On Saturday, an American F-22 Raptor shot down a Chinese surveillance balloon off the coast of South Carolina using an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile. In the days leading up to the intercept, the balloon had traversed the U.S. mainland and portions of Canada, leaving a flood of conspiracy theories in its wake. Some of these theories were political in nature, while others were related to the harm the balloon could potentially cause if equipped with different kinds of weapon systems.
To be clear right off the bat, this Chinese surveillance balloon floating its way across the U.S. certainly does represent a serious development in the diplomatic tensions between the United States and China, but the Defense Department was clear throughout that the system itself posed little to no direct threat to the American people. In other words, this event is a big deal, but not because of any physical danger it represented.
Let’s identify some of the more common misinformation and disinformation narratives surrounding the Chinese surveillance balloon, as well as some of the most pressing questions, and address them using official statements released by defense officials, or by providing a bit more context.
Related: The US military would likely prevail against a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, but at great cost
How was the balloon shot down?
The balloon was shot down approximately six miles off the coast of South Carolina by a U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor from the 1st Fighter Wing at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, on Saturday afternoon. U.S. territorial waters extend 12 miles out to sea, meaning the balloon was shot down while still flying over what is legally considered American sovereign territory.
The weapon used was an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile — America’s most modern infrared-guided (heat-seeking) air-to-air missile and the latest iteration of the long-serving Sidewinder family.
The F-22 Raptor reportedly launched the AIM-9X at an altitude of 58,000 feet — a notable height considering the F-22’s disclosed service ceiling is listed as simply, “above 50,000 feet.” The AIM-9X climbed to a reported altitude of 65,000 feet before finding its target — making this potentially the highest altitude intercept of all time.
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Why wasn’t it shot down sooner?
The official answer is simply that the American government wanted to ensure it didn’t risk hurting anyone or damaging any property as the balloon, estimated to be about three school busses in length, hurtled to the ground after being shot down. Even over sparsely populated areas like Montana, that much debris raining down from 65,000 feet could cause serious problems.
But the secondary reason behind allowing the balloon to continue floating was likely its value as an intelligence-gathering asset for the United States, rather than China. Once the intelligence-gathering capabilities of the Chinese balloon were mitigated, the U.S. could observe it freely, sponging data from its systems and assessing its overall capabilities in a relatively risk-free environment.
Related: America’s F-22 will see serious upgrades before retirement
Did the balloon collect valuable intel for China?
The short answer is no. Defense officials have been clear that steps were taken to mitigate the system’s ability to collect or relay any data, and savvy Twitter and Reddit users were quick to note the presence of aircraft like the RC-135 Rivet Joint near the areas the balloon traversed.
The Rivet Joint is a heavily modified Boeing C-135 Stratolifter, a sibling of Boeing’s civilian 707, jam-packed with electronic warfare and surveillance equipment.
The aircraft can carry more than 30 crewmembers to operate its broad array of systems, which include the capability to identify and locate signals broadcasting anywhere on the electromagnetic spectrum.
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Why use a balloon when Chinese spy satellites are already zooming overhead?
Spy satellites can only carry a finite amount of fuel for onboard thrusters meant to adjust orbital course, and as a result, satellite orbits are rather predictable. Hiding something from spy satellites orbiting high overhead simply becomes a question of tucking your secrets away during the set times you know the satellite has a direct line of sight. The predictability of satellite orbits reduces the satellites’ spying potential. Tracking these orbital bodies in real-time is one of the many jobs taken over by the U.S. Space Force upon its establishment.
Further, balloons are low-cost and low-signature. In other words, they’re inexpensive to field in large numbers and, despite their size, aren’t always easy to detect. They have nearly no carbon emissions or infrared signature to pick up on. In fact, these massive balloons even often boast a very small radar cross-section — sometimes similar to a small bird, because radar waves aren’t reflected by the balloon’s fabric.
These systems also have limited navigational capabilities, allowing them to loiter — which is very difficult for a satellite to pull off.
It often takes about a decade to get a new spy satellite into orbit, but thanks to modern miniaturized systems, balloons can serve as a highly effective intelligence-gathering platform for a relatively low cost.
Related: What is Signals Intelligence?
What if the balloon had been carrying an EMP or nuclear weapon?
While the balloon was traversing the United States, many took to social media to express their concerns that this balloon could carry an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) or nuclear weapon onboard. The Pentagon has not overtly expressed how they were certain this wasn’t the case, but a combination of context and common sense can take you far on this one.
EMPs can damage electronic devices over large swaths of territory, but the amount of energy required to do so is immense. In fact, the most feasible way to affect an entire region of the United States with an EMP would be to detonate a nuclear weapon above the country at a high altitude.
