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This might seem like a silly question, but I mean it.

A Chinese spy balloon recently flew over the US and was taken down with a missile. Apparently, it was very important to recover its payload safely, but a nearby missile detonation, a long fall and a few days on the ocean floor will likely have damaged most of the payload.

My question is: Wasn't there a way to bring down the balloon without force? I am imagining something like flying a balloon next to it to grab the payload, or a large net. This way the payload would be recovered intact, without creating risk for civilians at ground level.

Why aren't these feasible options, or, if they are, why shoot it down?


Someone else asked a similar question: Why use a missile instead of a rotary gun? However, I am specifically curious if there is any way to non-destructively bring such a balloon down.

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Your suggestions may be entirely feasible, but they would need to be engineered, tested, built, and then deployed to the areas where they might be needed. Crews to operate these systems would need to be recruited and trained. All this takes time, and money.

Resources are allocated and projects are scoped to meet requirements established to fill a need. Since there haven't been a sufficiently large number of balloon incursions threatening us in the past, demand for such a recovery system has been low. Therefore no tax dollars have been spent to create a federal balloon recovery infrastructure.

That’s probably a wise decision from a cost benefit standpoint, even when compared to a pricy missile.

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The balloon was far too high to just tow down. And by then, it may be in international airspace, which would stop the US from capturing it. The easiest solution (Which is also the cheapest in all likelihood) is to use an AIM-9X and shoot down the balloon, which is what they did.

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  • $\begingroup$ "By then"-- meaning what, meaning by the time US aircraft arrive it's flown horizontally out of US airspace? Or are you referring to a vertical limit of US airspace? Answer could be clarified a bit-- $\endgroup$ Feb 13, 2023 at 13:00
  • $\begingroup$ Yes I would say by the time it flies out or above US airspace. The more likely one being flying out. $\endgroup$
    – JustACoder
    Feb 14, 2023 at 15:35
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This one’s another case of “you could, but why would you want to?“

Balloons, aside from airships, are not capable of controlled flight, and that’s guidance to a target in order to capture it is going to be a problem.

Secondly, it all depends on what the interest is in capturing the device. The only reason that we wanted to get one of these things in tact is just to examine it to see what kind of capability it offered to the Chinese in the form of intelligence gathering and their spy tech (Which, if they need to use balloons to do this with in 2023, is pretty pathetic spy tech by superpower’s standards). This examination can be done pretty well with a crashed payload unit as well, without the additional complications of having to capture it.

In the end, it just makes more sense to send a fighter airplane out there, armed with missiles or some other weapon systems, to shoot down the balloon, then salvage the remains on the ground, or in the ocean.

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    $\begingroup$ Nothing "pathetic" about using a balloon. Precisely the fact that it's difficult to control gives it a bit of deniability... China does have jets, but they make a lot more noise. $\endgroup$
    – Therac
    Feb 13, 2023 at 16:14
  • $\begingroup$ 30 years ago the US retired a spy aircraft capable of flying at over Mach 3 at 90,000 feet because we possessed superior means of collecting intelligence. So, yes, if your best choice for spying is relying on unguided free balloons riding the jetstream, your spy tech IS pathetic by superpower standards! $\endgroup$ Feb 13, 2023 at 18:24
  • $\begingroup$ China has plenty of spy sats. The SR-71 was retired because it could be shot down by newer SAM, and the collapsing USSR wasn't worth it. Satellites and aircraft can bring different data. Satellites fly over the land at 8 km/s, they bring one picture per area. Aircraft and balloons can film movement and deliver high resolution pictures. $\endgroup$
    – Therac
    Feb 14, 2023 at 6:42
  • $\begingroup$ And the Chinese just learned the hard way why using balloons for reconnaissance is an outdated and stupid idea. And it does make me wonder if they’re using that for reconnaissance purposes, how miserable there satellite reconnaissance technology is. $\endgroup$ Feb 14, 2023 at 7:06
  • $\begingroup$ If satellite recon was enough for everything, UAVs wouldn't exist. Losing one balloon is hardly "the hard way" - more like testing the US response. $\endgroup$
    – Therac
    Feb 15, 2023 at 0:22

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