Chinese surveillance balloon flies over US: Nellis AFB scrambles two F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jets

Chinese surveillance balloon flies over US: Nellis AFB scrambles two F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jets

By Dario Leone
Feb 3 2023
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The USAF scrambled two F-22 Raptor stealth fighters from Nellis AFB on Feb. 1, 2023 to observe a Chinese surveillance balloon over the continental US.

The US Air Force (USAF) scrambled two F-22 Raptor stealth fighters from Nellis Air Force Base (AFB), Nev. on Feb. 1, 2023 to observe a Chinese surveillance balloon over the continental US, Air & Space Forces Magazine reported.

The Pentagon said on Feb. 2 that it is tracking the surveillance balloon and a senior defense official said the US considered shooting the balloon down over Montana.

“We had been looking at whether there was an option yesterday over some sparsely populated areas in Montana. But we just couldn’t buy down the risk enough to feel comfortable recommending shooting it down yesterday,” the senior defense official told during a briefing with reporters on Feb. 2.

The balloon remains over the US, though the Pentagon said they do not think it poses a significant risk.

“The US government, to include NORAD, continues to track and monitor it closely. The balloon is currently traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground,” Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, said.

The senior defense official added that the balloon “entered the continental United States airspace a couple of days ago” and that the US has been “tracking it for some time.”

Chinese surveillance balloon flies over US: Nellis AFB scrambles two F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jets
A suspected Chinese high altitude balloon floats over Billings, Montana on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. (Larry Mayer/The Billings Gazette via AP)

President Joe Biden was briefed on the balloon and asked for military options the senior defense official said.

The senior defense official said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley and Air Force Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, the head of North American Aerospace Command (NORAD) and U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM), recommended “not to take kinetic action due to the risk to safety and security of people on the ground from the possible debris field,” which led to Biden deciding not to use force against the balloon. According to the Pentagon, the balloon is still at a “high altitude” over the continental US, though they declined to specify its protected flight path or current location.

According to air traffic control data, a ground stop occurred on Feb. 1 at the airport in Billings, Mont. where the senior defense official noted the US considering shooting the balloon down. Local media reported that residents in Montana noted an unusual object in the sky. A user on Twitter captured a video of the two F-22s refueling over Utah.

The USAF has ballistic missile fields across a wide swath of Montana, as part of the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom AFB, Mont.—one of three American strategic nuclear ICBM bases.

The senior defense official said that “Clearly the intent of this balloon is for surveillance. And so, the current flight path does carry it over a number of sensitive sites.”

According to the senior defense official the US is confident the balloon is from the People’s Republic of China.

“I’m not going to go into all the ways in which we know that it’s a PRC balloon,” he said. “I will just say we have very high confidence that this is a PRC balloon. Very high confidence. So, we do not doubt that this is a PRC balloon. And that is an assessment shared across our intelligence and analytic community.”

“We have communicated to [Chinese officials] the seriousness with which we take this issue. … But we have made clear we will do whatever is necessary to protect our people and our homeland,” he added.

According to Ryder instances of this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years. But this balloon is staying over the US longer than in previous cases.

The Pentagon said they were unsure what motivated the Chinese to send a spy balloon over America.

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Balloons are one of oldest forms of surveillance technology. Compared to other air surveillance devices, they can be operated cheaply without personnel, while remaining airborne for long periods of time.

Speaking at an unrelated event in Washington DC on Thursday, CIA Director William Burns made no mention of the balloon, but called China the “biggest geopolitical challenge” currently facing the US.

And the alleged spy craft is likely to increase tensions between the two countries.

In the coming days Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken was due to travel to China in an effort to open channels of communication between the two countries. It is not clear if that visit will go ahead. High-level military-to-military talks between China and the US have not occurred despite a recent public plea by Austin after a Chinese jet intercepted a US Air Force RC-135 over the South China Sea in what the Pentagon said was an unsafe manner.

Finally Air Mobility Command boss Gen. Mike Minihan recently generated international headlines when a memo to his Airmen in which he suggested the US “will fight in 2025” with China leaked to the media. As Air & Space Forces Magazine reported, in the days that followed, national security experts and even Airmen themselves have split on the message, with some praising Minihan for his plain talk and others worrying that he needlessly turned up tensions with his rhetoric.

Photo credit: Larry Mayer/The Billings Gazette via AP via CNN and Tomás Del Coro from Las Vegas, Nevada, USA via Wikipedia

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.
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