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Chinese reconnaissance balloon shot down over Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, February 3, 2023. Credit: Daniel Lycan and John Mastell

General Secretary Xi Jinping and his China are perfecting the approach of violating sovereign territory across the globe. While we have witnessed this pernicious strategy executed more acutely across the Indo-Pacific, they are now visibly violating the United States of America. 

The national air space of the United States was illegally violated by a high-altitude Chinese intelligence gathering platform floating on the Gulf Stream at an altitude of around 60,000 feet as it passed over the U.S. strategic ICBM nuclear fields and U.S. Strategic Nuclear Air Bases, making its way across the interior through mid-western states of Kansas and Missouri, to Carolinas and the Atlantic Ocean. The Chinese surveillance balloon was viewing and collecting electronic intelligence over our Strategic Nuclear Bases and sending the ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) data information instantly to China.

The United States President, Commander and Chief made the decision to shoot down the Chinese balloon over U.S. territorial waters as it cleared the United States homeland but while still over territorial waters. An F-22 used a sidewinder AIM-9X air-to-air heat-seeking missile to engage and destroy the balloon.

This is an unusually clear signal to the American public of a Chinese intelligence collection process that appears to have operated up to this point with impunity and is posturing to forcibly integrate Taiwan and become the world’s dominant power by 2049. China’s spy balloon penetrated deep within the United States sovereign air space with a low heat signature and small radar cross-section air-breathing platform. This illegal intrusion highlights the urgency of improving our nation’s own overhead persistent sensors that can detect small objects with small radar cross sections or heat signatures at all altitudes for the defense of the United States Homeland and its territories.

The United States does have highly effective terrestrial-based sensors for the detection of planes and ballistic missiles coming over the top of the Arctic and the Northern Hemisphere from our near-peer adversaries which include Cobra Dane, Ballistic Missile Early Warning Radars (BMEWR) (Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Beale, California. Clear, Alaska, Flyingdales, UK, and Thule Greenland, Caviler North Dakota), and the newest LRDR Radar at Clear Space Force Station in Alaska.

The United States does have space-based sensors that detect missile launches, including the DSP (Defense Support Program) satellites, which have provided a space-based early warning capability since the first one was launched in 1970. The newest space sensor, SBIRS (Space-Based Infrared System), consists of five satellites in geosynchronous orbit as well as two satellites in highly elliptical orbits.

The United States also has non-persistent sea-based capabilities from our Aegis Ships and the Sea-Based Terminal Radar (SBX) — the golf ball homeported in Honolulu — as well as our Air-based capabilities of AWACs, fighters, and in the near future, Over The Horizon Radars (OTH) that are atmosphere sensitive and E7 Wedgetails that are not persistent.

The growing risk of conflict with China and Russia will require the United States Homeland to maintain persistent 360-degree sensors on its borders and beyond to track cruise missiles and smaller low radar cross-section profiles at all altitudes. This is a priority security requirement for our nation.

One overhead persistent capability that was developed by the United States was the JLENS (Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System), a system consisting of two aerostats with two different radars to detect., track, and provide firing solutions tethered to a fixed site on the ground.

JLENS was developed and tested for 20 years and played a role in Operation Noble Eagle, a joint US-Canadian homeland security operation after the terrorist events of September 11th, where it provided radar protection between Boston, Lake Erie, and down south to Raleigh in North Carolina. It is designed to interface with AIM-120 AMRAAM and AIM-9X, Patriot, NASAM, and SM-6 systems to intercept threats. After a 2015 mishap happened when one of the two dirigibles became untethered and was later recovered in Pennsylvania, funding and development were cut for the program in 2017.

The United States has to now put forward policy to defend the United States enable tracking and engagement of near peer competitor unmanned air platforms to include balloons, drones, and cruise missiles that cross into U.S. over-water airspace before going over the U.S. Homeland. With that policy, the US must now invest and deploy additional capabilities, to include dirigibles such as JLENS variants and sensors for 360-degree persistence with no seams or gaps from sea level to space on its borders in Alaska, Hawaii and Guam, the West Coast, the East Coast, the Southern border and the Canadian U.S. border. We should not be satisfied with the current state of our homeland defense. The intrusion of a PRC high-altitude balloon is serious—but not anything near the most serious of threats for which we remain unprepared.

Mission Statement

MDAA’s mission is to make the world safer by advocating for the development and deployment of missile defense systems to defend the United States, its armed forces and its allies against missile threats.

MDAA is the only organization in existence whose primary mission is to educate the American public about missile defense issues and to recruit, organize, and mobilize proponents to advocate for the critical need of missile defense. We are a non-partisan membership-based and membership-funded organization that does not advocate on behalf of any specific system, technology, architecture or entity.