Shooting down civilian airship generates risks for similar scenarios, expert says
The United States' hyping up and politicizing of a Chinese unmanned civilian airship's accidental entry into U.S. airspace is irresponsible and dangerous, aerospace industry observers said.
Wang Ya'nan, chief editor of Aerospace Knowledge magazine and author of several books about aircraft, said that globally, the use of high-altitude balloons and airships for meteorological research and other scientific activities is a common practice. High-altitude balloons and airships are ideal platforms for meteorological research because of their low manufacturing cost and capability to collect atmospheric data over a large area.
There are more than 1,000 locations around the world where weather balloons and airships are launched on a regular basis, he said.
"According to American scientists, in the U.S. alone there are more than 100 weather stations that each release two meteorological balloons every day. China is also actively using aircraft-like balloons and airships for atmospheric studies," Wang said. "The unmanned airship shot down by the U.S. is a typical civilian research device. The equipment it carried and the atmospheric data it collected would purely be used for civilian purposes, rather than 'spying tools' as hyped by the U.S.."
Though some meteorological airships have power and propulsion systems, the power generated during the flight is only enough to maintain basic needs for flight sensors and communications devices rather than sophisticated spying equipment, while the propulsion system can only help adjust the aircraft's position in the air and cannot withstand strong winds.
However, high-altitude balloons and airships are prone to deviating significantly from their planned routes when they encounter strong winds, the expert said.
Normally, operators set the flight course within a small range at a reasonable altitude and then the aircraft will collect data from within the designated airspace.
"The designated operational area of China's meteorological balloons and airships is naturally within Chinese territorial airspace. The operators don't need or want them to fly beyond the designated area. However, if the airship flies under the influence of winds due to various kinds of reasons, it is highly likely to be out of the (range of) ground monitoring due to force majeure," Wang explained.
Therefore, it is quite clear that the Chinese airship's entry into U.S. airspace was "entirely an unexpected, isolated incident caused by force majeure", he said.
The U.S.' assertion that the airship was a "military reconnaissance platform" is probably a reflection of its own history of using airships for reconnaissance operations during the Cold War, Wang noted, adding that the era of airships as reconnaissance tools had ended a long time ago.
Influenced by the illusion and conviction that China has become a strong competitor to the U.S., many in the U.S. imagine that the airship was a military tool, which could fit in with the "China threat" narrative, Wang said.
"For such an accident caused by force majeure, it is entirely possible to reach an understanding through consultation, reach an agreement on the handling of follow-up issues and control the impact at a reasonable level. It is clear, however, that some people in the U.S. do not want such a mutually acceptable outcome," Wang said.
"Playing up the 'China threat' theory, and then sending fighter jets to shoot down the airship in disregard of its civilian nature, politicized the issue and even made it a new front of confrontation. This is not only irresponsible but also generates more risks to the handling of civil aircraft in similar scenarios in the future."
Zhu Yaochun, a senior expert at the China Air Transport Association, said that according to international practice, an unmanned civilian aircraft straying into other nations' airspace is usually handled through warnings, expulsion, an escorted flight or forced landing, and such incidents are usually resolved peacefully through diplomatic channels. It is an important principle stipulated in the Charter of the United Nations to settle disputes through peaceful means such as negotiation and consultation.
"According to international laws, in case of force majeure or an emergency, an unmanned aircraft can be exempted from the illegality of unauthorized entry into another country's airspace. According to the Convention on International Civil Aviation and related rules from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, though civilian unmanned airships do not enjoy state immunity, their private property remains inviolable. What the U.S. side has done is a serious violation of the legitimate rights and interests of relevant Chinese companies," he said.