All your burning questions about the Chinese spy balloon, answered
Here's everything you ever wanted to know about the Chinese spy balloon but were too embarrassed to ask.
Editor’s note: this article by Alex Hollings first appeared on Sandboxx.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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