How much does it cost to shoot down a balloon?
Speaking Security Newsletter | Note n°195 | 17 February 2023
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Citing intelligence community reports, Joe Biden said the three things shot down during the last week or so were “most likely balloons.” So how much did it cost to destroy these objects that may only be $12-180 each? As a case study, I considered the Pentagon’s operation over Lake Huron on February 12. According to my analysis of government documents, flight tracking data, and media reports, I estimate that it cost $1,953,127 to shoot down what was “most likely” a balloon. Methodology section is below, and feedback is welcome on this preliminary (and very conservative) estimate.
^Alt text for screen readers: Biden spent $2 million to shoot down a balloon: A cost estimate for the Pentagon’s operation over Lake Huron. This table has four columns: the component used in the Lake Huron operation, the activity it performed, the cost per unit or hour, and the total cost. I’ll go down the chart row by row: AIM-9X, 2 missiles fired, $442,798 per unit, $885,597 total cost. There are two rows for the F-16 showing these data: 7 flight hours, $26,927 per flight hour, $188,489 total cost. KC-135, 7 flight hours, $27,801 per hour, $194,607 total. E-3, 7.5 hours, $66,126 per hour, $495,945 total. All told, $1,953,127 in total. Data via DOD Comptroller, Government Accountability Office, flight trackers, media reports.
To calculate the unit cost of the AIM-9x missiles, I looked at the Air Force’s FY2022 procurement figures from the DOD Comptroller and divided the total purchase value by the quantity of missiles purchased. I referred to the Government Accountability Office for the cost per flying hour for each aircraft. To get the number and type of missiles and aircraft involved in the operation, I relied on media reports and statements from DOD officials. To calculate flight times, I used media reports to ascertain the takeoff and landing times for the F-16s, but I analyzed flight tracking data to get the takeoff and landing times for the support aircraft, the KC-135 and E-3.
-Stephen (@stephensemler; firstname.lastname@example.org)
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