Some notes on *that* balloon
On Captain Mantell, U-2s, UFOs, and what to really worry about
Welcome back to Issue #6 of Doomsday Scenario, where we explore whether things are really as bad as they seem. This week, let’s take a look at what you should really be worrying about regarding that Chinese spy balloon.
Hint: It’s not about the balloon.
I wrote a piece this week for The Atlantic about America’s strange history of aerial assaults and secret balloons—including how the F-22 pilot who shot down the Chinese spy balloon last Saturday avenged the death of the last US fighter pilot, Capt. Thomas Mantell, who crashed after being sent after a secret balloon—a story pulled from my UFO history which will be coming in November.
But beyond the odd history, I wanted to share a couple thoughts about the balloon episode—especially how almost all of the initial news coverage and political posturing around the balloon’s arrival in America’s skies last week will end up being wrong.
For all the sturm und drang criticizing Joe Biden as weak or feckless in the wake of that Chinese spy balloon, I think with even a week of hindsight the Chinese spy balloon episode is going to be seen by history as a tremendous embarrassment and fumble for its intelligence services—and might even turn out to be a net positive for US intelligence.
And yet, still, the episode is worrisome for the US—but, again, not for the reasons most of the reporting makes it out to be.
Based on the reporting and odd comments of the last few days, with the Pentagon saying that the balloons transited the US before, including during the Trump administration, and Trump officials vociferously denying any such transits, I think it’s fairly easy to read between the lines: The balloons did transit the US before, including during the Trump administration, but without the US detecting them. Somehow—most likely either through so-called “signals intelligence intercepts” by the NSA or from human intelligence sources through the CIA, the US learned about the Chinese balloon program and instructed the Pentagon to be alert for future transits.
The Chinese balloon program seems the rough equivalent of the U-2 spy plane missions of the early 1960s—important surveillance and intelligence missions that carried on according to their own bureaucratic schedule, seeming with little higher-up attention.
There was, famously, a long-scheduled U-2 mission to the North Pole that proceeded at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis; the plane got lost—compasses don’t work all that well near the pole—and ended up straying toward Soviet airspace, a potential harbinger of a coming nuclear attack that could, given the rest of the world circumstances at the time, have literally tipped the world over into war. President Kennedy had been desperately trying to head off that same war and hearing of the accidental, nearly disastrous overflight, he half-lamented, half-fumed, “There’s always some son of a bitch who doesn’t get the message.”
The Chinese balloon seems exactly like “some son of a bitch who didn’t get the message,” an intelligence operation that probably was proceeding on its own long-planned bureaucratic schedule—it appears that China had done something like 20-30 such balloon missions around the globe in recent years—without much attention to the fact that the US Secretary of State was about to head to Beijing for diplomatic talks.
In that sense, it’s feels like another key moment in the U-2 program: The shootdown of Francis Gary Powers in May 1960. The U-2 missions had been a source of great nervousness for Dwight Eisenhower; he knew they were dwindling in intelligence value, causing great consternation inside the Soviet Union, and were about to be made obsolete by the launch of new US surveillance satellites, satellites that would provide better pictures with less geopolitical risk. Yet he’d gone ahead and approved one final flight for that spring, and it was that plane that was shot down over the Soviet Union just weeks before a planned critical US-Soviet summit in Paris—a summit that was meant to build on a thaw in the Cold War and change the course of history, but instead was canceled in protest by Khrushchev after the shoot-down. The shootdown of Powers’ plane is seen by history as a defining embarrassment for the US.
I think the Chinese balloon will end up much closer to the Powers’ shootdown in history: One where the embarrassment falls on the country whose secret weapon was shot down, rather than one that embarrassed the country over which it flew in the first place.
So here we have a balloon that floated along lazily over the United States for days, giving the US plenty of time to jam its communications, snoop and study its technology through using those same high-flying U-2s, and then eventually down the device in the ocean and, presumably, recover numerous pieces of intriguing intelligence—including what types of antenna it had, as well as to trace back the manufacturers of its components and identify holes to plug in the western sanctions regime.
