U.S. Fighter Shoots Down Chinese Balloon

F-22 fires AIM-9X

F-22 fires AIM-9X missile like the one used to down a Chinese balloon off the South Carolina coast.

Credit: USAF

A U.S. Air Force F-22 fired a single AIM-9X missile at 58,000 ft., downing a Chinese surveillance balloon off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4 that ended a three-day-long international saga.

The F-22 from the 1st Fighter Wing at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, hit the balloon, which was flying between 60,000 and 65,000 ft. when it crossed over open water at 2:39 p.m. local time near Myrtle Beach.

The balloon was first identified near the Aleutian Islands of Alaska on Jan. 28, entering U.S. airspace over land and not crossing over open water until Feb. 4, a senior U.S. defense official told reporters. It crossed into Canada on Jan. 30, and into the continental United States over Northern Idaho on Jan. 31 before the Pentagon publicly disclosed its existence on Feb. 2.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry in a Feb. 2 statement said the balloon was used for meteorological research, and it had drifted off course, a claim the Pentagon says is obviously false. As the balloon drifted over the U.S., the Pentagon drafted plans to shoot it down while also closely monitoring where the balloon drifted and trying to determine what comprised its payload.

President Joe Biden said he authorized the military to take action on Feb. 2, but Defense Department officials said the best step was to wait until it was above open water to avoid potential damage on the ground. A senior military official said the debris is scattered over about a 7-mi.2 area in relatively shallow water, with collection expected to be relatively easy. He would not outline a specific timeline.

As the balloon approached the ocean, U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command scrambled the F-22s from Langley and F-15s from Barnes Air National Guard Base, Massachusetts, which were supported by several KC-135s and KC-46s. The F-15s were available for support, but the F-22 took the single shot.

The senior defense official says China has built a fleet of these balloons operated by the People’s Liberation Army, which have been tracked in U.S. airspace before. The balloons have appeared over five continents, including South and East Asia and Europe. Another balloon is being tracked above Latin America.

While the official says much has been made about the decision to not immediately shoot down the balloon, the Pentagon maintains the best option was to wait for both intelligence-gathering and to avoid risk. NORTHCOM and NASA, while the balloon was traversing the U.S., modeled the best way to down it and what the potential debris field would look like, the senior defense official says.

The balloon’s payload was not particularly sophisticated, and it did not provide additional value compared to existing satellite capabilities, the official says. The Pentagon was able to mitigate its collection by protecting valuable locations as it crossed over, the official argues.

The downing is the first air-to-air kill for the Lockheed Martin F-22. Livestreams showed a missile trail heading to the balloon and a brief explosion, before it quickly began to fall.

The FAA issued a notice to all air missions closing the airspace off the coast and issuing ground stop orders at Charleston, Myrtle Beach and Wilmington, North Carolina, airports. The stops were quickly lifted after the balloon was shot down.

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.


"The balloon’s payload was not particularly sophisticated, and it did not provide additional value compared to existing satellite capabilities...". Perhaps. But establishing how long before detection and the reaction taken tells an adversary a lot. It would not require sophisticated electronics to detect the radars being used to track the device (their frequencies, etc.), and possibly even establish a rough direction to the source is also valuable strategic information. Don't get all cozy and stand-down-ish until we know exactly what was under the hood of this device.
I’ll leave it to others to decide if shooting down the balloon was a good idea, but an F-22? Really? Were there no vastly cheaper to operate F-16s available? Heck, even an F-35 would’ve been comparatively cheap.
Awww....... Well. At least they get to paint a balloon on the side of the F22. (sic)
This is the biggest failure ever of our "sophisticated" air defense system. It should have been taken down the instant it entered our airspace, that is if they even saw it coming. It is a classic failure of both operations and command to have ever allowed this, and using the F22 for the mission?? What have we ever received for all the mega-bucks spent on lasers? It's a balloon for crying out loud! I can just see the next headline, "Pentagon issues multi-billion dollar balloon defense system contract."

The Chinese are rolling on the floor with this one.
The balloon was reported variously between 60 and 66,000 ft.
ARS253 the F-15 and F-22 are the only US fighter aircraft that can fly that high. I’m sure they would have wanted to puncture the gas bag using the gun if possible, to bring the payload down more gently, but 66,000 is at the upper limit. IR and radar guided missiles won’t reliably track the actual gas bag. An AIM-9x is still cheaper than an AIM-120 and it tracked the payload package.
@engineeringraconteur, The altitude of the ballon (58,000') would have been more of a challenge for either the F-16 or F-35.

Regards using a missile, the altitude would have required a relatively high aircraft speed for lift, which would have made using guns a Challenge. Something that proved to be quite an embarrassment for the Canadians when they tried it about 25 years back.

It looked like the missile that was fired struck the payload, presumably because it was warm enough for the seeker. The gas bag suffering significant damage from the warhead fragmentation. It does raise a question, though, if it might have been possible to use something like a ginsu hellfire (114R9X) to put a hole in the gas bag, and less damage to the payload. The slower rate of descent might have been a real problem if keeping the debris field inside the 12 mile territorial limit was considered important.