Chinese ‘spy balloon’ exposes major U.S. vulnerability

By: Rachel Marsden

PARIS — Like other seemingly overnight sensations, the Chinese "spy balloon" emerged from obscurity and broke through to become a viral global phenomenon, but it didn’t come into existence overnight. Instead, it had traveled all the way down from Alaska and across Canada from north to south before anyone could even bother to care. A senior Pentagon official suggested why officials shrugged it off, despite being detected on Jan. 28 in U.S. airspace near the Aleutian Islands and qualified as a Chinese surveillance instrument, the military initially just yawned. “We do not judge that it provides significant value added over and above what [China] can currently collect in other means,” he said. “It is not the first time that you had a balloon of this nature cross over the continental United States. It has happened a handful of other times over the past few years, to include before this administration.”

It’s hardly a secret that the top global military powers, including China and the U.S., rely on spy satellites to avoid the kind of diplomatic fiasco that occurred between Washington and Moscow in 1960 when an American U-2 reconnaissance plane was detected and shot down over Soviet airspace along with its pilot, resulting in an espionage conviction and a prisoner swap. After that, the game was largely kicked higher up into orbit. “Satellites replaced aircraft overflights after 1960. They gave the U.S. information that could not be gathered in any other way. Finding out about adversaries’ strategic missile development drove the early need for reconnaissance satellites, and arms treaty verification became important later in the program,” according to the U.S. Air Force.

Ever since the deployment of such satellites became the global norm, it has mostly been out of sight and out of mind for the general public. But that all suddenly changed last week the moment people on the ground in Montana — not far from a U.S. nuclear missile base at Malmstrom Air Force Base — could look up and see an unidentified flying object, which promptly ended up all over social media. The fact that it wasn’t long before authorities were warning citizens not to try taking aim at it with their own firearms explains why these kinds of activities have now been relegated to a more undetectable layer of the sky.

China, which initially denied any U.S. airspace violation, acted like someone who had forgotten their suitcase on a train and would rather just abandon it than go back and retrieve it after all trains had been halted, the bomb squad was on site, and authorities were searching for the culprit. But ultimately, Beijing laid claim to the wayward baggage while rejecting the spy role attributed to it by the Pentagon, describing it as a “civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes.”

Meanwhile, attention spans in the Western world normally focused on the usual preoccupations – the conflict in Ukraine, inflation, and energy prices – was derailed by a balloon. The imaginations of those responsible for governing were promptly hijacked. “My concern is that the federal government doesn’t know what’s in that balloon. Is that bioweapons in that balloon? Did that balloon take off from Wuhan?” Said House Oversight Chairman James Comer (R-KY), as he struggled to check his own rhetoric during a Fox News segment.

Here in France, TV debate programs spent days showing shaky images of the fuzzy white ball against a clear blue sky on a loop, displacing debate over French retirement reform and the massive protest movement opposing it. Expert views suggesting that orbital spying is actually routine and far from catastrophic, as the Pentagon suggested, were virtually nowhere to be found. The banter used it as a hook for talk of the U.S. and China eventually coming to blows over Taiwan. So the logic apparently goes that tensions were already growing over Taiwan, and now that the Pentagon has identified a spy balloon doing the same kind of routine spying that Chinese and U.S. satellites usually do, maybe it’s time for war. Not even the Pentagon is saying that, having blatantly downplayed the incident.

The excitement finally ended on Feb. 4, when a $200 million Air Force F-22 fighter jet from the Pentagon’s $816 billion dollar annual defense budget, took down the balloon with a $400,000 missile over the Atlantic Ocean. China has since hinted at a proportionate response. So perhaps a U.S. spy satellite will splash down somewhere. Or not.

While the focus is now on what this balloon found above America, it’s already obvious that Beijing has exposed a major vulnerability. This episode has proven the extent to which calm, rational thinking and sangfroid in U.S. and Western society has been replaced by knee-jerk hysteria that ultimately translates into panic, partisan sniping, and a tendency to hyper-focus on whatever is placed in front of them — to the exclusion of other “crises” that were considered critically important just minutes prior. For all the hundreds of billions of dollars that the U.S. and its allies spend on defending their homelands, it took just one balloon to prove that our biggest weakness is endemic. Education that encourages independent and critical thought over momentary trends dictated by air-filled structures, agenda-driven air-stirrers, or airheads, would go a long way in creating a more resilient society.