F-22 Shoots Down Chinese Spy Balloon Off Carolinas With Missile (Updated)

The U.S. has shot down a Chinese surveillance balloon off the coast of South Carolina as multiple assets have entered the area to recover its debris.

The saga that began with the balloon’s appearance high above Billings, Montana, on February 1 reached its climax Saturday with an explosion and the balloon’s subsequent fall from high altitude. Videos of the shootdown showed an F-22 Raptor launching an air-to-air missile at the balloon for the kill. This would be the F-22’s first ‘kill.’

In a statement after the shootdown, Secretary of Defense Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III said fighters assigned to U.S. Northern Command shot down a “high altitude surveillance balloon launched by and belonging to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) over the water off the coast of South Carolina in U.S. airspace.”

“On Wednesday, President Biden gave his authorization to take down the surveillance balloon as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to American lives under the balloon’s path,” Austin said. “After careful analysis, U.S. military commanders had determined downing the balloon while over land posed an undue risk to people across a wide area due to the size and altitude of the balloon and its surveillance payload … Today’s deliberate and lawful action demonstrates that President Biden and his national security team will always put the safety and security of the American people first while responding effectively to the PRC’s unacceptable violation of our sovereignty.”

Austin also thanked the Canadian government for its assistance in tracking the balloon in its part of North American Aerospace Defense Command. In remarks to the press pool, President Biden confirmed he ordered the balloon shot down on Wednesday once it could be done without risk of collateral damage.

KC-135 Stratotanker refueling aircraft, as well as F-22 Raptors were observed loitering in the area, along with a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon patrol aircraft. A U.S. Coast Guard HC-130 search-and-rescue plane also flew off Wilmington.

The F-22s flew with the call signs “FRANK01” and “FRANK02”, a possible homage to World War One flying ace and U.S. Army Air Service Medal of Honor recipient First Lieutenant Frank Luke Jr, better known as the “Arizona Balloon Buster.”

Earlier Saturday, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered a ground stop at three airports in the Carolinas for “national security initiatives” and imposed a temporary flight restriction (TFR) for a swath of airspace off the coast as the balloon approached the coastline.

The FAA’s closure halted flight operations at Charleston International Airport, Myrtle Beach International Airport, and Wilmington International Airport. These moves and increased military air activity came after President Joe Biden said “we are going to take care of it” earlier Saturday in Syracuse, New York, when asked about the balloon.

The FAA ended its temporary flight restriction and ground stops just after 3 P.M. Eastern time.

Yesterday, The War Zone concluded that the balloon would likely be taken down in national airspace just off the east coast by F-22s. This would allow it fall into the sea and for aerial weapons employment without risks to bystanders and property below. It would also allow for waiting vessels to work to collect pieces of the balloon and its payload. Shooting the balloon down inside national airspace also makes it less of an issue than in international airspace.

We will continue to update this story as more information comes available.

Update 4:30 P.M. ET: Here are the new details we can share at this time:

Based on the video we have examined, although this is not definitive at this point, it appears an AIM-9 Sidewinder was used at close range. The F-22 primarily uses the AIM-9X now, but can also carry the AIM-9L/M as it had for years. The missiles can be cued by the F-22’s AN/APG-77 radar and AIM-9X Block II can use its datalink to be locked on and prosecute its target with the help of the F-22’s powerful radar after launch. It isn’t clear if the missile had a warhead or not. There was time to ‘weaponeer’ the target well in advance using intelligence gathered over the past days, especially by other F-22s. If fusing would be an issue, or they hoped to decrease its descent, fitting the live missile with an inert warhead is a possibility. If it did have a warhead, the AIM-9, with its laser fuse, which rings the midpoint of the missile, would have been a far better choice than the AIM-120, which features a radar fuse. The balloon’s envelope would be largely transparent to radar energy. Regardless, this is the first F-22 kill. It may be the highest altitude air-to-air kill ever, as well, but that is not confirmed at this time.

Senior U.S. military and defense officials shared the following information about the shootdown in a subsequent press briefing on Saturday afternoon:

  • An F-22 Raptor from the 1st Fighter Wing at Langley Air Force Base fired a single AIM-9X Sidewinder missile that downed the balloon from an altitude of 58,000 feet. The balloon was as high as 65,000 feet.
  • The shootdown occurred at the first available opportunity to do so without threat to those on the ground.
  • The U.S. took steps to stop and mitigate the balloon’s collection, neutralizing its intelligence value and preventing it from sending data back to China as it passed over sensitive sites.
  • There were three previously undisclosed intrusions by Chinese surveillance into U.S. airspace, but never of this duration. Two of these incursions came during the President Donald Trump administration, with the third early in the Biden administration. The Chinese explanation for this balloon’s flight lacked credibility.
  • The balloon entered the Alaska Joint Operation Area on January 28, Canadian airspace on January 30, and the continental U.S. over northern Idaho on January 31.
  • This is not the only surveillance balloon operating in the western hemisphere, with another operating over south and Central America as part of a fleet at the People’s Liberation Army’s direction across five continents.
  • What was an air operation to shoot the balloon down is now a recovery operation in conjunction with the Federal Bureau of Investigation on the debris’ chain of custody.
  • Debris from the balloon fell in only 47 feet of water, much shallower than expected. There are multiple Navy and Coast Guard vessels in the area but no timeline for recovery from a debris field spanning seven miles.

Update 5:31 P.M. EST:

NORTHCOM confirmed that the F-22s flying with the call signs “FRANK01” and “FRANK02,” was indeed an homage to World War One flying ace and U.S. Army Air Service Medal of Honor recipient First Lieutenant Frank Luke Jr, better known as the “Arizona Balloon Buster” who destroyed 14 German balloons and four aircraft.

“From U.S. Northern Command, I can confirm the call sign was a nod to Frank Luke,” Air Force Col. Elizabeth Mathias, a NORTHCOM spokesperson, told The War Zone.

Update 8:08 P.M. EST:

There’s incredible close-up footage of the shootdown now available on Twitter that shows the moment the AIM-9X hits its target.

Update: 8:53 P.M. EST

We now have a snippet of radio traffic from today’s shootdown of “FRANK01” calling “Splash One” on the balloon, thanks to Thenewarea51 (@thenewarea51 ) on Twitter.

Contact the authors: tyler@thedrive.com, stetson.payne@thewarzone.com

Author’s note: The incredible image at the top of this article was taken by photographer Tyler Schlitt of LiveStormChasers.com. Make sure to check out his work, including on his awesome Facebook page linked here.