How Much Effort the U.S. Really Needs to Fight and Find a Chinese Spy Balloon

The many things the U.S. needs to find and down a Chinese spy balloon 18 photos
Photo: South China Morning Post/edited by autoevolution
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Some would say you can never put a price on the safety of your own people. And they’d be right. But as the American military demonstrated this past week, enforcing this creed may appear to be a very expensive overkill from time to time. 
The entire world knows by now the story of that audacious Chinese balloon that crossed over parts of the United States, looking down at “strategic military sites” in the continental part of the country until it was brought down by a masterfully-shot missile. But some of the details of the mission, released by the military over the weekend, give us a much clearer picture of how much effort (and firepower) really went into all of this.

The nation detected the balloon on January 28. It came from the west, flying over the waters around the Aleutian Islands. According to U.S. officials, it carried with it a “payload” that was being used for surveillance purposes.

The balloon itself posed no actual immediate threat to anything American, but as it moved over Alaska, Canada, and then entered the U.S. over Idaho, it prompted those in charge to take steps to prevent it from gathering intelligence of use to China.

Now, spectacular as this may seem, it’s not the first time Chinese balloons have been spotted over the U.S., and it probably won't be the last. During the Donald Trump administration, for instance, they were detected at least three times. Back then, we’re told, they briefly crossed over the U.S. part of the American continent, and to our knowledge, no military action was taken against them.

F\-22 Raptor flying inverted at Florida air show, October 2022
Photo: USAF/Airman 1st Class Joshua Hastings
This time, things played out differently. Probably forced by circumstances (read all the other global challenges to its supremacy), the U.S. decided to actively go after the balloon, and not only shoot it down, but also try to recover it in a bid to learn a thing or two about China’s spying secrets.

On Wednesday, February 1, President Joe Biden gave the mission the green light, but the U.S. Air Force (USAF), the only military branch capable of carrying it out, had to wait for the balloon to move away from the nation’s land, and over water.

It did so on February 4, when it drifted off the coast of South Carolina, far away enough as to not pose a danger for those on the ground as it fell down. What happened from there is very well-known: an F-22 Raptor fired an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile at the balloon, effectively ending its trip to the U.S. To our knowledge, this was the first time when a Raptor engaged an aerial target in combat, if this entire affair can be called that.

But, as said, the USAF released soon after the mission more details about what it really took, and they include references to a lot more firepower being needed for the task.

You see, first of all, the F-22 was not the only one to go after the Chinese balloon. During the days it spent over the U.S., but probably also during the kill mission itself, an undisclosed but likely significant number of F-15 Eagles were involved. To keep all these planes airborne, the USAF also had to deploy undisclosed types of aerial tankers from bases in several states, including Oregon, Montana, South Carolina and North Carolina.

F\-22 Raptor climbing during air show in Canada
Photo: USAF/Staff Sgt. Donald Hudson
Backed by Canadian forces in tracking the balloon, the USAF was capable of deciding on the perfect moment when to shoot the thing down, and that was when it was flying between 60,000 and 65,000 feet (18 to 19 km) off the coast of South Carolina. But the story does not end here, as the balloon will have to be recovered for study, and this is where the U.S. Navy and the Coast Guard come in.

The naval components of the American military deployed a large number of ships in the area, but the most spectacular to take part are the 9,300-ton destroyer USS Oscar Austin (DDG-79), the 9,800-ton USS Philippine Sea (CG-58) cruiser, and the 16,000-ton dock landing ship USS Carter Hall (LSD 50). Combined, these three vessels alone make for a force of over 1,100 people looking for the remnants of the balloons.

Operating the huge number of assets and personnel involved in this mission is likely extremely expensive, although we have no indication of just how much so yet.

The country’s top brass seem to believe it will be worth it, though. The Chinese, who have admitted the balloon is theirs, claim it’s nothing more than a weather tool, but America hopes to gain exclusive access to “the balloon and its equipment.”

The search for debris is currently ongoing, and the military says it cannot come up with an estimate on how long it will take. It shouldn’t be all that long, given the fact the thing came down in about 47 feet (14 meters) of water.
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Editor's note: Gallery shows various F-22s.

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About the author: Daniel Patrascu
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Daniel loves writing (or so he claims), and he uses this skill to offer readers a "behind the scenes" look at the automotive industry. He also enjoys talking about space exploration and robots, because in his view the only way forward for humanity is away from this planet, in metal bodies.
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