What the hell is wrong with Republicans? It’s been about a week since a Chinese balloon was detected drifting around 60,000 feet above sea level over Montana. In a sense though, the timing was right. Republicans are always looking for something new and scary to blame Democrats for. The Chinese balloon hit all the marks, particularly the amorphous and scary paranoia mark.
So it’s probably not too surprising that they latched onto it. Donald Trump Jr. said his father would not have allowed it, even though reports indicate there were at least three balloon incidents during Trump’s tenure. Even the Secretary of Defense wasn’t notified, probably because it wasn’t deemed a sufficient threat.
Republicans, of course, will excuse any behavior by fellow Republicans, with Rep. George Santos’s lies being the latest example. Republicans raised the debt ceiling three times during Trump’s tenure, which was good because the U.S. didn’t default on its debt. But it allowed inflated tax cuts for the super rich to continue. When called on their threats today, they simply choose to not hear or respond to it. But if a Democrat is in the White House, well, of course all hell must break loose.
If these balloons were used for espionage, I doubt it was a very good investment. That’s because balloons follow air currents, so it’s going to be hit or miss if they get near anything related to our national security. It might have solar powered fans or something, but at best it won’t change nature’s course for the balloon except at the margins. Due to the mass carried by the balloon, it made no sense to shoot it down until it could be done safely; the debris field was expected to be about five miles long. If you are going to shoot it, wait until it’s over the ocean and hope you can retrieve some of its equipment for analysis. The Chinese have to have been aware that this was a possibility, so it’s unlikely the equipment was that sensitive.
Major powers, of course, have spy satellites. China is playing catch up with the USA. The latest set of Yaogan 35 spy satellites, were launched starting in August 2022. At least nine Chinese spy satellites were already stationed in orbit. Most likely the number of USA spy satellites can be measured in the hundreds. The cameras used on these satellites are state of the art. We can assume the USA’s are probably best of breed, but China’s technology is likely not far behind. We don’t go to war because of China’s spy satellites; in large part, only those in our intelligence agencies pay attention to them. It you need information, it’s likely you can get it a lot faster from one of these satellites, even though one can’t always be over a particular spot at any one time. Most of these operate in relatively low earth orbits of a few hundred kilometers, 500 kilometers high in China’s case.
China is hardly the only country to send up balloons like these. The USA does it regularly along with most major powers. Sometimes their purpose is scientific, sometimes military, sometimes both. The National Weather Service sends up hundreds of balloons a day, whose purpose is wholly scientific and whose hardware is collected and reused after the balloon pops. The U.S. Air Force for years has had an X-37B unmanned spaceplane running at high altitudes. We know a bit about it based on Scott Manley’s video.
In short, it’s likely that China has far more grievances about U.S. aerial spying on them than they on us. And China would hardly be the only country annoyed by our real-time aerial intelligence collection.
So likely this Chinese balloon crisis amounts to very little. In a way, all this technology may be helpful in maintaining world peace. Nation’s capabilities in aerial and space surveillance will of course vary. But with so much constant analysis and intelligence sharing, it’s unlikely one country will have a serious intelligence lead in these area for long, or that information about military threats will get lost.
Despite the USA now having a space force, no country can really control the skies, certainly not in space. No one can control atmospheric winds either, which is probably why China sends up few balloons but is going all in with spy satellites.
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