Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Balloons, Jets, and The Two Ring Circus: U.S. Airpower and Chinese Intelligence

Anyone watching the news should now be fully inundated with headliners that now show the short lived saga of the Chinese spy balloon. The Chinese spy balloon has caused expected interest and debate from tv personalities and political pundits, but what deeper meaning can be gleaned from the U.S. response and Chinas intent?

Upon first look it would seem any foreign spying in or on domestic sovereign territory should been seen as hostile, at least in the sense that foreign spying is done with less than friendly and cooperative intent. In this regard it seems quite pragmatic to shoot down a foreign spy balloon floating in U.S. airspace. Not so obvious, the implication which surrounds the event. Upon closer look one finds interesting avenues of questioning and not many answers, at least no answers easily available.  

First, if the U.S. government wishes to make it public to the American people that a Chinese spy balloon is now present in the sky flying at high altitude, why would they not first contact the Chinese government through diplomatic channels? If this was done, what was said during these talks which would result in the U.S. condemning the balloon to a public shootdown and even photo-ops of the crash site recovery? Yes, national defense is important and shows of force let the world now how big and bad you are, but it seems to me that this use of obvious airpower is a diplomatic message on both ends.

Airpower is its own domain, being that the air is not connected to the sea or the land. But airpower is a human tool as an extension of doctrine which calls for unique theory and tactics. Diplomatic tactics can benefit from all forms of physical aggression, airpower is no different. Publicly shooting down a balloon rather than jamming its surveillance capabilities, which we did, and letting it fly off is a choice, the choice to do nothing. Tracking the balloon all the way home, or wherever the wind blows it, is also a choice. Shooting it down sends a powerful message of disagreement and discontent, and right now the U.S. and China are playing a game of slaps waiting for someone to grow cajones and throw the first punch.

China may have had unique objectives in their intelligence campaign to test U.S. responses. China may have wanted the balloon to be shot down, or at least be a proxy for testing U.S. reactions to invasions in their airspace. Why would China waste time on a balloon when they could easily use satellite imagery to take photos? What purpose does this balloon serve for China? Also, how common are balloons in our airspace? As time has elapsed from the initial provocation of this dastardly spy balloon, the news is chock full of balloons all over the world. The U.S. now seems Balloon-phobic, shooting down regular weather balloons and NORAD has adjusted to catch smaller slower moving objects in the sky due to the initial balloon fiasco. 

If China wished to rustle the hornet’s nest to get a peak inside without getting stung, they seem to have succeeded. If China wished to display discontent with some cloak and dagger surveillance just obvious enough to get caught, only to make it clear how upset they are with U.S. containment, that too could have been a successful strategy. Or maybe Chinese balloons have been, and are, ever present and the U.S. wished to make a statement. The general public will not know, if ever, the full story of this flying bulbus object, but it seems clear to me it’s effect is having more of a public diplomatic effect than anything else. This pulls airpower into a weird domain of not just jets and bombs, but feelings and intelligence strategy.

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