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Let's Talk About The Balloon
Much Ado About A Little
Having a Substack grants the author/publisher/entrepreneur/influencer/grandee/sage considerable license to opine well outside one’s area(s) of expertise and/or interest, as faithful and attentive readers (I’ve stolen that construction from “The History of the Americans” podcast—which I highly recommend) know well. That said, while I am no expert on lighter-than-airships, overhead surveillance, the aeronautical engineering of such lash-ups, the movement of winds aloft, the destruction of low-radar-cross-section-targets at altitude, Chinese spying, and American grand strategy, I am sufficiently briefed up in all of them to provide you with a little entertainment and information. So let’s get going.
Hey folks, it is time to get serious about China. NOT because a hot air balloon meandered across our continent, but because this is just one of myriad incitements that will predictably occur episodically but not rarely as China continues to flex and we continue to try and run out the clock on our run in charge of the free world. We either need to decide that we wish to remain the leader of the free world, and then act like it, or we need to pipe down, put our paws in the air, and learn Mandarin. But this monkey in the middle stuff is not going to serve us well.
Waiting To Shoot It Down Was Not Dumb
There are two reasons for this assessment. First, once its existence became public knowledge, its primary threat to US national security was embarrassment, rather than anything terribly important. Whatever it was doing (most likely some mix of reconnaissance and atmospheric testing), there are far more effective methods of accomplishing those ends which do not necessarily create international incidents. So its flight across the continent was not a terribly threatening act such as it was, putting aside not unimportant matters of national sovereignty. Second, because this lighter than air vehicle had to have some method of providing power to whatever sensors it was carrying, its main payload was solar panels, which were plainly visible. Other elements of the payload include computing and equipment for guidance (essentially altitude excursions) and whatever (out of necessity) small sensor package could be accommodated. I’ve seen smart people estimate 1000 lbs of “stuff” in the air, and once that stuff begins to accelerate toward the center of the earth, considerable destructive (i.e. “life threatening”) force is generated. Bottom line, it made sense to wait until the thing was over water, even if it makes recovering the mission package more difficult.
Shooting Down A Balloon Is Not A Red-Letter Day for the US of A
Ms. Magsamen is the Chief of Staff to the Secretary of Defense, and while her VERY POSITIVE Twitter account is notable in the dark and deranged world of social media, there was not a whole lot of “bad-ass” associated with the shootdown. As unclassified news reports are beginning to portray, this may not have been the first such balloon to violate our sovereignty, which raises a ton of questions on its own. No—this was an embarrassment—both the facts of the incursion and our inept handling of it.
What Else Could Be Going On Here?
So, let’s assume that China is smart enough to know that there were far less obvious methods of accomplishing its goals. What then, are the goals that OBVIOUS methods serve?
The first possibility is that China is JUST MESSING WITH US. I sorta put the most stock in this one, in that if you look at the cost of their balloon and compare it to what it was able to reveal about our national character/poise—it was a hell of a good investment.
Second—it COULD be a test/precursor for follow-on missions of other kinds of vehicles that would use the same aloft winds to their advantage, and they determined that the risks of exposure were less than the gains of such testing.
Third—they could be mapping our sensing perimeter. There are probably a hundred Sun Tzu quotes that apply, but this one comes to mind:
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
Fourth—they could be creating precedent behind which they would hide—for destroying unmanned platforms of ours (likely not making sovereign airspace/waters distinctions.
While this situation isn’t Tonkin Gulf, Sputnik, or the Cuban Missile Crisis—it isn’t nothing. We need to take national security more seriously in positive, active ways, and not continue to look for the most efficient way to spend whatever is left over from entitlements, debt service, and tuition reimbursement. Winter is coming.
The sixth ranked (as of Sunday, but assuredly not for long after you read this) UVA Men’s Basketball team went to Blacksburg Saturday to play the dreaded VaPolyTech Hokies and laid an egg. Seven victories in a row (against modest competition) was ended with this loss, a game in which UVA’s “small ball” lineup was exposed as limited in its stopping power. And when your starting “center” plays 29 minutes with zero points and sketchy defense, small ball loses a little of its luster.
It will be interesting to see if we’ve plateaued. Kadin Shedrick rides the pine at 6’11” awaiting the opening of the transfer portal to a school where his mediocre hands might be more welcome, and equally as tall Francisco Caffaro comes in for brief periods of spastic activity with little return. Small ball may be as good as it gets, and that may be a second round out in March.