The Chinese spy balloon shootdown and a brief history of anti-balloon warfare

Anti-balloon warfare

Yesterday, a Langley-based F-22 Raptor fighter aircraft destroyed a snooping un-crewed Chinese reconnaissance balloon in US waters. The balloon had already crossed Canada and the US, but it was deemed safer to shoot it down over water. The balloon was shot down with an AIM-9X infra-red guided missile. With the balloon at around 65,000 feet, this was one of the highest altitude aerial kills in history and the first air-to-air ‘kill’ for the F-22. But this is just the latest in a story that is over a hundred years old.

25 years ago Western fighters failed to down a scientific despite over 1000 20-mm cannon rounds being fired. This may not have surprised fighter pilots of an earlier generation, the ‘balloon busters’ of World War One who took on the enemy’s artillery-spotting balloons with mixed success. Normal bullets proved ineffective for anti-balloon duties. This was not reliably rectified until the arrival to the Western Front of Pomeroy incendiary – and Buckingham flat-nosed incendiary bullets in 1917. Unguided rockets were less accurate and potentially more dangerous to the launch platform.

Belgian Willy Omer François Jean baron Coppens d’Houthulst DSO MC was the ‘top balloon buster’ with 35 victories. He was first assigned to the the Sixieme Escradrille as a sergent 1st class (Sergeant First Class) on 8 April 1917, with a brief stint flying BE-2c two-seaters. He was quickly moved to Quatrieme Escadrille, which was equipped with Farman pushers. By May he had moved onto the Sopwith 1½ Strutter and almost immediately took the type to combat.

Not staying rooted for long, by mid July, he moved to the single-seater pursuit fighter unit 1ère Escadrille de Chasse (1st Pursuit Squadron). He was given a Nieuport 16 (the rest of the unit flew the superior Nieuport 17). No other pilots accepted the offer of the new Hanriot HD.1, but Willy’s enthusiasm (and success) convinced others, who took his lead. Coppen’s adopted the tactic of opening fire at extremely close range with extreme effectiveness, blasting both air balloons and aeroplanes from the sky. Even without incendiary ammunition he destroyed many balloons or forced their occupants to abandon their aircraft in flight. He was one of many ‘balloon busting’ aces.

Project Mogul was a 1940s effort by the US to use infra-sound-sensor-equipped balloons to detect atomic explosions. The cover-up of one Mogul balloon crash with a deliberate lie, resulted in the Roswell myth of alien spacecraft in US hands. In the Cold War the West used surveillance balloons over the USSR, we spoke to a former Soviet air force Su-15 pilot noted, “The regiment was constantly on combat readiness. Two aircraft were always in a state of quick readiness alert: One for high altitude target interception (with four air-to-air missiles), and the second for the “work” purposes of the low-speed interception of reconnaissance air balloons (four air-to-air missiles, two GSh-23 cannon pods on hardpoints).

The high altitude performance of surveillance balloons, that generally operate from 60-120,000 feet can be challenging targets to fighter aircraft that are generally limited to 50,000 feet altitude. Historically, pressure suits were required in the event of pressure loss above 50,000 feet, though with increased systems reliability, the pilots of newer fighter aircraft (particularly the F-22, Typhoon, Rafale and Su-57) fly extremely high without them. The higher thrust-to-weight ratios and lower-wing loading of these aircraft makes them far more effective in the thin air of high altitude than older fighters like the F-4 Phantom II.

With their long endurance, ability to loiter and high altitude performance aerostats remain an effective way of gathering information, they are also less predictable and cheaper than satellites, and less hazardous (both to the crew’s safety and in politically terms) than manned heavy-than-air reconnaissance aircraft.


  1. Pingback: سرنگونی بالون جاسوسی چین و تاریخچه مختصری از نبرد ضد بالن - sapraparvaz
  2. Pingback: The Chinese spy balloon shootdown and a brief history of anti-balloon warfare | Fulton Watch
  3. macnicol76

    The use of an AIM 9X heat-seeking missile is curious. What on the balloon was generating enough heat to be detected and tracked by a missile at the range the F-22 fired its missiles? A radar-guided or laser-guided missile would have made more sense. If the US wanted to retrieve the spy equipment, why shoot a missile that could have destroyed or significantly damaged the equipment? It would have been better to cause a controlled deflation of the balloon by puncturing the balloon so the spy equipment would have descended at a more reasonable speed limiting its destruction.

    Hard to believe the Chinese would have not protected their spy equipment from being captured by the US. Another video closeup of the actual explosion shows the spy equipment package separating and falling free from the balloon. It shows an explosion exactly at the connection point of the equipment and the supporting structure of the balloon which would indicate that, when it became obvious the US was going to try to down the balloon, the Chinese used explosive charges to “detached” the package so it would freefall at high speed to the ocean destroying it so that it would be difficult if not impossible to retrieve anything meaningful. This is what any military would have done to protect their sensitive spy equipment.

    I was Senior R&D Engineer and Full Mission Simulation Project Engineer on the Lockheed ATF (F-22) DemVal program and also was manager of the department which tested the AIM-9X production guidance mechanisms.

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