Much Ado About A Balloon: The Lesson No One Will Learn From China’s Spy Balloon
The outrage is palpable. A Chinese spy balloon has floated across the United States. As I draft this post, US military jets are reportedly awaiting the clearance to engage and destroy it over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Everyone from senators to commentators have questioned how the United States could have let this happen and why President Biden didn’t order it downed before it entered US airspace. What stand out to me though is the United States’ repeated failure to learn a lesson that may end up costing thousands of lives in a military engagement.
Let’s start with the facts. Over the past week, a Chinese research/spy/weather balloon has floated unchallenged through United States airspace. It reportedly passed over sensitive nuclear sites in Montana, and, once the news leaked, people have largely tracked its path over the United States. It is now somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
The federal government has sealed a zone of airspace for national security reasons, and US military jets are reportedly waiting for President Biden to give them clearance to engage and destroy the balloon.
What about the questions? Preliminary reports that I have seen indicate that the federal government was trying to conceal the balloon from the public. Why? All we have is speculation. Why wasn’t this balloon shot down over the Pacific before it entered U.S. airspace? Why wasn’t it downed over a rural, unpopulated area after it entered U.S. airspace? Why was it allowed to pass unchallenged over various nuclear facilities?
I think that the common denominator in all these questions is one of capability. I have seen various assessments from former military pilots that shooting down the balloon is not physically beyond the United States’ military capabilities, but it would present some problems.
The balloon stayed at 100,000 feet for much of its flight path over the United States. By way of comparison, the operational ceiling for an F-15 fighter is approximately 50,000-60,000 feet. Reaching it was a slight problem. That, however, could still be accomplished by using a standard air to air missile with a range of 20 miles to reach the balloon.
That leads us to the bottom line. Why use a $100,000 missile and tens of thousands of dollars of fuel to destroy a $25,000 balloon? While the numbers may not be that straightforward, it may have factored into the decision.
What remains is the lesson.
U.S. military doctrine, budgeting, and planning has focused on achieving technological superiority. We invest heavily in technologically advanced weaponry, defense systems, radar, and other machines. They come with hefty price tags too. With respect to a conventional war, we have a track record from the First Gulf War that our technological superiority can achieve low-casualty victories in a non-nuclear conflict.
Vietnam remains the playbook for fighting the United States though. Our technological might tends to encounter problems when matched against unconventional tactics and warfare, and our state-of-the-art systems seem to have a woeful inability to cope with the archaic and obsolete. Thus, we have endured 20 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The U.S. military is not unaware of this problem. In 2002, it conducted a wargames exercise called Millennium Challenge 2002 – the purpose of which was to test future military technologies, perfect their effective command control, and develop new tactics. The exercise was divided into two side: the U.S. and a fictitious state in the Persian Gulf that mimicked Iran. The exercise was an unmitigated disaster for the U.S.
Iran was commanded by retired Marine General Paul K. Van Riper. General Riper realized that he could not win a head to head war with U.S. military technology and units. So he resorted to archaic means. For example, he used motorcycle messengers to transmit his orders, and he launched aircraft without radio communications.
In two attacks, General Riper’s forces decimated the U.S. Navy’s invasion fleet using small boats and a massive cruise missile strike. The U.S. Navy’s advanced electronic warfare systems were overwhelmed and could not cope with the older technology. Additionally, the U.S. intelligence capabilities failed to provide meaningful intelligence due to General Riper’s archaic methods of communication.
The U.S. invasion force was wiped out before it even had a chance to fight.
Instead of taking the lesson in stride, the U.S. military blamed shortcomings of the simulation. It reset the U.S. invasion fleet, and it ordered General Riper’s forces to turn on electronic systems so they could be detected and destroyed. General Riper subsequently resigned from the war games exercise, claiming that the U.S. military was not permitting him to use his own tactics and ideas, that it was constraining his choice of weapons systems, and was ordering the revelation of his forces’ locations so they could be attacked and destroyed.
The lesson was as clear then as it was now. The massive investment in advanced weaponry and technology assumes a battlefield where the conditions that they were designed for are present. Otherwise, that technology has an Achilles’ heel when it comes to dealing with archaic and ancient technology.
Senators and commentators are right to be incensed about the balloon and our seeming inability to do anything about it. Count me among the people who believe that COVID-19 was an intentional Chinese biological attack on the rest of the world. Now, we have untracked balloons free floating over our airspace.
What is next? A more powerful version of Ebola or COVID being released into our population because we remain unable and unwilling to stop the incursion? A nuclear attack or an attack on the electric grid?
The outrage of commentators and senators does not merely raise these concerns. They mistakenly make the issue one of pride and politics. The United States is being embarrassed. We are too mighty to let this happen. It’s a balloon for God’s sake. How could a balloon make fools of us all?
Welcome to war, folks. You don’t win a war because you’re supposed to or because you have the fancier equipment. You win a war because you have the equipment that gets the job done better.
I could end with a rant about the military industrial complex and the massive contracts that we pass out being the reason for our blindness in this respect, but I won’t. This one is on all of us.
This is a national lesson. Sadly, I have no confidence that we will learn it.