Was “Sidewinder” missile Biden’s best option against unidentified objects?

President Joe Biden has had to give four orders the past 10 days for the U.S. military to shoot down airborne objects across North America.

The most recent was flying above Lake Huron and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula on Sunday. It was an “octagonal structure” shot down by an F-16, Republican Michigan Representative Jack Bergman. The Pentagon confirmed that the F-16 was carrying Sidewinder AIM-9x missiles that can cost up to $472,000.

Two other objects recently shot down by the U.S. were over northern Alaska on Friday and over the Yukon Territory in northern Canada on Saturday. Those two and the one over Lake Huron were smaller and flying at much lower altitude than the Chinese balloon taken out over South Carolina on February 4.

Jodi Vittori, a professor of practice and co-chair of the Global Politics and Security program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, told Newsweek that the missile was likely used on Sunday because of its pilot-friendly capabilities.

An F-16B Fighting Falcon aircraft fires a Sidewinder missile at a target drone above the desert in New Mexico. President Joe Biden (inset) ordered the U.S. military to shoot down multiple airborne objects in recent days, including a Chinese spy balloon.
U.S. Air Force/Getty Images; Joe Raedle/Getty Images

“It’s also relatively cheap, as far as air-to-air missiles go,” said Vittori, who also is a non-resident fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It’s made to be used within visual range, so it’s well-designed to have a pilot get up close to the balloon, visually observe and confirm what it is, fire at it at relatively close range, and stay close to confirm that the balloon was hit.”

The most recent versions can also allow the pilot to lock onto a target before firing so he or she can designate the target, she said, even if there is not a great deal of heat signature from the balloon.

“The warhead is relatively small, as is the missile, limiting potential damage if it misses or something goes wrong,” she added.

Using fighter jets to shoot the Sidewinders also makes more sense than using something like the High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), which have become commonplace in Ukraine’s war against Russia.

“An AAM [advanced air mobility] is designed to take out air targets,” she said. “A HIMAR is a ground missile; by definition, it’s not designed for that. Just because they’re both missiles doesn’t mean that they’re interchangeable.

“I suspect that if you tried to use a HIMAR, even if it could reach the required altitude [7-plus miles up], you’d just be throwing big hunks of metal and explosives at an object—which would almost certainly miss—and which would then [thanks to gravity] come back down anywhere at very high velocity. I find the concept rather alarming.”

Jordan Cohen, policy analyst at the Cato Institute, told Newsweek that the balloons’ composition has a lot to do with what weapons are being used to shoot them down.

Since the balloon is inflated with helium, Cohen said that using an incendiary bullet is a “no go” because helium is not flammable, the skin of the balloon is also oftentimes not flammable, and the high altitude means low oxygen, which equates to less material to burn.

“Thinking back to the first World War, the problem with small holes is that the balloon’s gas does not leak quickly enough to really bring it down,” he said. “Beyond that, filling a balloon with small holes makes it less predictable and it could theoretically leave U.S. territory.

“Firing from air allows for closer range and a greater chance of actually hitting the balloon, which is already traveling on a relatively unpredictable path. The AIM-9x has a really fancy seeker head and thrust engine, which gives the missile greater maneuverability and sight when it is fired.”

Cohen noted that the warhead also has “conventional annular blast fragmentation,” meaning that the warhead can explode even if it misses its target and, therefore, still cause damage to its target.

Rajan Menon, director of the Grand Strategy program at Defense Priorities, told Newsweek that the recent events have put Biden in a precarious situation.

“Once you have news breaking of what looks like a surveillance balloon over U.S. airspace, the president is under pressure to make a difficult decision and has to order something to be done,” Menon said. “This not a carnival balloon for joy rides; this is a substantial thing.”

It also comes as tensions among the U.S. and China are “going from bad to worse,” he said, adding that Chinese fighter jets have the same capabilities to theoretically shoot down spy-based surveillance objects in their own airspace if necessary.

Recent events remain “mysterious,” however.

“The real question is whether China sent it to ratchet up tensions,” Menon said. “That’s the $64 million question.”

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