Float Around and Find Out
Unless you have been in a cave in the woods the past week, the whole country was abuzz over the maneuverable Chinese “commercial weather” balloon that crossed from Montana to South Carolina.
Sure, it was essentially just rebooted 1950s strategic recon tech of the same sort that we used over the Soviet Union and the Middle East (see the 516 balloons launched during Operation Genetrix, for instance). Still, it made many folks doubt American Continental air defense and/or the political will to use it, for better or worse, which may have been the whole purpose if you think of it as a PsyOp.
Then again, maybe it was a dress rehearsal for a balloon-carried EMP device (2014 Congressional testimony: “[E]ven a relatively low-altitude EMP attack, where the nuclear warhead is detonated at an
altitude of 30 kilometers, will generate a damaging EMP field over a vast area, covering a region equivalent to New England, all of New York, and half of Pennsylvania.”).
But no matter what, the mechanics of the shootdown should be interesting to any student of military history.
The nuts and bolts, as detailed by the DOD:
An F-22 Raptor fighter from the 1st Fighter Wing at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, fired one AIM-9X Sidewinder missile at the balloon. The F-22 fired the Sidewinder at the balloon from an altitude of 58,000 feet. The balloon at the time was between 60,000 and 65,000 feet.
F-15 Eagles flying from Barnes Air National Guard Base, Massachusetts, supported the F-22, as did tankers from multiple states including Oregon, Montana, South Carolina, and North Carolina. Canadian forces also helped track the overflight of the balloon.
The balloon fell approximately six miles off the coast in about 47 feet of water. No one was hurt.
The Navy has deployed the destroyer USS Oscar Austin, the cruiser USS Philippine Sea and the USS Carter Hall, an amphibious landing ship in support of the effort.
The shootdown area was perfectly planned for recovery, with the Coast Guard able to close down the impact area so the Navy could switch to salvage. Inside U.S. territorial waters, it can be cordoned off effectively while the shallow depth allows even scuba-diver level salvage ops. Naturally, a drop from 60,000 feet onto the surface (and the likelihood that its electronics were probably already remotely destroyed via a WP grenade or something of the sort once it beamed its last messages back to Bejing) means the intel gleaned will likely be of little value other than as a trophy, but still.
A window on the shootdown showed that the pair of F-22s that splashed the balloon– the type’s first documented air-to-air “kill” since taking to the air in 1997– were call-signed FRANK01 and FRANK02.
Why was this important?
The general theory is that this was a salute to 2nd Lt Frank Luke Jr., the famed Great War ace who zapped four German airplanes and 14 balloons in 1918 over the Western Front, making him the all-time American balloon killer of the conflict.
The more things change…
Had a Navy or USMC F-18 or F-35 splashed the Chinese balloon, the flight callsign should have been DAVE01/02 as the first U.S. Naval air ace during World War I, LT David Sinton Ingalls, USNRF, was credited with four enemy aircraft and an observation balloon while flying with Royal Air Force Squadron 213.