Opinion

The Red balloon

The best-case scenario is that it’s just for spying.

Sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recover a high-altitude surveillance balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Feb. 5, 2023. Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tyler Thompson.
Sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recover a high-altitude surveillance balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Feb. 5, 2023. Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tyler Thompson.
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Clifford D. May
Clifford D. May is the founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), as well as a columnist for “The Washington Times.”

China’s rulers have accused the U.S. government of “a clear overreaction” to the flight of its balloon across America. Which might make you wonder: How would China’s rulers react if an American balloon was floating over their country? I can answer that question.

The late, great publisher Malcolm Forbes’ passions were riding Harley-Davidson and flying hot-air balloons. In 1982, he invited a few members of his Capitalist Tools motorcycle gang to accompany him on a two-wheels-and-hot-air tour of the People’s Republic. I was one of them, tasked with writing up the story for Forbes Magazine.

Malcolm’s balloon was inflated for the first time in a stadium. Our government-assigned minder remarked on how beautifully the lighter-than-air contraption rose into the sky. Then he asked: “How long before it comes back?”

“Oh, it’s not coming back,” I said.

“Where will it go?” he inquired with a suddenly troubled expression.

“Wherever the wind blows,” I cheerily replied.

Our hosts were aghast. They soon found reasons why the balloon mustn’t take off or at least must remain on a tether: dangerous electric lines in the area, storms blowing in, whatever.

This puzzled us. Couldn’t satellites and spy planes see whatever was worth seeing? What secrets did China’s rulers fear we might discover?

I’ll tell you the end of the story in a minute, but first a more serious discussion. Hanging below last week’s Red Chinese balloon was an array of equipment for collecting intelligence. U.S. officials say such balloons have been spying on more than 40 countries across five continents.

It’s possible that such blimps—flying at lower altitudes than orbiting satellites and with the ability to loiter—could take pictures and intercept communications more efficiently than other intelligence methods.

Is that what this was? Or does Xi Jinping, China’s supreme leader, just want to see how President Biden responds to what the House—in a 419-0 resolution on Thursday—called a “brazen violation of United States sovereignty”? And what are we to make of the other unidentified flying objects shot down over the weekend?

Here’s an ominous possibility: Such a balloon could be used for an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack—a capability China has reportedly been testing.

Surely the U.S. government has considered and prepared for that, right? Not necessarily: In 1996, Vice President Al Gore chaired the White House Commission on Aviation Safety. A year later he issued a report. What did it say about passenger jets being hijacked by terrorists and used as missiles? Not a word.

One way to carry out an EMP attack: A nuclear warhead is detonated at a specific altitude, producing a powerful shockwave that kills no one beneath, but does knock out electrical power, electronics, communications, transportation, refrigeration, online financial transactions, water-pumping stations, sewage systems and much more.

Think of a blackout but over a vast area, and of indefinite duration because—as I wrote 13 years ago—we don’t have a rapid recovery plan. If the blackout were to persist for months, millions would likely die, as made vivid in William R. Forstchen’s book “One Second After.” And, of course, during that time, the government would be incapable of many things. For example, the United States would be unable to effectively intervene to prevent Beijing from militarily conquering Taiwan.

There are those who dismiss such scenarios as science fiction. To be sure, such an attackusing either an atomic bomb or a specially designed EMP weapon—would be technologically challenging. Are you confident that Chinese scientists are not equal to the challenge?

In 2001, the U.S. government took this possibility seriously enough that it established a commission to “assess the threat to the United States” from an EMP attack—or from a naturally occurring EMP event caused by storms on the surface of the sun.

The strongest solar storm on record took place in 1859. A high-intensity burst of electromagnetic energy shot through telegraph lines, disrupting communications, shocking technicians and setting their papers on fire. Northern Lights were visible as far south as Cuba and Hawaii. Other than that, life went on as normal.

The same would not be true if a solar storm of similar magnitude were to erupt today given our dependence on electricity and electronics.

The EMP Commission recommended a simple response: hardening the electrical grid and other components of the infrastructure to increase the chances they would survive, as well as pre-positioning spares of essential components of the grid and other critical infrastructure to replace those that got fried. The estimated cost: $100 million—a drop in the Washington spending bucket.

This mission was never accomplished. Shouldn’t it be on the urgent to-do list of Biden and Congress?

Okay, here’s the kicker to my China story. On the last day of the trip, Malcolm was giving tethered balloon rides in Beijing when mysteriously, the knot connecting the tether to the basket came loose.

Malcolm, his co-pilot, and the champion woman javelin-thrower from Beijing (she seemed nice) went up, up and away. Perhaps 15 minutes later, they set down in a field that turned out to be a People’s Liberation Army rifle range. Astonished soldiers surrounded them and asked where they were from. “America!” came the reply. Who knew a balloon could fly so far?

Malcolm was detained—but not for long. A lavish state dinner had been planned in his honor and he was released in time to attend. He offered a toast to Chinese-American friendship. He said he hadn’t meant to be “naughty” but did want to express his core conviction that balloons are meant to fly free—as are economies and peoples.

What’s now become abundantly clear is that China’s rulers never came to see balloons—or freedom—as he did.

Clifford D. May is the founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for the Washington Times.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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