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Stop Thinking Like a Civilian, Start Thinking Like a Spy: Deflating the Twitter Balloon 'Experts'

U.S. Naval Institute

While the entire country, and maybe more predictably the internet, has been enamored by the slow-moving Chinese surveillance balloon floating across middle America, two things, in particular, have stood out. The ham-fisted analysis offered by online experts who posited the best course of action was to simply "put a couple of rounds through the damn thing", and the obtuse politicization of the whole situation.

At first glance, it does seem like the immediate impulse was a no-brainer - SHOOT IT DOWN.

Why let the identified adversarial spy balloon that's relaying sensitive military information back to the PRC continue on its lumbering journey? Now that the balloon has fallen back down to earth and the dust has settled, let's take a critical look at the entirety of the situation and the options that the military had at its disposal.


The Issue of Feasibility

The first problem identified by the Department of Defense was the danger of destroying it over the continental U.S. and having enormous chunks of debris fall from the massive payload attached to the balloon atop civilians and private property. Those online claiming that there was plenty of open area in the Midwest to use, failed to take into account the sheer altitude that this thing was flying at and the unpredictability of where that fragmentation would land. It was believed to be floating at around 60,000 to 65,000 feet above the ground and had the potential to land many miles from its original point of impact in the sky.

Another, more fundamental question that some asked was if we even have the technical capability to bring the balloon down. Again, the altitude of the balloon made it difficult to find a simple solution and brought into question how we might destroy it. Do you simply try to spray it with the onboard cannon of an F-22, one of the only fighters capable of reaching it in the first place? Do you launch an air-to-air missile and hope that you don't utterly annihilate the payload attached? Do you float your own balloon up with a sharpened stick taped to the side and hope you can get close enough to spear the thing?


Incompetence or Strategy?

Speaking more to the ongoing politicization of the situation - despite whatever qualms one might have with this administration, the decision to not immediately destroy the balloon was a purely strategic one, not one made out of fear, malice, greed, incompetence, or any other reason levied at the Executive Office.

This will not embolden Xi Jinping as some claim, nor will this make us appear weak on the world stage. This was a calculated intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) mission carried out by the PRC to capture information on military targets which was ultimately intercepted and monitored by our own military-intelligence apparatus.

China understands the rules of the espionage game; mainly the necessity to push as far as you can to the edge of acceptability before being caught. They also understand the potential that their source may become compromised, falling into the enemy's hands. Indeed, there has been a precedent set by the PRC for this exact sort of situation.

U.S. Department of Defense

In 2001, a PLA J-8II interceptor fighter jet collided with a U.S. Navy EP-3E signals intelligence aircraft near the Paracel Islands, forcing the American aircraft to enact an unauthorized emergency landing on the Chinese island of Hainan. The PRC set a hard line of negotiations with the U.S. to recover the EP-3E and the 24 crew members who were being held, hostage. Some of these demands included forcing the U.S. to only use contracted aircraft from a different third country, sending a bill of cost to cover the expenses of the associated mission, and refusing to return any hardware, software, or communications equipment, found as a result of the collision.

If we treat this surveillance balloon like any other intelligence asset, the response (or apparent lack thereof) by the U.S., seems much more understandable. Likewise, the response by the PRC (denial and deflection) makes much more sense.

In order to fully comprehend why the military chose to let the balloon fly across the country, we must first start to shift our mental paradigm from that of a civilian, to that of an intelligence officer.


Let Them Show Their Hand

In the clandestine realm of intelligence and counterintelligence exists an ongoing parlay of moves and countermoves; a continuous chess match played on the international level. Akin to a seasoned martial artist, intelligence officers must maneuver their opponents in such a way that renders them ineffective and simultaneously gives them the upper hand. This manipulation of force is a game of wits, considering many moves in advance.

Understanding the threat and intentions of our enemy provides us with a clear operating picture for the best next move. One must consider all potentials and desired outcomes with regard to the handling of an enemy surveillance craft.

The final decision on the best course of action could have been boiled down to three primary questions and risk analyses:

  1. Is the balloon an active risk and what is the payload? This will determine the necessity to destroy it immediately or examine other options. If the payload was kinetic, the necessity to respond with immediate force would have been justified, including the risks involved to shoot it down over Middle America.

  2. Can we jam the collection capabilities of the balloon and render the asset neutralized? If we can continuously deny enemy surveillance, can we conduct our own ELINT/SIGINT mission - hoovering up and latent emissions expelled from the device, gaining a better picture of the exact capabilities of the Chinese technology?

  3. Can we let the balloon complete its course to help determine the original Chinese mission? It would behoove us to know the exact targets that China was attempting to spy on, no? Let's make sure it is rendered incapacitated and we can decide where to safely destroy it and pick it up the remnants to reverse engineer its payload.


How it Played Out

U.S. Department of Defense

Now that the balloon has fallen into the Atlantic, we know that this was the exact thought process employed by those at the Pentagon.

A press release confirmed that U.S. aircraft were able to actively jam the device, and enabled the military to study and scrutinize the balloon and its equipment. Defense officials have also confirmed that the balloon had an array of technical surveillance capabilities and intend to dig into the precise technical capabilities of the secured equipment. It will be interesting to see what kind of reverse engineering can still be conducted on the ensuing debris given that much of the payload was likely affected by the impact.

The question of feasibility was inevitably answered when an F-22 Raptor climbed vertically above coastal Carolina waters to strike the balloon with one AIM-9X Sidewinder missile - all caught by numerous bystanders in glorious 4K. The balloon fell approximately six miles off the coast in about 47 feet of water, scattering pieces of the payload across a 7-mile radius.

As for the politicization of the balloon - interested actors will continue to benefit from pointing fingers at the perceived party held to blame, slinging narratives to suit their needs. China will use this as a propagandistic talking point about America's "overreaction" to what they claim was an errant weather balloon, denying that they were simply caught red-handed. Undoubtedly this was not the first, nor the last instance of a Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon flying over the U.S., or another unwitting country.

It will be interesting to see exactly how the U.S. responds in the following days and weeks, given that the public is now acutely aware of the kind of ongoing intelligence operations that are going on every day in our backyards.

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