Why Wreckage Of The Three Shot Down Objects Is So Hard To Find

The circumstances of the Chinese spy balloon’s downing were very different than the other three, and recovering them will be much tougher.

byTyler Rogoway|
Why Wreckage Of The Three Shot Down Objects Is So Hard To Find

It's been three days since the U.S. shot down a balloon-like object over North America. That would have seemed like a totally bizarre statement to make just a couple of weeks ago, but it's not after recent events. U.S. Air Force F-22s and F-16s have shot down four objects in just over one week.

While these are truly unprecedented events, it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise to War Zone readers as two years ago we laid out the case for how adversaries, using relatively low-tech aerial capabilities, have been spying on the U.S. and that those acts have been conflated with 'UFO' sightings. But now that the dust is beginning to settle after a weekend of shoot-downs, one of the biggest questions we keep getting is why haven't any of the three objects that were taken down in recent days been recovered like the Chinese spy balloon that was shot down off South Carolina has. The truth is doing so is far more challenging than it may seem.

Here's why:

The Chinese spy balloon was very large, with a huge towering envelope and expansive payload truss that included large solar panel arrays. The balloon was said to be around 200-feet tall with its payload the size of multiple school buses — we are talking about a big contraption here.

Tyler Schlitt Photography / LiveStormChasers.com

The objects shot down in recent days over Alaska's northern coast, Canada's Yukon territory, and Lake Huron were much, much smaller — just a fraction of the size of the Chinese spy balloon. These objects have been compared in size to Volkswagen Beatles or ATVs by DoD officials and the pilots that intercepted them. This means there would be far less material to find if one landed intact, and even more so after it has been smoked by an AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missile.

If the AIM-9X's WDU-17/B warhead detonates, it sends a continuous ring of hundreds of hot titanium fragments through its target, shattering or shredding it. For a very large balloon, it could cause catastrophic damage, for a smaller balloon or balloon-like object, just the shockwave alone would likely destroy it. Even if the AIM-9X didn't detonate, it would tear through the smaller envelope at very high speed, and this would not just result in some little hole.

Most people do not realize just how big an AIM-9X is. It's a large pole that moves at over Mach 2 with sharp fins around its nose and tail. One careening through a small fragile target floating in the wind that is likely similarly sized, or at least not much longer in diameter than the length of the missile itself, would do severe damage to it.

So, the question is what's left to recover? Possibly not much at all depending on the target and the dynamics of how the AIM-9X engages it.

AIM-9X Sidewinders. USAF

Then you have the fact that these engagements are happening at tens of thousands of feet in the air. So whatever you hit is now going to be falling down to the ground over a large area, spread out in potentially tiny fragments, all strewn by the wind. Pair this with the fact that these are only being shot down over large bodies of water or very remote locales, and the idea that you will find consolidated sections of wreckage, let alone any at all, is at best dubious.

Whatever does come down to earth is also susceptible to the elements once it hits the ground. Given how light these things have to be, the debris that is already spread out by winds aloft can be scattered even further once on the ground and, in the process, hung up on obstacles across the terrain. Heavily forested areas would be especially problematic.

If it's shot down over water, debris can be carried away by currents or sink entirely very quickly. Also, many bodies of water are already full of junk that can easily resemble materials that make up a lighter-than-air craft. The objects' payloads would likely sink and they would have to be relatively small, to begin with.

Above all of this, the biggest differentiating factor, beyond size, between the recovery of the Chinese spy balloon and these smaller craft, is preparation. The full federal government had days to prepare for the operation to take down the Chinese spy balloon. It was a totally controlled engagement that was highly surveilled and meticulously planned. It leveraged a wide array of assets in the air and at sea waiting for the object to arrive and to be brought down within roughly a six-mile slice of sky leading up to the international airspace boundary 12 miles from the coast.

Part of this plan included F-15C/D Eagles equipped with Sniper targeting pods, which are extremely powerful, gyro-stabilized, electro-optical/infrared sensors originally designed for air-to-ground applications that now serve as a critical tool for long-range aerial identification, detection, and intelligence gathering. These targeting pod-equipped jets not only documented the object and its subsequent shootdown, but worked specifically to track large parts of falling debris and document where they hit the water. The Sniper pod's laser range finder, in conjunction with positioning capabilities, can grab perfectly accurate coordinates of anywhere on the surface of the earth.

A 142nd Fighter Wing F-15C carrying a Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod. 142nd FW/ORANG

A P-8 Poseidon was also on-scene to assist in this effort, even dropping smoke markers where large pieces of debris hit the water and smaller debris fields were seen. These would quickly dissipate so the overhead high-tech surveillance was critical in marking their positions. The wreckage from the balloon was scattered over many miles, with smaller, lighter debris acting like chaff, staying aloft at very high altitudes for a very long time.

Waiting on the surface was an armada of ships ready to jump into action once the debris settled and it was safe to do so. Like any recovery operation such as this, time is against you. The faster you get to the known areas to recover what's there, the better chances it will actually be there.

These operations have been successful and are still ongoing today.

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va.– Sailors assigned to Assault Craft Unit 4 prepare material recovered in the Atlantic Ocean from a high-altitude balloon for transport to federal agents at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek, Feb. 10, 2023. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Ryan Seelbach

On the other hand, there wasn't anywhere near the time for this kind of planning and surveillance in the other shoot-down instances. In some cases, the targeting pods on the fighters — which the F-22 lacks — may have been able to help see if the debris hit the surface somewhere. That seems like a questionable proposition given how hard these things were to see even in their undamaged form.

Considering one was shot down off one of the most inhospitable bodies of water on earth, in the Arctic off Alaska's North Slope, the other in the remote Yukon during winter, and the final one over Lake Huron, recovery of any debris would be even more complicated. These places are not exactly the coast off Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. You can imagine how problematic those environments could be for recovery operations.

So, recovering parts of these craft is a very challenging proposition indeed. And in some cases, there may not be much to recover at all.

With that being said, let's remember that there is good visual evidence of these craft recorded by the fighters' electo-optical systems. Even the one over Alaska was supposedly intercepted by F-35s before F-22s took it down, the former of which have similar internal capabilities as the Sniper pods found on F-16s and F-15s. It's possible Canadian Hornets, which also carry Sniper pods, or other aircraft got a look at the one over the Yukon before the F-22s took it down, too. So there is existing evidence far beyond what the eyeball or commercial cameras in the cockpit could see. This is in addition to radar data from the fighters, all of which carry advanced AESA arrays.

Regardless, we can hope that retrieval efforts, paired with a little luck, can overcome these challenges, but the odds of that happening are likely slim.

Contact the author: tyler@thedrive.com