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.
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.
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.
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