The Balloon War

Last week a giant spy balloon from China passed over Canada and the United States, collecting who-knows-what information about our military, and transmitting it to the Chinese military.

Many argue we should have shot it down before it had the chance to spy on us, and have claimed we are idiots for not downing it over Montana. But we have nothing to worry about. Because we’re such idiots, the spy balloon couldn’t have detected any intelligence, anyway.

The president claims he worried about falling debris striking and killing innocent civilians. He has explained that because of this worry, he gave the order to his general to shoot it down “when appropriate.” Having been in the military, I think I know what happened. The order, as given, was wishy-washy, and fashioned with classic principles of CYA (Cover Your Ass) in mind.

It left the general in a difficult position. If he shot the balloon down over Montana, and it injured anyone on the ground, the president’s ass wouldn’t be in any trouble. The general would be the one in hot water because obviously, it would not have been the “appropriate” time to shoot the balloon down. So his safest choice was to let the balloon spy on us, and leave it unharmed as it passed over our land.

By waiting until the balloon had spied on many of our strategic military bases, before shooting it down over the Atlantic Ocean, the general protected civilians from potential harm, and his own ass from being fired. Such is the mentality of military bureaucracy.

Just yesterday another object was shot down, over the frozen waters of northern Alaska. It was likely another balloon. Nobody knows yet if it was a spy balloon, or if it was even from China. Who knows, perhaps it was an escaped promotional balloon belonging to a used car lot owner in Beijing, named Tu Hai.

Nonetheless, the shooting down of this balloon made headlines for the consumption of a jittery public. Tensions have never been higher between the United States and China, and these balloons have only heightened our fears of war with that nation.

All of this reminds me of a war that erupted over balloons nearly 40 years ago. In 1984, a large amount of red balloons were released over West Germany by two German civilians just having some fun. The balloons floated over the border into Soviet-occupied East Germany. A Soviet general thought they were UFOs and scrambled fighter pilots to investigate. The pilots intercepted the balloons and destroyed them in a spectacular display of firepower.

Generals on both sides of the border witnessed the aerial explosions and worried an attack was underway. The alarm was sounded, and both sides gave the order to launch their nuclear missiles. Global thermonuclear war ensued, and the world was reduced to ash.

But of course this didn’t really happen, or you wouldn’t be reading this post right now. This was a fictional tale told in the lyrics of a hit song in 1984, entitled 99 Luftballoons. It was performed by the German band, Nena, and enjoyed worldwide success that year. In the United States, the song rose to #2 on Billboard’s Hot 100, becoming one of the most successful foreign language songs in U.S. history.

All the international tensions lately over balloons has reminded me of Nena’s hit song. I sure hope it wasn’t prophetic. Perhaps it would be a good idea to revisit this tune, and let it serve as a warning to us, to tone down the rhetoric and ease our fingers off the trigger.

Here’s Nena’s one-hit wonder of 1984, with English captions for those who don’t speak German:

Categories: news

76 replies »

  1. From what I read on the WSJ, once we detected and started monitoring the balloon, it stopped transmitting anything so it wasn’t viewed as still effectively spying. And shooting exploding missiles and unknown objects over people’s property seems like a risky thing to do.

    This all seems to me like a really stupid move by whomever in China sent these balloons. I don’t know what they accomplished other than looking stupid. There are fleets of spy satellites that overfly both countries all day long and collect more and probably better spy data. The Chinese has as many launches as the US did last year and I’m sure they have plenty of low orbit spy satellites. But, send a giant, slow moving, easy to detect and destroy spy balloon that serves questionable purpose directly into recognized United States air space and then tell a very public, easily disprovable lie about its intent? Mystifyingly stupid.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, it does seem pretty stupid on the part of the Chinese. And then the nerve of them to complain about us shooting it down. But the optics of allowing this balloon to pass over the US before shooting it down, makes us appear weak. And a lot of people don’t believe the government’s statement that the balloon stopped transmitting. Maybe, but I find it a little incredulous myself. What I’ve heard is that, as a low-flying object, it was able to gather better information than a satellite could gather. But who knows? One thing is for sure, this balloon did not help improve relations between our two countries.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Well, it was flying at 60,000 feet and I am sure that it was kind of unpredictable where the balloon and the weapons used to shoot it down would land. And there probably wasn’t anywhere along that flight path where they could shoot it down with any certainty that some dangerous piece of debris wouldn’t come down in some backyard where kids were playing. That seems like it would have been worse PR to me.

        The balloon seems really sloppy to me. Maybe it was a response to US naval activity in the South China Sea or near to Taiwan and some soft attempt at aggression.

        Liked by 2 people

        • They put PR above national security. But I think overall, this strategy backfired, as it probably hurt the president politically. It makes him look weak. But on the bright side, at least no one on the ground was injured.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I don’t know if it was much of a security threat and having the military engage in a hot engagement over US soil would be a pretty big deal. Maybe the Chinese were trying to provoke a response. I don’t know.