The overflight gave Secretary of State Anthony Blinken an excuse to cancel a planned—and much-needed by China—diplomatic mission to Beijing, and, presumably, whenever it’s rescheduled, he’ll be coming into that conversation with China in a stronger negotiating position. And in the meantime, the US House passed a 419-0 resolution condemning the overflight, a rarely overwhelming bipartisan rebuke. The whole episode seems sure to empower Chinese hawks, including a brand-new House committee whose sole agenda item is to drive a more hawkish approach toward China.
You’d be hard-pressed, in fact, to orchestrate an episode that would more perfectly play into the agenda of China hawks in DC and the new GOP committee than putting some giant object into American skies that ordinary Americans could see in their own backyards, an episode that ends with Americans standing in those backyards, filming and cheering, as a fighter shoots it down. It’s quite possible that the balloon will be seen in years to come as a real turning point in US public opinion around China.
So China lost the diplomatic battle, lost the political battle, lost the intelligence battle, and may very well lose the technology battle—if and when the recovery of the balloon innards allows the US to make it harder for China to build these other devices in the future.
This whole balloon thing was, in short, a disaster for China.
But there is one aspect of this episode that should alarm Americans, a classic failure that feels a little close to 9/11 for my comfort: The fact that the balloons were able to transit the US in the past undetected points to a meaningful and troublesome hole in the ability of NORAD—the joint Canadian-American air defense command famously headquartered in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, and portrayed in the movie War Games—to detect airborne threats arriving on US shores.
The balloon episode seems a classic failure of imagination: Just as on 9/11, when NORAD realized it had no radars aimed at the airspace within the United States—it was set up to stop external threats and was completely flat-footed at responding to a threat already inside our borders—the balloon seems an as-yet-undiagnosed failure.
Was it that NORAD looks only for fast-moving objects and so a slow-moving object escaped its attention? Or is that the balloons flew too high to be detected by standard aerial radars and surveillance efforts? Either answer is troubling, especially given the billions we spend and have spent on homeland security and continental air defense since 9/11. I would imagine the Pentagon is working fast to figure out why it missed the earlier balloons and how it can detect future ones faster and better, but it makes me worry: What else aren’t we set up to catch?
One already-known answer: NORAD and the Pentagon are very ill-equipped to pick up anything like the small aerial and underwater drones that will surely be a key part of the next decade of both intelligence gathering and armed conflict. In fact, it’s highly likely than a sizable percentage of modern UFO sightings—now called UAPs in Pentagon parlance, for “unidentified aerial phenomena”—are actually adversary drones playing around our borders.
In fact, our aerial surveillance generally just isn’t as advanced as you’d think it is: For instance, when I wrote about the looming wars over outer space in 2018, I was astounded to realize that the US has no real-time space surveillance capability.
We basically just take snapshots of outer space and only know where things are in outer space every couple of hours—knowledge that usually lags a few hours behind, which is why US planners have been so worried by the arrival of some mysterious Russian satellites that can actually move around. (Imagine, for instance, how useless flight radar would be if we tracked planes in the air by taking radar snapshots once an hour—or there was even a 30-minute delay in figuring out where planes were.)
In a story that you probably didn’t hear about, one of those mysterious maneuverable satellites actually blew up this week, causing a massive debris field that’ll poison a corner of near-earth for a century. Why did it blow up? We have no idea—but it’s the second secret Russian satellite to, presumably, prematurely explode recently.
We spend so much time trying to prevent the next attack by protecting against the last attack, and yet government, the military, and the intelligence world still seems to fail regularly at imagining the existing holes that an adversary might use in the future.
In short, don’t worry about the balloon per se—worry about what it represents. The balloon is an incredibly old military technology, as my Atlantic article outlines, and the problem for the Pentagon this week should be that we’re already behind in tracking the two technologies that will be the center of the next decade: Drones and satellites.
That’s what should really worry us.
PS: As long as we’re on the subject of aviation, generally, take a moment and read this great essay by James Ross Gardner about the retirement of the 747.
PPS: If you’re enjoying Doomsday Scenario, would you consider sharing it with friends or colleagues and encouraging them to sign up: