A Bunch of Hot Air

It’s amazing — we haven’t heard about any balloon shootdowns over the past several days.

White and silver, plastic and metallic, large and small, the sky has suddenly been filled with balloons. And they’ve been getting shot down almost daily by fighter aircraft (not always on the first try).

Of course, I’m not referring to just any balloons. Some of these “objects” are probably sophisticated espionage packages launched by China to spy on some of the most sensitive and secure military bases in the U.S.

Shooting these down is not like banging a piñata with a stick either. Some of the balloons were drifting at 150,000 feet, about 28 miles high, more than twice as high as the supersonic Concorde jet flew back in the day.

National Security Implications

The first balloon in the recent rash of Chinese invaders entered U.S. airspace over Alaska on Jan. 28, 2023. It was apparently not sighted immediately, but was identified by North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) within days and allowed to stay on course over the continental United States from Montana to South Carolina.

This was the notorious large “white balloon” carrying surveillance and communications gear in a payload the size of several school buses. Much of that gear was recovered after the shoot-down off the coast of South Carolina. Recovery efforts are still underway.

If the Pentagon hoped this flight would remain unknown, they were badly mistaken. U.S. citizens spotted the balloon in the skies over Montana. The story went viral, and within days Americans were asking what the object was, and why it wasn’t being shot down.

The Pentagon admitted the existence of the balloon on Feb. 2. The white balloon was finally shot down on Feb. 4. NORAD’s tidy cover-up was blown up just as surely as the balloon.

The Biden administration refused to take responsibility for letting the balloon into U.S. airspace at all, and for not shooting it down sooner.

NORAD commander four-star Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck explained lamely that the balloon exploited a “domain awareness gap.” His bureaucratic turn of phrase could be translated into plain English as, “We blew it.”

The administration also deflected blame on others. Biden’s flunkies said that at least three balloons traveled over the U.S. during the Trump administration.

Within hours, numerous top Trump administration officials denied that ever happened. These officials included two national security advisers, two directors of national intelligence, the head of the CIA and the secretary of state among others.

This raised two questions. If the earlier incursions happened, why did the Pentagon not inform the president? And if the earlier incursions did not happen, why is the current White House lying?

The White House smoothly explained that the Trump administration’s incursions were not known at the time (which is why Trump was not told) but were pieced together by the Biden administration using advanced forensic intelligence techniques.

This way they defuse the issue of not telling Trump, cast the new balloon as “no big deal” and make themselves look brilliant because of their unspecified intelligence techniques.

A Clever Ruse

I spent over a decade working for the CIA, so I’m quite familiar with the kind of intelligence work the Biden team claims to have performed. It’s called all-source fusion where you gather intelligence from numerous channels including electronic signals (SIGINT), human sources (HUMINT) and literally scraps of paper called pocket litter.

This can be put together like a mosaic and yield conclusions based on inferential methods.

It’s a clever ruse, but it doesn’t hold water. Are we supposed to believe that the intelligence community mobilized all available resources in a matter of four days after the white balloon was spotted to reveal the existence of the Trump balloons?

That’s nonsense.

All-source fusion techniques are valuable, but the forensics takes weeks or months to perform.  If the Biden administration performed these techniques in 2021 or 2022, then they were covering up the existence of the earlier balloons until it became politically expedient somehow to blame Trump.

If the earlier balloons were known all along, then the Pentagon or the intelligence community were engaged in dereliction of duty for not informing Trump at the time. Again, we don’t have all the answers, but it’s safe to say that we have incompetence or worse regardless of the answer.

Other Unanswered Questions

Why was the white balloon not shot down over Alaska on Jan. 28? Why was it allowed to traverse most of the United States (including many sensitive military sites such as bases where U.S. ICBM launchers are located) before it finally was shot down?

The administration claimed they were worried about the safety of those on the ground who might have been hit by debris. That’s nonsense. I’ve been to Alaska, Alberta, the Dakotas and other Western states and provinces where the balloon traveled. They’re beautiful, but empty. The odds of hitting anything on the ground are practically zero.

The truth is they covered up the initial detection of the balloon and delayed shooting it down because they did not want to upset a planned visit to Beijing by Secretary of State Blinken to meet with Chairman Xi Jinping. In the end, this Biden cover-up failed because the balloon was detected by everyday Americans. The Blinken trip was canceled.

After the white balloon shoot-down on Feb, 4, things got downright crazy. On Friday, Feb. 10, the U.S. shot down another spy balloon off the coast of Alaska. At almost the same time, on Saturday, Feb. 11, yet another spy balloon was shot down over the Yukon in Canada by an American F-22.

These two balloons were metallic and flying lower than the white balloon (about 40,000 feet), but also contained surveillance and communications payloads.

Lies, Lies and More Lies

For their part, the Chinese lied as usual. They claimed these balloons were scientific efforts collecting weather information and had been “blown off course” by natural forces. In fact, the balloons were following a carefully chosen course over U.S. military bases carried mostly on the jet stream (which has dipped into the southern U.S. lately).

The balloons have solar power and some propulsion equipment that allows the Chinese to make midcourse corrections as needed.

Would the Chinese have launched the follow-on balloons after the embarrassment of having the white balloon shot down? Of course not. Those balloons were launched in the prior weeks and took some time to reach the U.S. and Canada before they were shot down.

Finally, the Biden administration admitted that the Chinese have launched scores of spy balloons over a course of years. They admitted this on the weekend of Feb. 11–12 when most Americans were paying more attention to the Super Bowl.

This last admission begs this question. Why didn’t the Biden administration do something sooner about any of these balloons? The lame explanation was that the intelligence collections by the balloons were nothing the Chinese couldn’t get anyway using their own satellites, so there was little harm in the balloon surveillance.

That’s another lie.

It’s true that powerful surveillance satellites are in space, and no one has suggested shooting them down with missiles or lasers. Still, intelligence is conducted by aggregating information from many channels – that’s the all-source fusion method discussed above.

If the balloons could collect even minor bits of information not available from satellites, that information could be combined with other collections to gain new insights or confirm inferences from diverse channels.

The Bottom Line

The Chinese are embarrassed both by the shoot-downs and their own transparent lies. It’s a major loss of face for Chairman Xi and the People’s Liberation Army.

The White House and Pentagon are embarrassed by their own incompetence in not detecting or stopping the white balloon, and by their own transparent lies about the relatively benign nature of the surveillance. The White House also lied about what the Trump administration knew prior to 2021.

As usual, the entire matter has become politicized.

The Republicans are arguing that Biden is weak on national security by letting the first balloon traverse the U.S. and that he is under the thumb of the Communist Party of China. The Democrats are posturing about their aggressiveness in shooting down four balloons over the U.S. and Canada.

The problem of course is that there are probably more balloons on the way and Biden will have to keep shooting them down to avoid the charge of weakness.

Politics and propaganda aside, holes in the NORAD early detection system have been exposed. The Chinese have collected valuable intelligence with the balloons. Military and diplomatic communications between the U.S. and China have broken down at a time when tensions in the Taiwan Strait have been dialed up.

Unfortunately, you should expect all these trends to get worse.

The Daily Reckoning