possibly the UK.
The UK Prime Minister has now commented on the situation - vowing to keep the UK safe and assuring the public that the government is prepared for threats.
What did Rishi Sunak say about Chinese spy balloons?
Asked about whether spying devices had been seen in UK airspace, the Prime Minister told broadcasters: “I want people to know that we will do whatever it takes to keep the country safe. We have something called the quick reaction alert force which involves Typhoon planes, which are kept on 24/7 readiness to police our airspace, which is incredibly important.
“I can’t obviously comment in detail on national security matters, but we are in constant touch with our allies and, as I said, we will do whatever it takes to keep the country safe.”
When pressed further about the possibility of incidents in UK airspace, Sunak added: “As I said, I wouldn’t comment in detail on security matters but people should be reassured that we have all the capabilities in place to keep the country safe.”
What else has been said about Chinese spy balloons in the UK?
Transport Minister Richard Holden told Sky News earlier today that it is possible that “Chinese spy balloons have already been used over the UK”. He continued: “It is also possible, and I would think likely, that there would be people from the Chinese government trying to act as a hostile state.”
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace meanehilw has announced that the UK will conduct a security review after a series of objects in Western airspace were shot down by the US military, including a suspected Chinese spy balloon. He previously said to The Sun: “Is it the case that a Chinese satellite has probably circled Britain and looked at us? I should think yes.”
The MP also added that the UK would take similar precautions as the US if a similar device was ever found to be flying over the UK. He said: “I would have recommended that it was shot down at the moment we could have acquired the most appropriate levels of intelligence from it. You can turn even simple things like weather balloons into a sophisticated piece of equipment.”
What has the US said about the balloon?
Discussing the latest unidentified object, US Northern Command Commander General Glen Van Herck said that there was no indication of any threat. He commented: “I’m not going to categorise them as balloons. We’re calling them objects for a reason. What we are seeing is very, very small objects that produce a very, very low radar cross-section.”
But speculation as to what the objects may be has intensified in recent days, with Gen VanHerck confirming: “I haven’t ruled anything out at this point.”
On shooting the object down, the Pentagon said in a statement: “Based on its flight path and data we can reasonably connect this object to the radar signal picked up over Montana, which flew in proximity to sensitive DOD [Department of Defense] sites. We did not assess it to be a kinetic military threat to anything on the ground, but assess it was a safety flight hazard and a threat due to its potential surveillance capabilities.”
When the first object was detected, the US held a hearing in which lawmakers passed a non-binding resolution condemning China for the ‘surveillance’ device. The House of Representatives members described the use of the balloon as a “brazen violation of United States sovereignty”.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken also cancelled a scheduled trip to China in response. He said: “The fact is China engaged in this irresponsible action, a violation of our sovereignty and territorial integrity and international law.”
A Department of State official said that the first balloon, which was shot down by a US fighter jet, was “equipped with solar panels large enough to produce the requisite power to operate multiple active intelligence collection sensors”. It added that the manufactuer of the device is believed to have commerical links to the Chinese military.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning has slammed the accusations. She said that the surveillance claims were “probably part of the information and public opinion warfare the US has waged on China”.