The U.S. was able to destroy the Chinese spy balloon that had flown into our airspace and been flying over our country unhindered since at least Wednesday, when it was found over Billings, Montana.
The Chinese Threat
China’s balloon, the size of three buses, was detected over an area of the state of Montana, where, as the Wall Street Journal acknowledges, the U.S. houses an arsenal of 150 nuclear Minuteman III ICBMs. At 60,000 feet, China’s spy balloon (although it ridiculously claims it is an off-course weather balloon) is able to linger and presumably take clear photos of not only this classified military area but also of our geographic terrain, defenses, and critical infrastructure, including energy, communications, transportation, and computing centers. Many analysts have brushed off these claims too quickly by saying that China’s low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites can already provide this information. But no one knows yet what China’s brazen spy balloon can really do or how dangerous it is, especially since it could include advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and artificial intelligence (AI).
As former FBI counterintelligence official Frank Montoya said in the same Wall Street Journal article today:
They did it because they could. And we are alarmed.
While balloons may seem “old-school,” no one can say the true capabilities of this Chinese spy platform. Clearly, if China expended the time and resources and was even willing to enter into conflict with the US over it, then these balloons (a second one has now been discovered flying over South America) must give China some sort of advantage. In fact, there is concern that, like with hypersonic missiles, China has gotten ahead of the U.S. here too. This is even more reason to stop China from invading our borders, seize their advanced technology, study it, and, if necessary, copy and improve it.
U.S. National Sovereignty
By sending this surveillance balloon over the U.S., China has directly violated our national sovereignty. China is sending a clear message to the U.S. that if we interfere in their self-declared “One-China” policy (that Taiwan is an integral part of China), then China will violate our national sovereignty. In a very public show, our military had to shoot down China’s invasive surveillance balloon in order to keep U.S. sovereignty clear.
In April 2001, when a U.S. EP-3 intelligence aircraft flew 70 miles out from China’s Hainan Island Province, an interceptor fighter plane from China collided with it and downed the U.S. aircraft over the South China Sea. Moreover China took the 24 U.S. crew members “hostage” for 11 days and dismantled and studied our aircraft for three months before returning it in pieces. China’s message of deterrence was clear to us, and our message needed to be immediately and crystal clear to them by bringing their balloon down and capturing what we can from it for our counterintelligence. Moreover, had we not brought down China’s balloon, then we would have looked weak and inept.
The U.S. had said that they were afraid that bringing down the Chinese balloon would cause dangerous debris to fall on us, yet this sounded completely fictitious considering that the balloon was initially over a hardened military installation in a sparsely populated area, and we would have been in control of the time and place to bring the balloon down. Unfortunately, we wasted valuable time by waiting until the balloon was over on the other side of the country in the waters off the Carolinas before taking action. This gave the Chinese a lot of time to gather information all across our country.
To put it simply, the only real reasons I can think of for not shooting down China’s balloon right away are the following:
- Vulnerability: Perhaps the Chinese had exposed a vulnerability in our detection and/or defenses, or we were concerned that we may not have the ability to strike the maneuverable balloon with pinpoint accuracy. That would have shown we were not able to stop this violation of our airspace in a timely and effective way.
- Unknown Dangers: It was not clear whether there were any dangerous substances or weapons on board the Chinese balloon. What if, for example, there was radiological material on the balloon, and by attempting to destroy it, we would have ended up spreading radiological contamination over our own people and land?
Certainly, we needed to be clear about the potential threats that this balloon posed to us, as well as our military and technological capacity to stop the incursion and capture and study the Chinese craft. Moreover, it is bad enough that China already poses the “greatest long-term threat” to the United States, especially in terms of cybersecurity, but we should not add to that this brazen Chinese incursion that went unopposed for so many days. Unfortunately, the longer we gazed up at the sky, procrastinated, and let this Chinese surveillance craft collect and send important information to China, the worse it was for our global reputation, vital national security, deterrence for future military engagement, and priceless sovereignty and freedom. That balloon should have been found, shot down, and caught in real time off the Alaskan coast, not days later after traversing our country and ending up so near our capital. For many, this situation may be a national embarrassment, but more importantly, it has compromised our national security.