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Balloongate Takes Off and Goes Down

Balloongate has dominated the news the past couple of days. It's a strange story and a bit more complicated than most reports indicate. The undisputed facts are that a large balloon was sighted over Montana at an altitude of 60,000 feet, then it moved to Missouri and eventually to the Carolinas. The Pentagon was aware of it from the start and said it is maneuverable, but took no public action until Saturday. However, there were suggestions that some undisclosed actions were taken. When confronted with this information, China admitted that the balloon was Chinese but said it was a weather research balloon that drifted off course. Maybe it was a leftover balloon from Chinese New Year in January. Beyond that, it is something of a mystery.

Probably, it's a spy balloon. Some people, including Michael de Adder are asking: Why are the Chinese bothering?

Cartoon about Chinese spy balloon

We don't know why they are bothering. We do know that both the U.S. and China have a long history of spying on each other using airborne cameras, sigint, humint, and no doubt other (classified) methods that you can't learn about unless you have access to Donald Trump's closet or Joe Biden's garage. Surveillance from tethered balloons goes back to the Civil War. Hydrogen-filled balloons were used during World War I to monitor troop movements and direct artillery fire. One of the first uses of military aircraft was to shoot down these balloons. During World War II, Japan launched 9,000 bomb-carrying balloons over the Pacific Ocean, some of which reached America. During the Cold War, the U.S. used hundreds of balloons for spying and other countries have done so as well, but the details are all classified (not that being classified keeps things very secret).

But with modern low-orbit satellites, the need for balloon surveillance has decreased greatly. A satellite with the same mirror as the Hubble telescope (about 7½ feet) 100 miles up could theoretically read a license plate under perfect atmospheric conditions. That said, one big advantage of a balloon is that it can remain stationary for long periods of time whereas a satellite would whiz by the target very fast and could not follow the action on the ground for hours, as a balloon could.

As an aside, this balloon isn't the only one out there. Another one has been spotted over Costa Rica and balloons have also been seen over Guam and Hawaii in the past. A senior Defense official said that similar balloons flew over the U.S. three times during the Trump administration and Trump never ordered them shot down. Trump has denied this, but given his propensity for lying, his denial should not be given much weight. There are probably even more balloons, but the balloons don't contain much metal so they don't always show up on radar.

That the initial sighting of the balloon was in Montana was probably not an accident. Central Montana is where Malmstrom Air Force Base is located, just east of Great Falls, MT. It is thought that the base holds over 100 ICBM silos, all of which hold missiles that can deliver a nuclear payload to China. What is also noteworthy is that the small, local wireless carrier uses equipment from Huawei, which the larger carriers don't use because Huawei is suspected of sending phone calls and data back to China. The balloon could possibly use the Huawei towers to relay photos and sensor data back to China. When the Pentagon hinted that some clandestine action had been taken, that might have involved disabling or jamming the Huawei towers. Officials also said that there are ways of feeding the balloon false information, making it worse than worthless. However, nobody at the Pentagon was willing to answer reporters' questions in detail.

The Biden administration's main initial reaction was to have Secretary of State Antony Blinken cancel his planned visit to China. This incident may actually work in favor of the U.S. China is embarrassed that it got caught with its hand in the cookie jar (or more accurately, 60,000 feet above the cookie jar) and this could give the U.S. more leverage when Blinken finally makes the trip.

When the story broke, the natural reaction from the Republicans was to demand that the Air Force shoot the balloon down. Among many Republican politicians demanding this were Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Ryan Zinke (R-MT). Ditto Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Tim Scott (R-SC). When there is a problem about something, it is a characteristic Republican reaction to shoot first and ask questions later. Donald Trump Jr. urged Americans to take matters into their own hands and shoot the balloon down themselves. Junior needs to spend more time brushing up his gunmanship. A bullet from a powerful .30-06 rifle might reach 10,000 feet. How it would climb the next 50,000 feet to hit a moving balloon is an exercise left to the reader. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) condemned Joe Biden for not shooting the balloon down over Montana and called for an investigation.

The Pentagon said that shooting the balloon down at 60,000 feet wouldn't be so easy and that when it landed, the payload it is carrying, which is as large as three buses, could kill someone, even in a rural area. Besides, military experts believe the balloon probably wouldn't get much information beyond what spy satellites get all the time. No doubt the Pentagon would have liked to cause the balloon to slowly deflate so it lands softly to allow military experts to examine the equipment to see what China is capable of, but that wasn't feasible. Try making a teeny tiny hole in a party balloon with a itsy bitsy pin some time and see if it deflates slowly. Plans for capturing the balloon in a net and dragging it down were considered but ruled out because it was too big. Also, China knew that there was a chance the U.S. military could capture the balloon, so it probably does not contain any super-secret equipment. One theory about the balloon is that it was just a probe to see if Biden was so distracted by the war in Ukraine that he didn't react at all. Undoubtedly there will be more follow-up behind the scenes in the coming days.

On Saturday, Biden ordered the Air Force to shoot the balloon down as soon as it got over water and the falling debris would not endanger any Americans. This was accomplished Saturday afternoon when an F-22 fighter fired a single air-to-air Sidewinder missile that took the balloon down off the coast of South Carolina. An eyewitness who lives on Pawley's Island, SC, said that "the round big white ball that we saw all of a sudden looked like a shriveled Kleenex." If you want to get the whole story, including a map of the balloon's path and the shoot-down, in a 3-minute video clip, here it is:

The payload landed in water only 47 feet deep, which will make recovery relatively easy, although it will take several days. A Navy ship was on the scene almost immediately and other Navy and Coast Guard ships followed soon. Navy divers will try to collect every bit of debris they can find. At a depth of 47 feet, the divers can use commercial SCUBA gear instead of deep sea diving equipment. Depending on the water temperature, the divers should be able to stay down there for 1 to 1½ hours. Once all the pieces have been recovered, they will be taken to an FBI lab in Virginia for analysis.

Will this be a big issue in 2024? Republicans will try to make it so, but Biden's answer will continue to be: "I wanted it shot down early on, but defense experts told me that people could be killed by falling debris, so I waited until it was over the ocean and then immediately gave the order to shoot." Our guess is that people will accept that and the issue will be long forgotten in a year. (V)

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