This brings us to concerns that the balloon itself may have been carrying a nuclear or biological weapon. The fact of the matter is, if China were interested in detonating a nuclear weapon over the United States, missiles would be a far more effective means of doing so. Unlike balloons, missiles allow for a much higher degree of precision (and are a much harder target to intercept).
It’s also important to note that America’s nuclear missile silos were designed to withstand nuclear war — and as such — are hardened against EMP attacks.
Related: What exactly is America’s nuclear triad?
Why use an expensive missile to shoot a balloon down?
Believe it or not, using less expensive guns against a similar balloon has proven ineffective in the past. In 1998, two Canadian CF-18s were dispatched to intercept a runaway weather balloon of similar size. The two fighters fired more than a thousand 20mm rounds from their M61A1 Vulcan autocannons at the balloon, which amounts to nearly the full magazine carried by these jets.
These are not small rounds. Below is a picture of an inert 20mm round like those fired by the Canadian CF-18s, compared to a common .223 round like those fired from an AR-15:
Despite poking lots of large holes in the balloon, however, it remained airborne and continued to float for days after.
Related: How big are the guns on America’s fighter jets? BIG.
What if this was all a practice run for a future attack?
Many have voiced concerns that this balloon was actually sent as a sort of practice run for future balloon-based attacks, worrying that America has now demonstrated that it would allow such balloons to enter its airspace. The truth is, balloon-based attacks are not particularly effective (as Japan learned in World War II), but even if they were, allowing this balloon to keep flying doesn’t establish a precedent that must be adhered to in the future.
Threat assessments are always done on a case-by-case basis, and while previous decisions may help to inform a new one, every assessment is unique. If another balloon was headed for U.S. airspace next week that really did appear to pose a threat, then the U.S. would take different action.
But giving this concern the benefit of the doubt — if this Chinese balloon was hypothetically a test run for future balloon attacks, then the last thing the U.S. would want to do would be to show its hand and demonstrate exactly how it would respond to such a threat. If it did, that would provide China with valuable intel about such a response that it could then plan to mitigate.
Related: How the US Navy can compete with China in the “gray-zone”
What about the other balloons?
There is at least one more Chinese balloon currently floating over Latin America that has raised similar concerns, but like the first balloon, it likely poses no physical threat to anyone it passes over.
These balloons and similar intelligence-gathering systems are not at all uncommon. In fact, the United States has its own similar program. In 2021, at least nine of these steerable balloons were tracked over U.S. military training areas off of both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.
Have Chinese balloons ever flown over the U.S. before?
The short answer is yes. According to defense officials, similar balloons traversed the United States twice during the Trump administration and once earlier in the Biden administration, though in none of these instances the balloons flew for prolonged periods over the mainland United States.
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Could the US, with all the technology and brains that it possesses, bring the balloon down safely another way? I think losing the black box is such a wasted opportunity…if they had brought it to the ground in one piece the intel gained from it would have been invaluable.
Leo Murray says
I agree. Why wasn’t it brought down whole?
Anthony Purtell says
Interesting, what’s NOT being directly addressed: balloons are probably already cheap, precisely navigable, stealthy, and dangerous hi-tech weapon platforms – biochemical-ready; equipped with small, light-weight nuclear EMP weapon. “Spying activity” by an “off-course civilian” research airship is good cover for probing threat response and to develop tactical weapon capabilities. They could also become anti-satellite weapons. A Japanese balloon, BU60-1, reached an altitude of 174,000 feet back in 2002. Many satellites commonly orbit within this space. Recall China’s anti-satellite weapon test of 2007 and Russia’s test in November 2021, both of which littered the planet’s orbital paths with thousands of chunks of destructive debris, in clear violation of international agreements.
Ironic, after Imperial Japan’s balloon attacks against the US and their atrocities in China during WW2, that now the “people’s republic” is now threatening the US by balloons too (FuGo II??). Why shouldn’t this history be revisited? China has had several decades to perfect the atrocious Imperial incendiary and biological weapon.
All this is happening at a time when international agreements on high altitude air space sovereignty still remains dangerously vague. Treaties need to replace Chinese interpretations of the “spirit” of existing understandings with clear words of law. We need to close this inner/outer space gap, a dangerous hole in the world’s “mutually Assured defense” systems. China – a country which continues to violate and threaten the territorial sovereignty of Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brunei, and India; which continues to support North Korean and Russian ambitions; which continues to illegally occupy and repress Tibet.
Imagine, a nuclear attack by 10,000 35-foot diameter, stealth balloons at 60,000 ft+, armed with advanced 50-lb dirty nukes. Or a mysterious, new biologically-engineered virus. How many balloons could be safely destroyed in time without poisoning a wide swath of air, sea, and land?
Let’s stop dismissing these as “Spy” balloons, or a diplomatic setback.
