How Washington fought off the great Chinese balloon invasion

Sep 28, 2023
China spy balloon in America waiting to be shot down by American jets.

If the US needed millions of dollars to shoot down a couple of hobbyist balloons, a trillion-dollar military budget is not enough to fight China.

A news story buried in Aviation Week in February offers great insight into why the United States needed a trillion US dollar budget for its military, and its politicians still complain that’s not enough to counter the “China threat”.

You may have heard about the three balloons that were shot down by US fighter planes after they downed an alleged Chinese spy balloon.

It was no spy balloon after all, neither were the other ones. This is the latest admission by America’s top soldier, so it’s official. Remember the hysteria that was coming out of Washington back then.

The three downed UFOs – which incidentally helped trigger a congressional hearing with a self-styled whistle-blower who claimed the US government had reverse-engineered alien technology, a violation of galactic intellectual property rights? – were almost certainly Pico balloons so beloved of hobbyists and amateur meteorologists. Aviation Week interviewed the boss of a US balloon manufacturer who tried unsuccessfully to tell his government.

“I tried contacting our military and the FBI – and just got the runaround – to try to enlighten them on what a lot of these things probably are. And they’re going to look not too intelligent to be shooting them down,” said Ron Meadows, founder of Scientific Balloon Solutions (SBS), a Silicon Valley company that makes purpose-built Pico balloons for hobbyists, educators and scientists.

Costing between US$12-US$180 each, they can reach altitudes of 30,000 feet to 50,000 feet. They are typically made of thin polythene or latex and are filled with helium or hydrogen gas to achieve lift.

According to a calculation by Stephen Semler of the Security Policy Reform Institute, the operation that downed a single UFO balloon over Lake Huron on February 12 cost almost US$2 million. A Boeing E-3 Sentry early warning and control aircraft and a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker for mid-air refuelling were deployed, costing US$495,945 and US$194,607 respectively, assuming a seven-hour operation.

Two F-16s were deployed, incurring a combined operational cost of US$376,978. At least two AIM-9X air-to-air missiles were used, which cost a combined US$885,597.

They added up to a grand sum of US$1,953,127. Can we say it cost roughly US$8 million to kill all four balloons?

Imagine how much could have been saved for US taxpayers if Washington had listened to a balloon maker! It reminds me of my favourite inverse mathematical relationship in political science: bullets/butter. No wonder the crumbling state of US subways, highways, airports, transport infrastructure and schools.

But sorry, dear readers, it took me so long to deliver the punchline. Here it is.

General Mark Milley, who retires this month as head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on national television that the Chinese balloon “wasn’t spying”. “The intelligence community, their assessment – and it’s a high-confidence assessment … there was no intelligence collection by that balloon,” Milley said. “I would say it … didn’t transmit any intelligence back to China.”

It’s worth remembering the hysteria that prompted US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone a visit to Beijing. James Comer, a Republican Congressman who chairs the US House Oversight Committee, claimed the balloon could be carrying “bio-weapons” made in Wuhan. Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, declared all three UFOs were Chinese-made too. “The Chinese were humiliated – I think the Chinese were caught lying … It’s a real setback for them,” he said.

Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg even claimed the Chinese “spy” balloon was a threat to the Western military alliance itself. Seriously! He said it was a “pattern of Chinese behaviour … We need to be aware of the constant risk of Chinese intelligence and step up what we do to protect ourselves”.

If America needed millions of US dollars to shoot down a couple of hobbyist balloons, a trillion-dollar military budget really looks insufficient to fight the Chinese.


Original article first published in the South China Morning Post on 22 September 2023.

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!