An image from a frame grab of a video shot by Jonathan Snyder/LSM and broadcast by CNN shows a suspected Chinese spy balloon exploding after being hit by an AIM-9X missile fired from a USAF F-22 Raptor from the 1st Fighter Wing at Langley Air Force Base, Va., on Feb. 4 off the South Carolina coast. Jonathan Snyder/LSM via CNN; Mike Tsukamoto/staff
Photo Caption & Credits

Editorial: Myth Busting

Feb. 16, 2023

The Chinese balloon that transited the skies over the central United States in late January and early February was nothing if not a wake-up call to the nation. 

We discovered: 

  • All the best satellite intelligence and ground-based radars in the world can still miss threats if they don’t know what they’re looking for. “It’s my responsibility to detect threats to North America,” said NORAD Commander Gen. Glen D. VanHerck. “I will tell you that we did not detect those threats. And that’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out.” 
  • China has been flying balloons over the United States and other countries for years. It’s still unclear if the U.S. Intelligence Community was aware of that and simply failed to share that intelligence with the Department of Defense or whether they, like NORAD, simply didn’t know what they were looking for. What is clear is that once we did know, intel agencies were able to rewind the clock and find past incursions over the United States and also some 40 other countries around the world. 
  • The Department of Defense had no preexisting operational plan for how to deal with a crisis involving a balloon gathering intelligence over the United States. The indecision and lack of clarity emanating from the Pentagon and the White House as the issue played out in real time make that clear. Whatever one thinks about when the aircraft should have been shot down—over the Pacific, over Alaska, over Canada, over the north central American plains or after crossing the continent in the Atlantic—it’s clear that national leadership was also divided and unsure what to do, and that the playbook did not have an answer for this kind of problem. 

There’s still much we don’t know. We don’t know how long it took NORAD to inform the Secretary of Defense about the Chinese airship’s penetration of the U.S. Air Defense Identification Zone or even to identify what it was that crossed into the ADIZ. We don’t know if intelligence agencies that saw the balloon lift off from Hainan Island in China tracked the balloon as it transited the Pacific. We don’t know when the Secretary of Defense and the President learned about the balloon: Before it crossed into U.S. airspace, as it happened, or after? And we don’t know what military engagement options were recommended. 

Americans now may be less quick to criticize those like General Minihan who call it like they see it regarding China’s speech, actions, methods, and ambitions.

Defense officials claim the United States gained more intelligence in this incident than the Chinese did. That may be an educated guess, but it’s not a fact. We can be sure the Chinese learned a lot from our response, including U-2 flights to monitor the balloon, jamming to limit its collection activities, and ultimately the approach to the balloon by F-22 Raptors and its shoot down with a sidewinder missile. 

Clearly, China is now on notice should it risk future incursions. Just as clearly, the U.S. now understands its awareness gaps, making it substantially harder for China to float sensors over the United States unnoticed in the future. Yet we must also recognize that China tested the United States to understand how our defense establishment would respond to a novel incursion, and therefore to gauge how we might respond to future incursions of other sorts. 

That test will impose costs. U.S. intelligence will henceforth be looking for balloons and airships in addition to aircraft, ships, and submarines, and that burns attention, time, effort, and resources. We will invest millions in new software, sensor technology, and other means to identify and neutralize airship incursions, even if we never see another one. For China, that’s quite a return on its investment. 

Yet this newest wrinkle in the emerging Sino-American Cold War has its benefits. China has to wonder: Will the U.S. response be the same the next time? The shoot-downs of smaller “objects” floating over Alaska, the Yukon, and Lake Huron over the next weekend suggest a more aggressive posture in the future.

Those Americans denying the U.S. has anything much to fear from China have at least been jostled from their gauzy dreams. One would have to be willingly naïve to accept China’s explanation that this was a weather balloon that somehow veered off course. 

Credit the Chinese for exploiting the seam between air and space, a region generally uninhabited by air or spacecraft where intelligence assets can operate largely unhindered. Why they chose to risk that operational advantage—whether purposely or as the result of some kind of error, or out of arrogance, because they’d never been noticed before and thought they could make such flights with impunity—is a question worth pondering. 

Regardless, Americans now may be less quick to criticize those like Gen. Mike A. Minihan who call it like they see it regarding China’s speech, actions, methods, and ambitions. Minihan spent two years as the deputy commander at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command before taking charge of Air Mobility Command a year ago. So, when he says he’s studied China and he sees trouble getting close, we should pay attention. 

“I hope I am wrong,” Minihan began in a Feb. 1 message to his Airmen. “My gut tells me we will fight in 2025.” He then laid out his reasons for feeling that way and his commander’s intent about readiness in anticipation of that chance. He did so in his own direct, plain-spoken style, advising his Airmen to get their affairs in order and to practice their target shooting. 

When the internal memo was leaked to a TV news reporter, the story exploded. Minihan was criticized for saber-rattling and warmongering, and some even suggested he should resign or be fired. What Minihan was doing was telling the truth, setting an example for others to follow. The fact is, we live in a dangerous world. The threats are real, and the stakes are high. 

Minihan’s message channeled Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., who came to office warning the Air Force to “Accelerate Change … or Lose.” Like Minihan, his experience commanding U.S. Pacific Air Forces and, before that, U.S. Air Forces Central, informed his conclusion that U.S. forces need to ramp up their game in order to deter China’s ambitions and defeat the People’s Republic Army Air Forces if a fight proves unavoidable. Likewise, his sense of urgency echoes that of Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, who sought out his post because of the threat he sees rising in China.

In the Pacific, Brown championed Agile Combat Employment because the U.S. Air Force could not hope to fight China as we fought Vietnam 50 years ago, flying long-range missions from fixed bases in Guam and the first island chain. Instead, the U.S. and its allies must present an unpredictable and complex set of distributed threats, the ability to operate, attack, and counterattack from anyplace, and with next-generation weapons that give the United States distinct advantages in speed, range, and stealth. 

Argue all we want about the details—which aircraft the Air Force needs most, and how many, and whether divesting current capacity to invest in future capability is a viable strategy—but make no mistake Brown remains right on target. So does Minihan. China poses a real and present threat to its neighbors, and a growing threat to American interests. To think otherwise is to buy into a myth.

The time has come to rapidly modernize U.S. Air and Space Forces and develop and field new technologies that restore our ability to dominate, as needed, in the air and space domains. America squandered its edge over three decades because we undervalued air and space power. 

It is time to reverse that trend.