Busting That Chinese Spy Balloon Is Harder Than You Think (Updated: “Well That Was Easy...”) (2023)

The Pentagon has been tracking a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon which flew over sensitive areas in Montana in recent days, apparently the latest of several such incursions. President Biden reportedly proposed that the intruder be shot down, but the Pentagon opposed this action, citing the risk of civilian casualties.

In fact, bringing down this type of balloon may be extremely difficult, as it is likely to be highly resistant to the available weapons. It may look fragile, but the sheer size and construction of a stratospheric balloon makes it all but invulnerable.

There is also the problem of getting to it. Such balloons ride high in the stratosphere, far above the airliners. They do this to take advantage of the change in wind direction with altitude to steer themselves to where they are needed like sailing ships, then circling above a point of interest. The U.S. military has its own stratospheric spy balloon program with project like COLD STAR – short for COvert Long Dwell STratospheric ARchitecture, designed to lurk undetected in enemy airspace.

Such balloons typically fly at 80,000 feet or more – NASA’s version cruises at 120,000 feet.. The U.S. Air Force’s F-15 Eagle and F-22 Raptor both have a stated operating altitude of around 65,000 feet. While they might be able to get close enough to fire a missile, the balloon may be too high for them to shoot.

When people think of military balloons they probably think of the WW1 German Zeppelin raids, and the balloon-busting biplane pilots who brought them crashing down in flames. The giant German airships were filled with highly flammable hydrogen gas, and could be ignited with a few bursts of incendiary bullets, creating an the same effect as the Hindenburg Disaster. However, in this case the balloon is filled with non-flammable helium rather than hydrogen.

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You might still think that simply puncturing the balloon envelope would be enough. It might not pop like a toy balloon, but letting the gas out should be enough to bring the balloon down.

The problem though is one of scale. Stratospheric balloons are colossal. NASA’s standard balloons are 40 million cubic feet, a volume equivalent to more than 195 Goodyear GT blimps: you could fit en entire football stadium inside one. The balloon envelope is made of plastic material no thicker than sandwich wrap, and the pressure difference between the inside and outside is small. Attempting to let the air out by punching a few holes is like expecting to ventilate an entire warehouse with fresh air by opening one small window.

We know that large balloons are hard to shoot down from previous experience. In 1998 a rogue Canadian weather balloon drifted towards Russian airspace. Fighter jets from Canada, Norway and Sweden attempted to bring it down without success. Two Canadian air force CF-18 fighters hit the balloon with more than 1,000 rounds of 20mm cannon fire off the coast of Newfoundland, riddling it with holes. This was not enough to let a significant amount of gas out, and the balloon continued drifting.

A volley of 2.75” rockets was equally ineffective, as the high-explosive rockets simply flew though the balloon without detonating. This may be the Air Force’s real concern with intercepting the Chinese balloon: any missile fired at it may be a much greater hazard to civilians below than the balloon itself, which is likely to descend slowly if at all. (The Canadian balloon drifted into Russian territory and is believed to have come down in the Arctic Sea).

Interceptor aircraft may in principle be able to get a missile lock and hit the balloon’s small gondola, the suspended capsule containing its cameras, control systems and radio communications. Destroying this would put the balloon out of action and prevent it from carrying out espionage. However the balloon would continue to drift over U.S. territory and claiming a ‘kill’ would be difficult. Worse, a failed attempt to bring it down would be a public relations disaster.

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This is not the first time balloons have been used for spying. Back in the 1950s, before they had satellites, the CIA’s Genetrix program sent ‘weather balloons’ to drift at random over the Soviet Union taking pictures. The project was not a success, but caused considerable alarm in Russia, which even developed a ‘balloon destroyer’ version of its M-17 Mystic high-altitude aircraft.

The modern balloon spies are far more effective. New control algorithms and an understanding of stratospheric winds means they are steerable and can go anywhere at will, with solar panels providing indefinite flight duration. Unlike satellites, they can remain over a site of interest for a prolonged period — but being inside foreign airspace rather than in the international territory of space means they can be downed.

Dealing with such spies is a new challenge for the 21st century. The fact that the U.S. has not attempted to bring down previous intruders suggests it may be a tough one. A new and surprising chapter in the history of aerial warfare is about to begin.

UPDATE 9:30am 3rd Feb: China is now claiming that the balloon is "a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes" and that it has "eviated far from its planned course." Which is exactly the same excuse that the U.S. gave for the 'weather balloons' in its spying program in the 1950s.

UPDATE 5th February: "Well, that was easy..."

“Well, that was easy…”

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In the end, the Chinese balloon was shot down with ease: a single missile ruptured the entire balloon envelope and send the gondola plunging into the sea below. The video of the event gives some clues as to why it was so much more straightforward than it might have been.

Altitude was one factor; F-22s circling the balloon show that it was well within their operating ceiling, and not at the 80,000+ feet that larger balloons can achieve. This also meant that the balloon could be hit with an AIM-9X Sidewinder short-range missile.

The choice of weapon initially looks surprising. The AIM-9X is infra-red guided and normally locks on to the heat of a jet engine. It is not clear how a lock was achieved in this case, as the balloon gondola would likely have been at a similar temperature to the surroundings. The same issue applies to fusing: the usually problem with balloons is that projectiles pass right through without detonating, but in this case the warhead was detonated at exactly the right instant to achieve maximum effect. Was the fusing system tweaked for this particular mission?

The AIM-9X with a 20-pound warhead is far smaller than the F-22s main weapon, the radar-guided AIM-120 AMRAAM missile which carries a 50-pound warhead, and this highlights the other aspect of the shootdown: the size of the target.

