Chinese Balloon Mania
Tales of threat assessment and media reactions.
Note: in the interest of full disclosure, the above are not Chinese balloons (although it would not shock me if they were manufactured in China, come to think of it). These are, however, international balloons, as I took this shot in Bogotá, Colombia in 2010. Also, they are political balloons, as the occasion was a campaign event.
Everyone is talking about Chinese balloons. It was a lead story on NPR yesterday and this morning. I had a meeting with the department chairs and other leaders in my college yesterday, and chatter about the balloon started us off. I talked to my dad at one point and he mentioned it. I opened up Twitter this morning and wall-to-wall balloons. I can only imagine what cable news is like at the moment. And, look, I get it. First and foremost, yes, it is a violation of our airspace by the Chinese. Second, balloons are kind of cool. Third, it is a cheap and easy thing for cable channels to use to fill time. And I get that it is a bog enough deal that Secretary of State Blinken has canceled a trip to Beijing.
So not unimportant nor uninteresting, although may I say it has been blown out of proportion?
First and foremost, how excited should we be getting over the security implications of a balloon when you, know, the Chinese have these things called satellites? I mean, if you think a surveillance balloon might give that Chinese intel on the US, do not read up on what satellites can do, because it will be very unnerving.
Second, I know that we here in America love to blow us some stuff up, but may I suggest this piece from Forbes? Busting That Chinese Spy Balloon Is Harder Than You Think (Updated). The story noted a number of challenges.
Such balloons typically fly at 80,000 feet or more – NASA’s version cruises at 120,000 feet.. The U.S. Air Force’s F-15 Eagle and F-22 Raptor both have a stated operating altitude of around 65,000 feet. While they might be able to get close enough to fire a missile, the balloon may be too high for them to shoot.
Second, punching holes would not be as efficacious as one might think (and our munitions aren’t going to explode when they just fly through Saran Wrap):
You might still think that simply puncturing the balloon envelope would be enough. It might not pop like a toy balloon, but letting the gas out should be enough to bring the balloon down.
The problem though is one of scale. Stratospheric balloons are colossal. NASA’s standard balloons are 40 million cubic feet, a volume equivalent to more than 195 GoodyearGT -1.6% blimps: you could fit en entire football stadium inside one. The balloon envelope is made of plastic material no thicker than sandwich wrap, and the pressure difference between the inside and outside is small. Attempting to let the air out by punching a few holes is like expecting to ventilate an entire warehouse with fresh air by opening one small window.
Third, shooting rockets at a balloon is an especially safe option:
any missile fired at it may be a much greater hazard to civilians below than the balloon itself, which is likely to descend slowly if at all.
And even if the balloon was adequate punctured and started to descend, who know on what it might land.
But none of this means that people aren’t engage in crazy speculation, leading me to yet again fear for our collective ability to assess evidence.
To wit, on Twitter this morning I saw that someone had posted a video allegedly showing an explosion over the skies of Billings, MT.
Tucker Carlson used that video to then ask the Governor of Montana about it, which just makes it seem like this unconfirmed video was real. This is an utter lack of journalistic integrity (yes, I know) and will be hand waved away as “just asking questions”
Indeed, as best I can tell, the balloon was confirmed to be nowhere near Billings, MT at the time and officials in the area have confirmed no explosions (it appears to be over South Carolina at the moment):
But, man, speculation on Twitter is off the charts and even news organizations glommed on to the story as a Google search will show you.
So, to me, this is a reminder that the main bias in the media is not ideological, it is towards a cheap and easy to cover story that attracts eyeballs.
It always makes me wonder what kind of fresh hell we will be dealing with as deep fakes and AI-generated content becomes common, because most people’s critical thinking/evidence evaluation skills stink to high heaven (higher than Chinese balloons, in fact).
Update: here’s an interesting IR thread on the balloon, if such things interest you:
Update 2: via NBC News: Another Chinese ‘surveillance balloon’ is flying over Latin America, Pentagon says. It includes a map of the likely track of the US balloon.
Earlier on Friday the Pentagon said it wouldn’t attempt to remove the balloon in U.S. airspace because “any potential debris field would be significant” and could cause “civilian injuries or deaths or significant property damage” — but did not provide a plan to respond to the slow-moving violation of “U.S. airspace and international law.”
You don’t need to bring down the balloon, just blow the payload up.
That’s also not easy, but if a missile or fighter jet can lock on to the payload, it should be possible. The balloon can go on its merry way.
@Kathy: It strikes me as possible. I still wonder about the wisdom of blowing up said payload and then having the debris fall to earth.
