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Remember how the year started out weird? During January, Hawaiians saw these spectacular beams of light in the sky. Within a few weeks, it turned out to be a Chinese satellite, Daqi-1, launched in April 2022 and carrying LIDAR (laser imaging, detection, and ranging) “for detecting atmospheric aerosols and carbon dioxide,” according to Sascha Brodsky at Popular Mechanics.
“Daqi-1 also measures nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone, and fine particle pollution.” Put simply, China is mapping the Pacific as it changes with the planetary climate. Other countries, including the United States, have been doing the same thing for a long time. A down-to-earth explanation in the sky.
Similarly, weather balloons are not a new thing, nor are spy balloons, but a Chinese balloon still drove the whole country nuts for a few days in February. And because these things always happen in threes, David Grusch emerged this spring with a frankly bullshit story about interdimensional flying saucers. A congressional hearing revealed more about what he does not know than what he does know, however, and so Grusch has faded from the news. It all feels like a bit of a letdown, really.
The now-infamous balloon entered Alaska airspace on 28 January. It was spotted over Montana on 1 February. An American fighter jet shot it down three days later, then search and recovery operations lasted 13 days. By then, a consensus of experts had concluded the balloon was simply blown off course by high-level winds that were too strong for its advanced station-keeping motor system.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed that assessment on CBS News this Sunday. Furthermore, the Pentagon has concluded “there was no intelligence collection by that balloon,” Milley added. In other words, it was a research balloon that got blown off course on its way to Hawaii, just as China had claimed all along.
Everyone was embarrassed, Beijing most of all. “China appears to have suspended its surveillance balloon program” after the disaster, according to CNN’s Natasha Bertrand. “The US has not observed any new launches since the episode occurred.” In the meantime, a crash program to detect future surveillance balloons resulted in panic-fire.
In the wake of the incident, the US widened the aperture of its radar systems so that they could better detect objects traveling above a certain altitude and at certain speeds. The aim was to fix a “domain awareness gap” that had allowed three other suspected Chinese spy balloons to transit the continental United States undetected under the Trump administration, Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of US Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, said at the time.
The more sensitive radar systems led the US military to spot more unidentified objects in US airspace, however, leading to three additional shootdowns of unidentified high-altitude objects in the weeks following the Chinese balloon incident.
Like the so-called Battle of Los Angeles in 1942, when a weather balloon caused nervous antiaircraft gunners to blast away at an imaginary Japanese air raid, three hobby balloons were shot down between 10 and 12 February because everyone in power was spooked by the public reaction to one Chinese balloon. America’s national defense establishment calmed down, however, taking no action when another random balloon was spotted near Hawaii at the end of April.
As I wrote back in February, there is a grain of truth to all the hype. Certain narrow spying missions can only be conducted in the atmosphere, while the CCP has earned suspicion through extensive spying activity worldwide for decades. Not all of my hunches prove correct. They are, after all, hunches.
However, my jaded skepticism about blind quotes from anonymous Pentagon officials has been vindicated. Consider this NBC News headline in April: “Chinese spy balloon gathered intelligence from sensitive U.S. military sites, despite U.S. efforts to block it.”
Citing “two current senior U.S. officials and one former senior administration official,” NBC reported that China had in fact gleaned some intelligence from US military signalling. “Once the balloon’s existence became public, China increased its speed, officials said, in attempt to get it out of U.S. airspace as quickly as possible,” they reported.
“China was able to control the balloon so it could make multiple passes over some of the sites (at times flying figure-eight formations) and transmit the information it collected back to Beijing in real time,” the three nameless officials told NBC. Or was this the Chinese controllers frantically trying to steer the balloon against the wind? We will probably never know.
Luckily, “China could have gathered much more intelligence from sensitive sites if not for the administration’s efforts to move around potential targets and obscure the balloon’s ability to pick up their electronic signals by stopping them from broadcasting or emitting signals.”