The balloons should be seen as weapons, just as every gun is assumed to be loaded. They are an air and space arms escalation in a world proliferated with WMDs.
They are designed to increase military spending; to tax the taxpayers of the free world.
They are intended to spread fear and dangerous speculation and embolden other oppressive powers.
Ferd Berfel says
Anyone asking why a heat seeking missile was used to shoot down a balloon? Balloons don’t put out an appreciable amount of heat, even if you take into account the difference between the balloon’s ambient temperature and that of the surrounding sky, Heat seeking missiles are designed to lock onto the exhaust of a jet engine. It would make a lot more sense to use a radar guided missile. None of it makes any sense.
connor murphy says
the aim-9x is not a strictly heat-seeking missile it traks using the infrared spectrum
Beam me up Scotty says
How can you even try to speculate on Mis/disinformation when even the house intelligence committee cannot even get any answers ? I have worked and lived in Montana and there are areas that this thing passed over that had 1000’s of square miles that are unpopulated . To say that it could not have been shot down over land is a flat out lie . I have to wonder how many Hunter crackhead Biden Paintings it costs to fly a surveillance craft with its own propulsion system on board over our most sensitive areas ? You look at Joe Biden and see a man who has done everything to strengthen our enemies and nothing to strengthen the American stance and it is obvious that he is compromised . Even in supporting Ukraine he weakens our military and our GDP while lining his pockets and selling our strategic oil reserves to China !!
Tell ya what , why dont you just get on your knees right in front of Biden and open your mouth wide . You already been behind him and ate all the shit he has been feeding you . Take your Misinformation and disinformation and shove it in your ass . We don’t believe it and we don’t need it . Have a nice day sycophant .
Any Amateur journalists could sit down and easily speculate the respose from the government on the spy balloon.
1. no harm to civilians
2. no harm to national security
3. did not collect critical data
4. don’t mention possibility of balloon using american developed technology that is possibly secure.
5. Involve Trump in topic
6. first report that Chinese technology was disabled then change reporting.
7. dont make details known as to how many time balloon changed altitudes to take advantage of directional air streams.
8. did balloon drop to altitude near 40000 ft. or heights civilian aircraft fly
9. Evade explaining scope of risk or mission of spy balloon.
What was the heat source on the balloon for the IR Sidewinder to home in on?
Anyone who believes a balloon (or any other platform for that matter) loitering at 10 miles high doesn’t provide intelligence capabilities well above that of spy satellites IS IGNORANT. Spy satellites circle the planet at very high speed (about 12 hr orbits) so are only over targets for minutes AND at 12,000 miles or greater NOT 10.
And don’t buy the BS about our mitigating the intelligence collected. We fly surveillance aircraft almost continuously in sensitive areas such as along the Chinese coast. Would we do that if not superior to satellites? Would China mitigate (jam) our ability to collect intelligence if possible? If they can’t, don’t believe we can either.
As for how “intelligence” is able to look backwards and “discover” previous incursions? Perhaps they started listening to commercial pilots who have undoubtedly reported sightings hundreds of times. That’s after all how attention was brought to this one.
Military failed to detect or take threat seriously and now just covering their a$$.
Mrs. C says
Man y’all are something else. I’ll never understand why ANYONE would follow presidents/presidential candidates as if they’re cult leaders. You people are fucking delusional. I don’t give a fuck who the president is. Do your fucking job as president or on to the fucking next one. I don’t give a shit who gets raided or investigated. Investigate every fucking president. Abide by the law and do your fucking job and we’re cool. The president isn’t my fucking daddy, Jesus, god, satan. They’re people who need to do their job or get the fuck out. Period. You people are fucking psychotic.
What a crock of BS! There are NO detection mechanisms of any kind to detect an aerosol canister full of a deadly virus. Hasn’t the Pentagon figured out that the Chinese are more subtle than just surveillance, bombs and nukes?
Here’s a scenario: China sends a much smaller, undetectable balloon with a 10-pound payload made of silicon polymers and ceramics–no radar detection. It will spray part of its virus payload off the coast of Alaska, and when it gets to our west coast, it sprays the rest of it. Incubation time: 2-4 weeks, mortality >70%. In 2 months, people start dropping like flies–including our military. When China decides it has reached peak effectiveness (leaving us with only 30% effective military strength), they will launch another balloon–this one with an EMP bomb. It instantly knocks out all electricity in the US–FOREVER. When the 30% of living Americans who survived the virus drop to less than 1% (because we aren’t able to survive without electricity), we will be merely a huge territory of land with very few people on it, and China will annex it as theirs.
I suspect my scenario is why they waited until it was no longer over the US to shoot it down; not that it contained a virus, but that the Chinese SAID it did. But it COULD have. Let’s see if deaths start spiking sharply around April, shall we?