There’s really no evidence that it’s a spy balloon. Why would they send such a visible thing to spy on Montana? Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense unless they are doing it to taunt America and make the country look bad. In which case a bunch of politicians pointing their favorite guns at the sky are just a fifth column doing Mao’s work.
Going against the marvellously sage advice of Marjorie Taylor Greene, police in North Carolina are urging the public NOT to take potshots at the Chinese spy balloon.
Also, some of us are mistaking U.S. weather balloons for Chinese spy balloons:
@Steven L. Taylor:
They may shoot it down over the Atlantic.
They’re taking a break from being a fifth column doing Putin’s work.
“There’s really no evidence that it’s a spy balloon. Why would they send such a visible thing to spy on Montana?”
There’s also the question of what would the spy balloon be able to do that Chinese spy satellites can’t.
ICBM missile silos.
Also, balloons are supposedly better at capturing electronic signals than satellites.
The balloons are a lot closer to the ground than satellites, and they can stay in one place longer.
I’m finding it quite fun and surely it’s better than yet another item on George Santos.
Actually, a balloon can do a lot that a satellite can’t, depending on what sensor package it has.
It’s important to note that the “balloon” is just a platform to carry equipment and sensors.
This is actually genius by the Chinese – using a balloon as a platform gives them most of the advantage of an aircraft (manned or unmanned) while being able to maintain plausible deniability. Plus it’s cheaper than an aircraft, harder to shoot down, and probably has a much greater payload.
For those who are familiar with US systems, Cobra Ball aircraft have been flying on the balloon for a couple of days now collecting.
And just in the last hour, there’s an airspace closure off of South Carolina and two KC-135 tankers loitering in the area. Say your goodbyes, the balloon will be going away soon.
@Andy: Fair enough in re: Santos and balloon capabilities.
It is just that the level of freakout seems to ignore a host of other known intelligence-gathering activities.
Emphasis on visible.
@Steven L. Taylor:
Twitter freaks about everything. The bubble there is not representative.
Well, Santos can claim to have shot down the balloon.
Lol, we’ll played!
The balloon’s been shot down by a fighter jet.
Linger over sensitive areas longer.
Apparently it might! =)
Sure, you scoff now. But what if they were German? And there were 98 more of them?
@Andy: I am glad you told me that, as up until now I was certain it was a representative sample!
Thanks for the tip.
@James Joyner: Funny, I almost put that video in the post!
@Andy: (And I wasn’t just talking about Twitter in that sentence, FYI).
@James Joyner: Say “This is what we’ve waited for?”
Still, great comment!!!
Slowcoach! Already made that joke.
Anyway, looks like the balloon got popped.
To continue the song lyrics
Lets hope we don’t get the last verse. 🙁
Thank God. I feel so much safer now. I’ll be able to sleep tonight.
@Steven L. Taylor:
Ok, then, still not sure what the basis for the “freakout” is. The vast majority of commentary I see is humor or memes (including a seemingly endless number of 99 luftballons), yet this is still an important event that deserves coverage and discussion.
Nor do I see any basis for “fear of our collective ability to assess evidence.”
This is like anything else where social media magically turns random people into experts including the Forbes article you quoted which is full of errors. Turns out destroying the balloon with a missile isn’t actually that hard.
The military had all their ducks in a row on this one. Shooting down the balloon over shallow US territorial waters. Navy ships prepositioned to recover the debris for analysis. A short execute window with minimal disruption of civilian air and naval traffic.
And one cool aspect is the F-22 flight that shot it down used “Frank” for their callsign – named for Frank Luke who is remembered for destroying German observational balloons in WWI.
I suppose we will find out if the “payload” was benign or not after recovery.
Surely our signals corp could detect if the “payload” had been transmitting before it was shot down.
@Bob@Youngstown: I’ve seen reports that they (the military) were jamming any signals it may have tried to send. So we’ve got that going for us. And they did a lot of observation on what the payload equipment was.
This was not the first time the Chinese did this by the way…
Trump did nothing, provoking the Chinese with his weakness so they would launch more balloons. Only Biden will defend America from balloons.
As they should have, but the question is: was the “payload” sending signals? (and our military was able to intercept).
Indeed, it does.
One thing is for certain, cable news is a somber place wherein evidence is weighed seriously and there is no evidence, even in this post, of sensational video being used in irresponsible ways. (And even if one host did such a thing, no one else would follow suit).
And even if they did, I am sure their audiences would absorb them with the skepticism they deserve (as we saw, for example, in the aftermath of the 2020 election).