In real time, President Joe Biden was critcized for waiting to shoot down the balloon, and then criticized for shooting it down at all. In the rear-view mirror, this NBC News story was an attempt to spin the whole thing as presidential wisdom: the balloon was both a real threat and also the response was good, actually.
Partisanship is probable. The “former senior administration official” here almost certainly served in the Obama administration. Motives are easily detected in, and even more easily projected onto, this reporting.
That is not so easy to do with this take from Adam Popescu at The Free Press in late February. Popescu thought that the three balloons shot down in the first moments of the new radar aperture settings were “likely dispatched by a Chinese company that’s not at all a company in the way Americans imagine them, but really, an extension of the Chinese military intelligence regime.” He rated the chances that China was behind the sudden burst of balloons going boom “high.”
Popescu was contradicting the White House, which had said the balloons were most likley “tied to some commercial or benign purpose” and shot down out of an abundance of caution. Biden described the change in radar coverage and its results, saying the balloons were “most likely tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions” and not connected to the first Chinese balloon.
“The most important data the crafts provided was America’s reaction to it — further confirmation, in the eyes of the Chinese, of our national decline,” Popescu wrote.
“China sees this as a way to erode our unity, and that gives them an advantage,” Elliot Ackerman, an author and former Marine, told me.
Mary Kissel said the balloons had cast a spotlight on a gaping hole in our national discourse. “There are a lot of gray areas of warfare that we really, as a nation, have not confronted,” Kissel said. “There’s a lot of stuff floating in the air above us at 60,000 feet all the time and we have not come up with a coherent policy to deal with it.”
We have discounted officialdom altogether: Biden must simply be avoiding confrontation with China because he is weak. Popescu is more hawkish than Joe Biden and his sources are defense professionals selling a hawkish line on China. Which, again, was a safe bet. My point is that in both these examples of post-shootdown coverage, the issue actually being debated was Joe Biden, not the capabilities of powered balloon flight.
If the reader looks back through the coverage of these events they might notice this pattern. Chinese intentions are inscrutable, whereas presidents must occasionally respond to journalists.
The burst of balloon hysteria fed into a new season of flying saucer speculation. Lawmakers worried that unidentified aerial phenomena (UAPs) might be foreign adversaries using some sort of new aviation technology, perhaps an advanced balloon, to menace American military aviation. They called for the AARO (All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office), a central Pentagon clearing house for UAP reports, to be fully staffed. A new kind of bueaucrat was suddenly under invention.
Ryan Graves, former US Navy pilot, wrote in late February of “a dark gray cube inside of a clear sphere — motionless against the wind” encountered by a supersonic jet pilot. Encounters were frequent and correlated with sensor information. “I am a formally trained engineer, but the technology they demonstrated defied my understanding,” Graves said.
Now “chairman of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ UAP Integration & Outreach Committee and founder of the new non-profit Americans for Safe Aerospace,” according to his bio, Graves called for “a coordinated, data-driven response that unites the public and private sectors.” He advocates for pilots to have better reporting mechanisms, but wants so much more.
“The North American Aerospace Defense Command, the U.S. Space Force and a host of other military and civilian agencies need to be marshaled in support of a much more aggressive and vigilant effort, along with our scientific community and private industry,” Graves wrote, affecting the tone of a glossy brochure at a defense trade show.
Unidentified things in the sky are a booming business thanks to a dramatic drop in the price of getting to orbit. The United States is set to quadruple the number of spy satellites by 2033. Comparable programs mean the future nightscape will be filled with funny things that don’t look right. Already, Starlink swarms are among the most common explanations that UFO skeptic Mick West finds using open-source data when he investigates supposed spacecraft sightings.
Say what you will, the people who monetize that sort of trend are keeping their eyes on the future. Fear serves them as well as it served their Cold War contracting forebears. It does not matter who we fear or why. Xi Jinping will do. Joe Biden will do. Jewish space lasers will do just fine to make us afraid, and pray, and best of all pay for some hope of safety from heaven.
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