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The 2023 Balloon Incidents

In February 2023, US forces shot down a total of four flying objects over North America in quick succession. Since much is unclear so far, here are the known facts (as of 20 Feb 2023) first:

# Altitude Date Crash site Aftermath
1 18,000m 4 Feb 2023 US territorial waters off North Carolina Debris was salvaged
2 12,000m 10 Feb 2023 US territorial waters off the North coast of Alaska Arctic conditions preclude salvage
3 12,000m 11 Feb 2023 Yukon Territory, Canada Crash site in mountainous terrain, debris not found
4 6,000m 12 Feb 2023 Lake Huron, Canada Crash site in deep waters, inclement weather prevents salvage

Sources: too lazy to list (a.k.a. „Trust me, bro“), but Wikipedia is a good starting point

The balloons were each shot down by USAF F-22 fighter jets with AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles (#4 by a Minnesota Air National Guard F-16). #3 took place under NORAD and the USAF jets were escorted by Canadian aircraft.


Balloons were used by the US and the USSR for espionage purposes during the Cold War (e.g. Project Genetrix). Even in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US Army used balloons (aerostats) for reconnaissance. Research on newer models by the US and China has also become known in recent years. However, it was generally considered that balloons were being increasingly replaced with more modern and versatile surveillance systems (satellites and drones).

US-Chinese Relations

#1 was a Chinese balloon. The US communicated this from the beginning and it was also quickly admitted by the Chinese side. However, according to China, it was a research balloon with limited steering capabilities that had been carried across North America by westerly winds. China accordingly criticized the shoot down as inappropriate and provocative. The US warned that China was maintaining a global surveillance programme with such balloons. On 2 Feb 2023, a balloon was spotted over Costa Rica and Colombia. Again, Chinese officials maintained that it was a test balloon that had drifted off course.

US Secretary of State Blinken cancelled a planned visit to China in response. A meeting between Blinken and the Chinese representative Wang Yi on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference (18/19 Feb) was weighed down by the issue. Blinken also warned China against supplying weapons to Russia. Wang rejected this accusation and called the whole balloon episode a „political farce“ aimed at putting China in a bad light. The Chinese line is that there is no balloon spying programme.

Private Balloons?

Regarding #2-#4, US sources are putting out the line that these were private balloons. They were apparently smaller than #1, flew at lower altitudes and did not appear to have engines or any equipment. #1 flew above typical aircraft altitudes (civil airliners reach a maximum of 14,000 meters, Learjets up to 16,000 meters), while #2-#4 flew at these altitudes, potentially posing a threat to air traffic.

If these were also spy balloons, the US and Canada may have decided not to inflame international tensions further, but that seems to me the less likely scenario. However, there are question marks about the other scenario as well: if these were private aircraft, why were they not registered with air traffic control? For #3, there is speculation that it was a „Pico Balloon“, a very small model released by hobby radio operators, and so small that it was registered with the FCC but not the FAA. Most likely, such flying machines aren’t all that uncommon, and after #1, US air defense is starting to look more closely.

For one thing, balloons are hard to detect by radar. Because of their shape, they produce a very small radar echo, have no infrared signature and – unless they emit something themselves – they don’t attract much other attention. In 2021, General Glen VanHerck, the commander of NORAD and the US Northern Command, said that 98% of all radar data, especially from slow-moving objects, was not analysed at all because there were a lot of false alarms, e.g. from flocks of birds. Since incident #1, the armed forces are on heightened alert and inspect radar data.

[EDIT: A commentator on LinkedIn informs me that weather balloons (still) and amateur radio high-altitude balloons are a thing. See, e.g.!mt=Mapnik&mz=2&qm=12h&mc=42.94034,-36.38672.]

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