Balloongate, hullaballoon, blimpacolypse. Whatever you call it, America has been transfixed over the past two weeks by the bizarre spectacle of balloons (or other unidentified objects) entering U.S. airspace.
It all started with the massive balloon launched by China and carrying a 2,000-pound, solar-powered box used to spy on sensitive military facilities across the country.
Likely sites for surveillance included air and missile defenses in Alaska; silos in Nebraska housing nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles; a stealth bomber base in Missouri; naval facilities along the Eastern Seaboard; and military communications systems detected throughout the balloon’s serene, unopposed, intelligence-Hoovering flight.
In the days that followed, three more alarms were sounded as other floating objects were detected across Canada and Northern U.S. states.
A credible, though not very clear, explanation for how these balloons (or “objects” as the White House has taken to calling them) went undetected in U.S. airspace in the first place seems reasonable.
U.S. defense radars usually look for hot, hard, and fast objects rather than cool, soft, and slow things. Defense systems typically are alert to the heat or radar returns from bombers, fighters, or missiles. Civilian air traffic control systems normally monitor known commercial air traffic corridors, while military systems focus on flight paths that reasonably would be used by enemies to attack the United States.
Balloons float along with prevailing winds (slow), are essentially the same temperature as the surrounding atmosphere (cool), and are made of rubbery fabric (soft) that generates almost no return for a radar to detect.
Now that everyone is aware of and excited by the presence of these helium-filled monsters, relevant military commands have changed the settings on their surveillance systems to better detect cool, soft, and slow things drifting along with the wind on a wide band of altitudes. This addresses the detection problem, but what about our response options, competence, and actual security?
Even allowing for a delay in initial detection, we should expect a competent response by our government to such incursions and alacrity in responding to them. We also should expect honesty and clarity when Biden administration officials hold a press conference. Importantly, being honest in saying what officials don’t know along with what they do is perhaps more important because it enhances credibility.
Obfuscation and dissembling all lead to public doubt, distrust, and the rise of conjecture, rumors, and wild speculation—outcomes not helpful to anyone but our enemies. And acknowledgement of the security stakes involved conveys the idea that our government understands the importance of all of this.
Dazzling and disrupting sensors with lasers and jammers likely frustrated some of the Chinese airship’s ability to collect intelligence. And perhaps our intelligence community was able to analyze the balloon’s ability to communicate with its communist masters on the other side of the planet.
Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of U.S. Northern Command, has made this case. Americans hope that is true. But it seems a larger injury was done to our country by the Biden administration when it let China’s airship serenely float across the breadth of the U.S. Unmolested, all bright and shiny for the world to see, the balloon was allowed to do its thing while top-level officials fretted about debris possibly landing on a cow in Montana.
National security is more than a sum of systems and capabilities. It is also about will and intentions. Domestic and international perception is important because it shapes views about whether the U.S. is in control of its own borders, airspace, and sovereignty.
To the extent that enemies see America as weak and unsure, they are encouraged to make greater mischief that harms all Americans and our national interests. In the same vein, when friends and allies perceive dithering and ineptitude at the highest levels of our government, they must wonder just how good and reliable a friend the U.S. actually might be.
And you can imagine what Beijing is thinking. For all of America’s vaunted excellence in military affairs, China successfully executed the most blatant and visible of surveillance missions for a solid week.
How might this affect U.S. deterrence of Chinese adventurism? Is Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, or the Philippines more comforted as each assesses its posture relative to China’s ambitions, or less so when it comes to promised U.S. support?
This balloon problem could be a strategic threat. Anything could be placed in a box and carried by a balloon to high altitude. China has demonstrated the ability to send a one-ton payload aloft, which means it could just as easily use a balloon to deliver a nuclear weapon instead of launching a strike via easy-to-detect ballistic missiles.
This is not far-fetched. In the 1950s, 70 years ago, the U.S. developed atomic warheads weighing less than 100 pounds to be launched by mortarlike weapons against Soviet forces on a European battlefield. My Heritage Foundation colleague Patty-Jane Geller has documented the lengths to which China (among others) has gone to modernize and expand its nuclear weapons capability.
China surely has the means and know-how to develop modern nuclear weapons weighing less than a ton that could be carried over the U.S. as easily as a box of cameras and sensors. One can just imagine the destruction to America’s power and telecommunications grids from a nuclear-generated electromagnetic magnetic pulse unleashed from 60,000 feet above Missouri.
In a digital world, old-fashioned analog threats still have the ability to be used with devastating effect. The United States can’t just be good at the leading edge of technology or assume that nuanced diplomacy and economic ties are sufficient to prevent war. The Biden team needs to get serious about addressing the full range of dangers that America faces in the modern world, and yes, that includes balloons.
It isn’t just how ably the Air Force can down a rubber balloon over sparsely populated areas. It is also about how the rest of the world perceives American competency, resolve, and determination.
Balloonophobic hysteria aside, the Biden administration’s handling of foreign objects floating in America’s sovereign airspace extends its streak of missteps. Those include the Afghanistan pull-out debacle, a southern border irresponsibly open and dangerous to drugs, cartels and human trafficking; timid support to Ukraine that invited Russia’s invasion in the first place; mishandling of Iranian nuclear ambitions; and lack of confidence in diplomatic relations with China.
Balloons are fun at birthday parties and weddings. They aren’t so cute when launched by enemies and allowed to traverse the breadth of America.
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