The rate of fall of the balloon in the video gives an indication of its diameter, showing how small the Chinse was compared to the behemoths flown by NASA and the USAF. The problem of scale mentioned above did not arise, as the entire balloon was small enough to be damaged by the shockwave and fragment field from the warhead, perhaps no more than 100 feet across.

The interception as not carried out until the balloon was over water, and appears to have involved at least three F-22 jets (and possibly support aircraft nearby), which both suggest and abundance of caution. However, in this case, it appears that everything went to plan and the first missile fired did the job.

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Sometimes our best efforts do not go amiss and things turn out better than you think. Score one for the USAF.


What is the Chinese surveillance balloon? ›

“This was a PRC (People's Republic of China) surveillance balloon. This surveillance balloon purposely traversed the United States and Canada and we are confident it was seeking to monitor sensitive military sites,” the official said.

Was the Chinese balloon shot down? ›

The Chinese Balloon Was Shot Down By the U.S. Military. Here's How It Went Down. A U.S. fighter jet shot down a suspected Chinese spy blimp above the Atlantic Ocean off the South Carolina coast Saturday, ending a three-day spectacle that dominated headlines and created an international incident.

What is the Chinese balloon filled with? ›

Chinese balloon was most likely a helium or hydrogen balloon | wtol.com.

Is the Chinese spy balloon a weather balloon? ›

The official said Chinese balloons briefly transited the continental United States at least three times during the prior administration. While Chinese officials admitted that the balloon was theirs, they said it was a runaway weather balloon.

Why is the US not shooting down the Chinese balloon? ›

The US decided against shooting down the balloon while it remained over land due to the risk of falling debris hurting a civilian and instead waited until it was over the ocean. The US military will now focus on debris recovery efforts.

Why is there a Chinese spy balloon in the US? ›

The Chinese government said the balloon is strictly used for meteorological research and accidentally went adrift into U.S. airspace.

Has anyone ever fell out of a hot air balloon? ›

Though hot air balloon fatalities are rare, they do happen all across the globe.

Has a hot air balloon ever caught on fire? ›

This is the moment a hot air balloon caught fire mid-flight after bumping into a pole during the 50th Anniversary Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, New Mexico on October 4. Luckily, it burned out quickly and the passengers landed safely at another location.

How big was the Chinese balloon that was shot down? ›

An operation was underway in U.S. territorial waters to recover debris from the balloon, which had been flying at about 60,000 feet and estimated to be about the size of three school buses.

Does the United States use spy balloons? ›

Over the past few years, spy balloons have flown over the continental U.S. a “handful” of times, a Defense Department official said on Thursday.

How does the magic balloon work? ›

This is because during the whole process, a gas is produced in the form of carbon dioxide. Since the balloon restricts the release of this gas, it is then trapped inside the bottle. Its build up inside the bottle causes it to fill the balloon and eventually inflate it! Now you have just created a magic balloon!

How many Chinese spy balloons are there? ›

According to Pentagon officials, China sent three balloons over US territory during the Trump administration, without a military response, although those earlier flights do not appear to have traversed nearly so much US territory. Beijing was possibly testing Biden's mettle.

Does the military use hot air balloons? ›

Over the past two years, the Pentagon has spent about $3.8 million on balloon projects, and plans to spend $27.1 million in fiscal year 2023 to continue work on multiple efforts, according to budget documents.

Are weather balloons safe? ›

Weather balloons are safe when used properly. A weather balloon project needs to be thought out and prepared carefully. Remember, you are launching something into space, so it is important to take safety precautions. It is key to be sure that your equipment is properly fastened and installed to avoid injury.

What fighter jet shot down the Chinese spy balloon? ›

A senior defense official told CBS News that an F-22 dispatched out of Langley Air Force Base took down the balloon with one AIM-9X air-to-air missile.

How was the spy balloon shot down? ›

The balloon, spotted earlier this week over the western United States, was brought down when an F-22 fighter jet fired an air-to-air missile at it off the coast of South Carolina.

Why did the balloon burst suddenly? ›

The pressure inside the balloon is more than that of atmospheric pressure and it increases when we inflate a balloon. Balloon bursts when the pressure inside the balloon becomes higher than its wall capacity to hold.

Did america shoot down the balloon? ›

Shot with a single missile: How the US brought balloon down

The fact the US military was able to shoot the balloon down with a single missile is significant. Missiles often pass straight through balloons because they are not solid enough to set them off.

What did the Chinese balloon do? ›

The Pentagon has accused China of using the balloon to collect information on sensitive military sites, which China denies.

What are surveillance balloons used for? ›

Surveillance balloons became more common in World War I and II. During the latter war, the Japanese military used balloons to loft incendiary bombs into US territory. No military targets were damaged, but several civilians were killed when one of the balloons crashed in an Oregon forest.

What is a surveillance balloon? ›

Surveillance balloons are like blimps with sensors, cameras, or communication devices to monitor and gather intelligence. They can either float at a high altitude or are tethered to the ground, allowing the spy balloons to capture a wide view of the surrounding area.

Why would China use a spy balloon when it has satellites? ›

China might be using the balloon to demonstrate that it has a sophisticated technological capability to penetrate US airspace without risking a serious escalation. In this regard, a balloon is a pretty ideal choice," said Arthur Holland Michel from the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

What are the spy balloons? ›

What are spy balloons? A contemporary spy balloon is a piece of spying equipment, for example a camera, suspended beneath a balloon that floats above a given area, carried by wind currents. The equipment attached to the balloons may include radar and be solar powered.


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