            I do know for certain that the President and the Generals and whatnot know a lot more about this balloon than I ever will, so not sure that my second-guessing is worth anything.

            Liked by 2 people

  2. Most balloons I have seen are full of hot air anyway so I am not concerned. Then of course there was the very sad movie “Red Balloon” about a little boy, so perhaps I should be concerned. Damn I’m confused now!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. “Poor Brad”

    So many years ago he found himself a bride
    Her parents were so glad
    At last now she was going; she was leaving their home
    Everyone was happy… but poor Brad.
    Her sisters were delighted that she was getting wed
    It was no secret they were glad
    They stifled their smiles as she walked down the aisle
    But they couldn’t help thinking… poor Brad
    He suffered her humor and put up with her quirks
    And then a child they had
    Dizzy with excitement; illogical as ever
    Carolyn was a challenge. Poor Brad!
    A second child followed much to Carolyn’s delight
    And Brad was, once again, a Dad.
    “Dizzy Lizzy” was confused, puzzled and rather perplexing
    But our thoughts go out to poor Brad.
    So many years have now gone by. So much time has passed
    Was it really all that bad?
    Well by all accounts; at least from what we’ve heard
    All we can say is …poor Brad!
    Now over 20 years later we just shake our heads
    She’s obviously quite mad!
    We’ve known her for many years, and she does have really nice kids
    But… we just have to say… poor Brad
    Brad is surely a martyr; suffering the confusion
    It really is quite sad
    For Carolyn, being so short, if she asked what we thought… we’d say (while looking down)
    It’s alright for you… but… poor Brad!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The purpose of these things is to elicit a response… or a lack thereof. When the mainland Chinese fly a bunch of aircraft over the dividing line between the mainland and Taiwan, they also monitor when and where the radar systems light up, how they’re detected, and what response is elicited. They’re banging on the hollow tree to see when and where the bees emerge. This particular balloon, however, was so low that I think it was also intended to send a political message before negotiations… something like a big middle finger.

    The Alaskan coastline is the direct route for a Chinese ICBM (or long-range bomber or drone), so consequently where NORAD should first detect these things. The Chinese have recently invested in constructing about 1,500 new missile silos (most not yet equipped with missiles), so they’re feeling around to see how the US detection system works.

    I remember Nena. And, “The Red Balloon.” The good old days of Mutual Assured Destruction and rescue by some Deus Ex Machina.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think the message the Chinese received is that the president was too chicken to risk getting some bad PR from a falling balloon conking someone on the head. Which is quite a remote chance in Montana, I think. So now they know how chickenshit our president is. They may have also intercepted a few messages, with the antenna array their balloon carried.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Agreed… though, have you ever been to Montana? More likely to injure a grazing cow. I just think it was just too embarrassing to admit the thing had already made it that far undetected… until some civilian happened to look up. I also think the Chinese have figured out that our detection system doesn’t actually work most of the time. Apparently, the last four balloon crossings (that they even know about) weren’t detected at all while they were happening. The Chinese were probably flummoxed… “Are US territorial defenses really that crappy?!” Yeah… Bad PR. Really bad!

        China is constructing a strategy for taking back Taiwan. And if they feel that they can grab the US by the testicles while they do it, then they may feel greatly emboldened to do so while they’ve got a good grip. This was the culmination of a many years long major diplomatic F-up on the part of the US that has probably brought us significantly closer to losing a couple of carrier fleets. Ugh…

        Liked by 1 person

        • I wonder how we found out about those four balloons, after the fact? Seems strange to me. Anyway, China doesn’t have a great record for winning wars, so I hope this recent “success” on their part won’t embolden them to go on the offensive. We Americans do stupid things sometimes, but I think it would be pretty stupid of China, or any other country, to underestimate us.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Yes! They were discovered after the fact, apparently when reviewing flight radar records or something like that (no one wants to say exactly). Usually, these things fly at more like 120,000-feet, so they’re not visible from the ground. And if they don’t carry a radar reflector (legitimate weather balloons always do), they’re not necessarily obvious radar targets.

            Shooting down the balloon with an F-22 was certainly a media spectacle. It also revealed something about the Raptor’s “service ceiling” (highest operational altitude) that has only been speculated. 60,000-feet is pretty spectacularly high for a combat aircraft to be able to perform “tactical maneuvers”. It was a message back to the Chinese that our technology does, in fact, work as advertised.

            Liked by 1 person

  5. If we are lucky, this balloon shit will blow over quickly and we will look back at it as a joke. The spy balloon can’t see or intercept much more than all the satellites circling above it. But gives the pilots some live fire practice…

    Liked by 1 person

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