Balloons are nothing new. When I was stationed in Pensacola, I saw pictures of Naval Astronauts that went up in high altitude balloons to help us determine the effects that altitude would have on the human body. This helped us prepare astronauts on future space missions to safely live for extended periods at that altitude. Hot air balloons were used in warfare as far back as the U.S. Civil War. Heck, last year the U.S. was testing out steerable balloons off the coasts of California and North Carolina. So when China floated balloons out last year in international waters, it wasn’t a big surprise.
Flying a balloon 12 miles off the coast is fine, and we’ve been (mostly) consistent in our approach to accepting international norms on airspace and territorial waters. That’s why we don’t ram the Russian intelligence vessels that park off the coast in the Atlantic…or shoot across their bow, or any other nonsense that the crusty drunk guy at the bar will tell you we should absolutely be doing to maintain our honor as a nation…or something like that.
Oddly specific, I know, but I’ve had more than a few of those conversations.
But flying it over U.S. airspace? That’s a whole new level of brazen. I would be quite happy if we shot it down or otherwise captured it.
Do I think China would start WW3 over it? Nope. China will launch its war on its own terms. Yes, they would absolutely protest and try to impose consequences, but it wouldn’t involve WW3.
Why is China doing this? Intelligence from a camera or other devices is going to be better the lower in altitude you are, and balloons are far lower than satellites. But I think it goes further than that. China thinks it can get away with this violation. It’s not dissimilar to the U.S. driving two aircraft strike groups through the Taiwan Straits in 1995 as a response to China’s military exercises near Taiwan. The difference here is we never sailed in Chinese waters, but the balloons are obviously over U.S. territory.
What should our response be? It should have been to fire warning shots at the balloon when it crossed into airspace, give it a chance to leave, and if not, take it down as safely as possible. Following that, I propose hosting Japanese, Korean, Australian, Canadian and Taiwanese military leaders to discuss combining air space pictures to prevent this in the future. Since we already share air space pictures with each country in some way, getting them into a NORAD-like agreement in response to Chinese airspace violation is the perfect tit-for-tat response that would show real consequences to China’s military and government while not punishing the average Chinese citizen that doesn’t get much say in the matter.
What will actually happen? Nothing. The balloons will float away and the media will bury this story, like they buried the balloon story from last year. Unless a balloon hits a plane (unlikely) or malfunctions (I mean, it IS made in China!), there won’t be consequences for this at all, which will just encourage this in the future.
UPDATE: Well this post didn’t age well…two hours after posting and one balloon is shot down. Nicely done.
This post reflects the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.