Chinese Surveillance Balloon flying over US Shot Down By F-22 by means of one AIM-9X in the first known air-to-air takedown for a Raptor

Chinese Surveillance Balloon flying over US Shot Down By F-22 by means of one AIM-9X in the first known air-to-air takedown for a Raptor

By Dario Leone
Feb 5 2023
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The F-22 Raptor fired the AIM-9X Sidewinder from 58,000 feet, hitting the balloon operating at around 60,000 to 65,000 feet.

On Feb. 4, 2023 at 2:39 pm Eastern time, a US Air Force (USAF) F-22 Raptor from the 1st Fighter Wing at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va. successfully shot down a Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina, Air & Space Forces Magazine reports. According to senior US defense and military officials, the Raptor fired one AIM-9X Sidewinder into the approximately 90-foot wide balloon, causing it to fall towards the Atlantic Ocean.

“We successfully took it down, and I want to compliment our aviators who did it,” President Joe Biden said.

According to the Pentagon, F-15s from Barnes Air National Guard Base, Mass., well as well as multiple tankers assisted in the effort. US defense and military officials said in a briefing to reporters that the F-22 fired the Sidewinder from 58,000 feet, hitting the balloon operating at around 60,000 to 65,000 feet. It is the first known air-to-air takedown for an F-22. The shootdown came after the US ordered a ground stop at nearby airports and closed airspace in the vicinity.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said in a statement;

“At the direction of President Biden, U.S. fighter aircraft assigned to U.S. Northern Command successfully brought down the high altitude surveillance balloon launched by and belonging to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) over the water off the coast of South Carolina in U.S. airspace. The balloon, which was being used by the PRC in an attempt to surveil strategic sites in the continental United States, was brought down above U.S. territorial waters.”

For days, the Department of Defense sought to explain how a surveillance asset from its main rival had managed to end up—and stay—in American airspace, even as the US acknowledged it was tracking the balloon that was trying to take a peek at sensitive national security sites.

The balloon first entered US air defense identification zone (ADIZ) near Alaska on Jan. 28, north of the Aleutian Islands and moved largely across land, a senior defense official said. But the balloon continued to fly even as the U.S. tracked it, the official said, and entered Canadian airspace on Jan. 30., which is protected jointly by the U.S. and Canada through North American Aerospace Command (NORAD), before reentering US airspace in northern Idaho Jan. 31.

Two F-22 Raptor stealth fighters were scrambled from Nellis Air Force Base (AFB), Nev. on Feb. 1, 2023 to observe the balloon over the continental US.

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The Pentagon’s failure to acknowledge the incident until Feb. 2—after it had been spotted by civilians over Montana—prompted consternation on both sides of the aisle in Congress. Local media reported that residents in Montana noted an unusual object in the sky. 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.

China claimed the balloon was a weather balloon that had drifted off course.

“China regrets that the airship strayed into the United States due to force majeure,” China’s foreign ministry said in a statement Feb. 3., referring to a situation out of its control.

But a 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.”

He added that the US was confident the balloon was from the People’s Republic of China.

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

Nevertheless, as reported by Air & Space Forces Magazine, as the balloon finally drifted over the Atlantic, two Langley F-22s, using the callsigns FRANK01 and FRANK02, finally brought it down. A NORTHCOM spokesperson said the callsigns were a homage to Lt. Frank Luke Jr., a World War 1 ace and Medal of Honor recipient. Luke was nicknamed the “Arizona Balloon Buster” after destroying 14 German balloons in 17 days. Luke AFB, Ariz. is named in his honor.

After the downing, Biden said that he had ordered the balloon shot down “as soon as possible” on Feb. 1, but it was unsafe to do so at that time. “I ordered the Pentagon to shoot it down,” Biden said. “The best time to do that was when it got over water.”

Though debris could be spread for miles, the DOD said that the Navy and Coast Guard are searching for the balloon debris in 47 feet of water six miles off the coast of South Carolina.

A US Air Force (USAF) F-22 Raptor from the 1st Fighter Wing at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va. successfully shot down a Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4. 2023.

Instances of this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years. But this balloon stayed over the US longer than in previous cases.

However, this episode increased tensions between the two countries.

The incident in fact led to the cancellation of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s scheduled visit to China, which was supposed to occur Feb. 3. It would have been the first cabinet-level visit by a US official to occur during the Biden administration. 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: David Henry / U.S. Air Force

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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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Comments

  1. TripoliOhio says:

    Weather balloons are disposable and tend to pop when they reach a certain altitude. They also have cardboard construction so when it does pop, there is no significant damage once it hits the ground. Most weather balloons will not get very far. Domestically, they are regulated by the FAA and FCC. Internationally, it is up to an individual nation whether or not they will allow such in their airspace. Global uncontrolled airspace, is considered above 12 Miles. To put this in perspective, commercial aircraft fly up to 45,000 feet although the Concorde did fly up to 60,000. US Military aircraft have broken 65,000 feet. The SR-71 flew up to 90,000 feet. Science balloons designed for a international/global distance flight must meet all international laws on design and safety and the fly over nations have the ability to deny any overflights of their national airspace.

    This is not a weather balloon. To make the distance it has, it would need a system to regulate the air pressure and control the altitude so it can keep flying. It also has a antenna relay, which was monitored by the US and identified it as a spy device. A somewhat simple solution is to jam the device, or using microwaves, burn the device out and then shoot it down when it reaches a safe space to do so. This is most likely what happened. If China is upset, it would be only because it was a spy device.
    Using a missile is an expensive way of taking it down. The US probably did so just as a test of the F-22 system’s ability to do such. It is also the reason why they waited until it was out over the ocean to do so.

  2. warrentrout says:

    It’s not about the f22. Rather the AIM9X. I’m amazed it could get an IR lock. The Sidewinder has come along ways since I was an Air Force pilot

  3. johnmvirgilio@yahoo.com says:

    This reminds me of the old urban legend that NASA spent millions developing a pen that could write in microgravity, whereas the Russians just used a pencil.

    Why would you choose to use (except as mentioned above: as a test opportunity) to spend nearly $400k on a missile to take out a balloon, when a 1-sec burst from the 20mm cannon would’ve sufficed, and saved almost all of that money?

  4. sam_martin says:

    Well the main issue with using a pencil is graphite shavings which aren’t ideal in space, especially because graphite can conduct electricity.

    As for the aim-9x it was likely another chance to prove/test effectiveness

  5. Randall Lange says:

    Why use a missile to shoot the balloon?
    Wouldn’t cannon fire deflate it and allow it to descend somewhat intact instead of creating a seven mile impact zone?

  6. Bryce says:

    My guess is because the the F22 couldn’t fly high and slow enough to gun a reliable gun shot to hit it.

  7. Christopher w Graham says:

    I’d like one question answered. Why did the U.S. Air Force take so long to recognize the balloon that flew into the U.S. Air Space over the Pacific Ocean and waited until it hit the Atlantic ocean before shooting it down. Seems to me the U.S. needs to beef up the surveillance over the Pacific. Seems to me I remembered reading history books like that happened before.

  8. mvftcc@gmail.com says:

    Killing flies with 12 gauge shot gun. A bit of a overkill. What about utilising unmanned aircraft hoking it up and tow it away

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