Edward myers says
Emps do not knock out anything permanently. And the nuclear weapon that could creat an EMP powerful enough to cripple the US could not be lifted by aa balloon that small at angels 65 the amount of air displaced by that sized ballon is quite small. Do a little research in stead of spouting horse shit.
I think you are absolutely correct! We stand in their way for the New World Order.
The balloon had nothing to do with China. It was McDonald’s trying out a new deliver method. When it flies over your house with your order of Chicken McNuggets you are just supposed to shoot it down and if you return the balloon to McDonald’s you get $5 off of you next order.
Sean McGuire says
I understand that the sky is awfully big at sixty thousand feet, and it’s hard to reach a comparatively small target there, but still – does anyone know why we didn’t try to capture this thing intact, rather than just blow it up and pick up the shattered pieces when they hit the ocean? We knew where it was, and had lots of lead time. Obviously a fighter jet goes too fast, but you’d think that with enough time we could have come up with a way to get hold of it – perhaps from balloons of our own? – and drag it slowly down to ground level. NASA was docking spacecraft in orbit back in the 60s, after all, you’d think this would be easier than that…
Plato v2.0 says
We didn’t capture it is because James Bond Mr 007 himself took all the cool spy toys back to England when Joe won.
I am not a robot.
Why this was even allowed to enter our airspace is unacceptable! Leave all questions off the table when you intercept something before it becomes a news story. Let’s go Brandon!
Joe Trump says
Trump allowed three Chinese balloons to come into US airspace, but he was so weak that he didn’t even know what happened. It wasn’t until the strong and competent Joe Biden came into office that they were able to figure out the past incursions. Thank God we have a strong President and not a doddering fool using Sharpies on hurricane maps trying to nuke a hurricane.
The balloons from Trumps term were fictional, made up by the Biden Admin to make Biden look a little less feckless, but everyone but you realized it.
Biden is a warmonger getting Ukrainian kickbacks through his crack son (and endangering our lives) while Trump is a peacemaker.
Biden is a puppet with G Soros hand up his a$$.
John E Dickensheets III says
This is fake news from an unverified source. Alex makes a lot of great content but he does seem to shill for the military-industrial complex at all times. Anonymous DOD sources do not count as factual.
I see you believe anything the left-turd media tells you. So three Chinese balloons flew over the U.S. while Trump was in office and the slimy pigs Nasty Pelosi, Chuck U. Schumer, Eric Smallballs, and Adam Schitthead nor other DemocRATs said nothing about it? Yeah right. Millions saw the Chinese balloon in the sky last week. Who saw the three that flew over during Trump’s tenure? NOBODY. You really should use that blood clot you call a brain for some other purpose than just to hold your ears apart.
Not Yo Daddy says
Trump’s own Defense Secretary admitted to the 3 incursions during the Trump admin BUT DECIDED NOT TO TELL TRUMP BECAUSE TRUMP IS SO F^CK!NG MENTALLY ILL, THEY COULD NOT TRUST HIM TO RESPOND APPROPRIATELY! His own war secretary did not trust him! Yet you fools continue to believe in this corrupt moron! LMAO!! Man, y’all are going to be embarrassed as shit once the penny finally drops.
Anthony Pandolfino says
What’s this in hazard of planetary protection laws/1967?
Tony Pandolfino says
Because that can get you very sick!!
Just wanted to point out that “heat-seeking” doesn’t really describe a modern infrared guided missile, although I know that’s the phrase that most people would have heard of in the past. The seeker head has an infrared camera really. We can see the output from night vision cameras and discern specific objects even if there’s something really bright. While the image is infrared, it’s more or less being visually guided to a specific target using image processing. I mean – I can point my phone’s camera at a QR code and it can show markers for exactly where it is in the image and extract the data from it. If you saw Top Gun: Maverick, they showed a laser guided bomb system that visually locked onto a target using infrared.
Before this balloon was shot down, I heard many claims that a Sidewinder couldn’t take out a balloon because it was “heat-seeking” and because a balloon supposedly wouldn’t put out much heat. But the targeting system isn’t really looking for the hottest point but directed towards a specific target.
Paul Gagnon says
The missile hit the payload not the balloon. Watch the video’s, and see the payload disappear.
Joe Trump says
New “heat-seeking” missiles have an imaging infrared seeker (with some more advanced ones also using UV) that is basically a thermal camera. The balloon may be cold, but air at that temperature is even colder.
Shawn Santo says
I imagine the solar array itself would be a sufficient “infrared source” for the Sidewinder to lock onto. It size and colour, not to mention the residue heat from “working” would contrast against the background infrared image.
This could also be why the missile struck the payload and not the balloon itself.