The Chinese Spy Balloon Ushers in an Era of Bad Vibes
The balloons are pretty common, but this one became a spectacle. Why?
The first thing you need to see this week is a report from the Afghanistan Analytics Network about how Talibs are adjusting to victory in Kabul.
It’s not going great. Their war gone by, they miss it so. “In our ministry, there’s little work for me to do. Therefore, I spend most of my time on Twitter,” Abudl Nafi, a 25-year-old former fighter said during his interview. “We’re connected to speedy Wi-Fi and internet. Many mujahedin, including me, are addicted to the internet, especially Twitter.”
Talibs are just like us: crushed by the oppressive weight of modernity and wallowing in ennui.
The Bad Vibes Balloon
A lot of fascinating stuff happened in the world of conflict last week, but all anyone wants to talk about is the Chinese spy balloon. What worries me about the balloon is not the knowledge that China is spying on the U.S. All countries do that and we’ve known about the balloons for years. What worries me is that the Pentagon decided to make the balloon into a news story and then publicly blow it up. That’s what’s different here.
On Feb. 2, the Pentagon announced it was tracking a High-Altitude Surveillance Balloon above Montana. It did not want to say where it was going or what, exactly, the Pentagon would do about it. F-22s, however, had been scrambled.
For the next few days, the journey of the balloon dominated the news cycle in America. Biden, apparently, wanted to shoot down the balloon when the U.S. first noticed it but the DoD talked him out of it. There was all that debris falling onto a civilian population to consider.
China denied that the spy balloon was a spy balloon at all. Beijing urged America to calm down and explained that this was merely a weather research airship that had blown off course. During its press conference on Thursday night, the Pentagon said the balloon was probably worse at gathering intelligence than, y’know, all the satellites packed with high resolution cameras China has pointed at the United States at any given time.
“Our best assessment at the moment is that whatever the surveillance payload is on this balloon, it does not create significant value added over and above what the [People’s Republic of China] is likely able to collect through things like satellites in Low Earth Orbit,” an unnamed spokesperson for the Pentagon said.
On Saturday morning, the balloon floated off the coast of South Carolina where it was shot down by an F-22 near Myrtle Beach. According to the Pentagon, the resultant debris was equivalent to 15 football fields. The U.S. Navy sent divers to collect the bits and pieces to study. The event was filmed from multiple angles by a public eager to see the destruction of Communist China’s big white balloon.
For anyone who wants a blow by blow of the operation to take down the balloon and the AIM-9 Sidewinder that likely destroyed it, the War Zone has you covered. The War Zone’s coverage of the minutiae of the military operation involved in scrambling jets to shoot down a spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina is second to none.
I’m more interested in all the other balloons and what makes this one different. Having weird balloons bopping around in the skies above America is shockingly common. In February of 2022, a similar looking balloon floated above Hawaii. The Air Force scrambled F-22s back then, too. The Pentagon’s All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office—the people who study UFOs—issued a report in January that claimed 163 of the sightings it’s investigating are of “balloon-like entities.” Balloons, apparently, floated above the United States during the Trump administration too.
The War Zone editor-in-chief Tyler Rogoway spent the week promoting his piece from 2021 that explains some of what’s going on here. “Our team here at The War Zone has spent the last two years indirectly laying out a case for the hypothesis that many of the events involving supposed UFOs, or unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP), as they are now often called, over the last decade are actually the manifestation of foreign adversaries harnessing advances in lower-end unmanned aerial vehicle technology, and even simpler platforms, to gather intelligence of extreme fidelity on some of America's most sensitive warfighting capabilities,” Rogoway said in the piece.
Basically, China has been spying on the U.S. using balloons for a long time. The Pentagon and anyone watching the skies has known this for a long time. So what changed? Why did we shoot this one down?
We don't have the answer, but there are interesting data points to consider. Tensions with China are at an all-time high. They’re so high that Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was set to travel to Beijing over the weekend with the aim of easing those tensions. The balloon was used as a pretext for Blinken to cancel the trip.
China pretended there was never a planned trip. “In actuality, the U.S. and China have never announced any visit, the U.S. making any such announcement is their own business, and we respect that,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement carried by the Associated Press.
The U.S. has permitted and known about these spy balloons for years. The U.S., presumably, is conducting similar operations above mainland China. Twenty years ago, Beijing and Washington successfully navigated an international incident after a U.S. spy plane crashed into a Chinese jet in the South China sea.
Now the Pentagon is turning spy balloons into a major news incident before publicly shooting it down off the Carolina coast. It’s all very weird. The vibes are off, etc, and this story points to a new era of terrible relations between the U.S. and China.
Bits and pieces
The mainstream press had some good stories last week that looked into the nuanced horrors of Russia’s war in Ukraine. The Wall Street Journal detailed the influx of Russian migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. “About 12,500 Russians entered the U.S. through ports of entry with Mexico between October, the start of the government’s budget year, and December,” the Journal said.
Last year, the number was 5,000.
The New Yorker ran an in-depth piece about hunting for Russian collaborators in newly liberated areas of Ukraine. It’s a complicated and brutal story.
“During the occupation, doctors treated anyone who showed up in need of help, whether that person was a local hit by shrapnel from Russian shelling or a Russian soldier injured in fighting the Ukrainian Army. In May, Russian troops shot and killed a forensic pathologist on the grounds of the hospital after he refused to give up his car, making the cost of resistance terrifyingly clear.”
The New York Times has a piece about the implosion of an American mercenary group in Ukraine.
Elsewhere on the internet, a video surfaced that purported to be a commercial aimed at recruiting American soldiers into Russia’s Wagner Group. I tried to chase down a source and couldn’t find one. There’s a good chance it’s fake, but I present it here as an example of the culture war attitudes simmering beneath the surface of the real war.
On the other side, here’s an unverified photo of a Catboy warrior in Bakhmut.
I’ll leave you with this important message from Ukraine’s Defense Ministry.
image at top: @mr_gh0stly meme via Twitter.