The American public is curious to know why the United States Air Force used a $400,000 Sidewinder missile to shoot down a simple spy balloon. The government’s handling of February’s Chinese spy balloon fiasco had originally been criticized for inaction, failing to shoot down the balloon even as it blatantly violated US air space and drifted over American nuclear missile silos in Montana. The White House finally acted seven days after the Chinese balloon was first spotted with an F-22 (Callsign Frank) and an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile, which some felt was a waste of taxpayer money and frankly, a bit of overkill for this very low-tech piece of Chinese military hardware.

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with modern fighter aircraft knows that they are armed with autocannons as well as missiles. The F-22 used to shoot down the Chinese balloon was equipped with a 20mm M61A2 Vulcan cannon and semi-armor-piercing high-explosive incendiary ammunition. The Vulcan is perfectly capable of taking out a MiG, but for some reason, NORAD told Callsign Frank that an AIM-9X was the “preferred” method of taking down the aircraft. But why?

Probably because there was historical precedence. The Air Force had enough time to study the last time they tried to shoot down a balloon with a cannon. In 1998, a runaway Canadian weather balloon the size of a 25-story building lost control and threatened to drift over to Russia. Two CF-18s, Canadian variants of the F-18 Hornet, engaged it with their Vulcan cannons and filled it with a thousand rounds over the course of multiple attack runs. US Air Force jets, initially only acting as observers, also took turns strafing the balloon with cannon fire, followed by fighters from the British RAF after the balloon drifted into British air space. Still, no one could bring it down.

The M61 Vulcan cannon mounted on the F16.

The issue was that like the Chinese balloon, the Canadian balloon was filled with helium, a non-flammable gas, and at altitudes as high as the balloon went, the air pressure was so high that it didn’t allow helium to freely escape through any holes shot in the balloon.

Retired Air Force Lieutenant General David Deptula stated it would be impossible to take down the Chinese balloon with gunfire even if it were flying at 40,000 feet. Even getting an aircraft at that altitude would be difficult, since 60,000 feet would be pushing the ceiling of many of the US Air Force’s best fighter aircraft. An aircraft’s absolute ceiling is the maximum height at which an aircraft can maintain flight. For context, an F-16’s ceiling is 50,000 feet, the same as that of a B2 Spirit. Few other aircraft could have accomplished this mission other than the F22 Raptor.

Some argue for the HELIOS laser, but fail to realize that despite its ability to destroy enemy missiles, drones, and boats, this new experimental technology is found only on ships. With its rather limited range of 26,000 feet, it wouldn’t even hit passenger aircraft, which fly at about 37,000 feet.

So while it seems the United States government went overboard with its takedown of the balloon, it used the right tools for the right job. The only problem was they did it seven days too late.

One thought on “Why the US used a Missile to Shoot Down the Chinese Balloon”

  • American Patriot

    I call BullShit on this story the balloon was the size of a bus not a two-story building. This was Buydens way of acting tough after the fact!!!

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