Officials Share More Details On Chinese Balloon As Debris Sought

Cmdr. Brad A. Fancher, commanding officer of the dock landing ship USS Carter Hall (LSD 50), observes the debris field of a high-altitude Chinese surveillance balloon shot down by a U.S. Air Force fighter jet over the Atlantic Ocean on Feb. 4.

Credit:  Lt.j.g. Jerry Ireland

Before shooting at a Chinese spy balloon from 58,000 ft. on Feb. 4, mission planners were not aware of an F-22 having ever fired an AIM-9X Sidewinder at any target at that altitude similar to the 200-ft.-tall balloon drifting over the Atlantic Ocean, a defense official says.

Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) and North American Aerospace Defense Command, said they decided to use the missile over others, such as the AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile, so the Raptor could be at a closer range and the Sidewinder’s much smaller warhead would limit damage to the balloon.

“We assess from an effectiveness standpoint that it was going to be highly effective and that was proven on Saturday,” VanHerck told reporters.

Pentagon and White House officials are sharing more details about the balloon as an effort continues to collect debris from a large swatch of ocean near South Carolina. VanHerck said the large balloon had a structure about the size of an Embraer Regional Jet under it. Officials planned to down it over water to limit the damage from thousands of pounds of components such as large solar arrays, batteries, glass and other hazardous materials.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Feb. 6 that the balloon had propellers and a rudder, which allowed it to change course and conduct limited maneuvers, though it mostly stayed with the jet stream. It was able to slow down and loiter over sensitive locations, he said.

As the balloon traversed the continental U.S., the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) scrambled intelligence-gathering aircraft to monitor it, including the electronic transmissions coming from the structure. VanHerck would not specify the type of aircraft that responded, though open source flight tracking websites spotted an RC-135U Combat Sent and RC-135R/T Rivet Joints along the balloon’s path. He said NORAD worked closely with U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt AFB, Nebraska, to monitor the balloon. Offutt is the home base of the RC-135s.

NORAD and NORTHCOM do not regularly have the authority to collect intelligence within the U.S., but VanHerck said in the past week there were specific authorities granted to spy and collect intel from the balloon.

“This gave us the opportunity to assess what they were actually doing, what kinds of capabilities existed on the balloon, what kind of transmissions existed and I think you’ll see in the future that that time frame was well worth its value,” VanHerck says.

The balloon was first noticed as it approached Alaska on Jan. 28, and VanHerck said he did not assess that it had hostile intent so he did not order it to be shot down at that time.

After the Pentagon announced the balloon’s presence on Feb. 2, officials said there had been at least four other intrusions in recent years—one near Hawaii earlier in the Biden administration and three during the Trump administration. All of these incidents were brief, with the overflight far shorter than the most recent incursion, Kirby says.

The Biden administration only became aware of the intrusions during the Trump prior administration by looking back after the fact using an undisclosed “forensic” process, he says. The current White House has offered briefings to Trump administration officials on this. 

While officials did not specify how these prior intrusions were discovered, the Pentagon has convened a task force to investigate sightings of what it calls unexplained aerial phenomena to try to learn more about the incidents and identify what the aircraft could be. 

Kirby said there are no plans to return any of the remnants of the balloon to China after it is collected. 

Brian Everstine

Brian Everstine is the Pentagon Editor for Aviation Week, based in Washington, D.C. Before joining Aviation Week in August 2021, he covered the Pentagon for Air Force Magazine. Brian began covering defense aviation in 2011 as a reporter for Military Times.


Well, At least this shouldn't put too big a dent in the hobbyist sport of ballooning trackers but I think it might put a damper on groups flying large weather balloons. Back in 2014 a Ham Radio operator from Great Britain flew small party sized balloons with micro, solar powered GPS radio trackers onboard. Just had trackers, no cameras. So small no one could see them at altitude. Made his envelopes out of clear plastic. His website is still a fascinating read: Balloon B-66 went around the world 3 times before being lost off the coast of Iceland. I know as I tracked it directly with it's signal "on the air" when it came close to Illinois over the APRS Ham bands. There was a lot of volunteer technical legerdemain by Ham radio operators to get the positions piped to the 2 meter APRS frequency while in the U.S. and other countries. Leo took the hobby "small" and I highly doubt could be seen on radar. Totally harmless as his balloons just tracked position. Some folks like Boy Scouts and others have used large weather balloons to haul larger payloads with cameras and such. One would hang the payload under a parachute with a loop at the apex of the chute. The idea was to fill the balloon with enough lifting gas so eventually the envelope would rupture at altitude. The chute would inflate, come off the hook and was able to be tracked to recovery via APRS tracking. I tracked a balloon one time and since the equipment was posted online by the fliers, I was able to message "the balloon" with text messages over the APRS Ham frequency that I knew the fliers would see when they downloaded their radio. At 100,000 feet, the line of sight is pretty broad. They saw the messages and were tickled as they had a successful recovery and sent me a CD of all the photos the onboard camera took during the flight.
I think the sport of HAB (High Altitude Ballooning) is not as popular as it was several years ago outside of academic and governmental environments. But I had fun tracking other folks projects when they came flying my way! Kurt
Stand by, I am certain the Pentagon will announce any day the new multi-billion dollar "War on Balloons". This whole episode fits all the requirements of a travesty. AW mentioning past episodes of balloon warfare under previous administrations does nothing to explain the DOD being asleep at the switch unable to move against anything, and I mean anything that violates our airspace from sea level to the edge of space. What are they waiting for?