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The Trial Balloon Fiasco

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Screenshot via KSVI-TV

A sidewinder missile fired from a U.S. Air Force F-22 fighter brings down a 200-foot-diameter balloon off the coast of South Carolina. U.S. Navy and Coast Guard aircraft and vessels are dispatched to search for and recover debris in the storm-tossed Atlantic Ocean. In Beijing, spokesmen for the People's Republic of China insist the "airship," which coasted over U.S. territory for more than a week, was nothing but a harmless weather balloon, inadvertently blown over the United States by unanticipated wind currents. In Washington, comments by government officials -- most of them nameless -- range from "don't worry, this happens all the time" to "this is a major, perhaps existential threat to the American people." At the White House, the seriously compromised president of the U.S. searches for ways to blame his predecessor for an unprecedented breach of U.S. airspace and the ensuing media circus.


If I wrote the paragraph above in opening a novel or as a "pitch" treatment for a TV mini-series, the Writers Guild could well revoke my membership. And my publishing editor would remind me a novel requires "the willful suspension of disbelief" and "what you wrote is too unbelievable to be real."

All this -- and more -- confirm truth really is "stranger than fiction" and truth is hard to find in Beijing or Washington. So, I decided to call some trusted friends -- also nameless -- from my years on Ronald Reagan's National Security Council staff and since. Here are a few of my questions and their answers:

Q. Was this balloon a "one-off," a mistake, or a deliberate provocation?

A. The "balloon," as you call it, is a sophisticated, intelligence surveillance and collection platform. Communist China has been employing devices like this for years over and near Taiwan and other countries including Russia, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, the Korean peninsula, South and Central America and Guam, to name a few. The only thing the PRC could have done to make this event more provocative would have been to make the balloon out of bright red spectra with a big, bold, gold star on it.

Q. Why would the PRC use balloons when they have satellites?

A. Spy balloons are a lot cheaper to build and launch than satellites. Visual and radar imagery from a balloon at 65,000 to 70,000 feet offers far better resolution than that from satellites orbiting hundreds of miles above earth. With the right sensors aboard, spy balloons can collect info from every cellphone over hundreds of thousands of square miles. Place an order for fast food in Montana and folks in Beijing will know who you are, where you are and what you're having for lunch.


Q. Are claims about Chinese spy balloons overflying the U.S. during the Trump administration and crashing off Hawaii true?

A. Every Trump-era official I know from DoD, State (Department), the intel community and DHS deny knowing about such events. But if they did occur, someone in those agencies better have a great explanation as to why they were not passed up the chain of command.

Q. Was shooting it down the right thing to do?

A. Yes. But it should have been brought down over the Aleutian Islands or Alaska where there is very little risk to people from falling debris. Had the Pentagon brought it down with guns instead of blowing it up with a missile, exploitation would have been much easier.

Q. What's the most valuable info the PRC would be able to gather from this balloon?

A. It's not about locating missile silos or even the telemetry of our NORAD radars. The most valuable info they gained from this event is watching the reaction of our commander in chief and the response of the American people.

As We the People witnessed in the Afghanistan retreat debacle, our president is once again seen to be confused, uncertain and vacillating -- traits inviting aggression from despots.

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