Editorial: Balloons not all hot air

The continuing saga of the Chinese spy balloon points to some real security issues, but also highlights just how much other stuff is in the sky.

Oh, the humanity! Not since the fiery demise of the Hindenburg has a balloon so dominated a news cycle.

The saga of what the Pentagon has identified as a wandering Chinese spy balloon is continuing to play out. There are serious matters of national security involved, although just how serious either the U.S. government doesn’t yet know or isn’t telling. It’s not even entirely clear what the Chinese government hopes to learn from its balloon program that it couldn’t learn with spy satellites. We do know a balloon, in theory, could lurk over a target for a longer period of time than a satellite. But U.S. military officials have expressed skepticism of its real intelligence value.

“We did not assess that it presented a significant collection hazard beyond what already exists in actionable technical means from the Chinese,” according to Gen. Glenn VanHerck, the commander of U.S. Northern Command and NORAD.

The Biden administration’s decision to let the balloon pass over the U.S. and shoot it down after it was over the Atlantic has resulted in a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking, most of it little but political posturing.

Shooting the balloon down over water has made it possible for the U.S. government to recover more of it intact. This may turn out to be a much larger intelligence screw-up for the Chinese government than for us.

Nevertheless, the Biden administration seems to have heard its critics and reacted — by overreacting.

In the week since the Chinese balloon’s voyage, North American air defense systems have been re-tuned. As a result, they’re now picking up more “unidentified flying objects” than they were before, and U.S. fighter planes have shot down at least three more of them to date.

Are they yet more spy balloons? Probably not.

“We don’t see anything that points right now to being part of the PRC spy balloon program,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters, referring to the People’s Republic of China, on Tuesday. It’s also not likely the objects were “intelligence collection against the United States of any kind — that’s the indication now.”

According to The Associated Press, “Little is known about the three objects shot down over three successive days, from Friday to Sunday, in part because it’s been challenging to recover debris from remote locations in the Canadian Yukon, off northern Alaska and near the Upper Peninsula of Michigan on Lake Huron. So far, officials have no indication they were part of a bigger surveillance operation along with the balloon that that was shot down off the South Carolina coast on Feb. 4.”

So what are they? Lost weather balloons? Forgotten science experiments? Possibly, maybe even likely.

This all put a new spin on last year’s congressional hearing on “unidentified aerial phenomena,” the government’s new, less sensational term for UFOs.

Scott W. Bray, the deputy director of Naval intelligence, told lawmakers that reports of UAPs have been increasing for a variety of reasons, including improved sensors, an increase in drones and other non-military unmanned aircraft, and “aerial clutter” such as Mylar balloons.

Yes, your lost birthday balloons could end up on the government’s radar — literally.

Officials, then as now, were worried about the UAPs they couldn’t explain not because they thought they were part of an alien visitation, but because hidden among them could be things like China’s balloon — or possibly something with a more dangerous cargo.

China’s balloon isn’t a wake-up call. The U.S. government has been telling us about the real issues and potential threats for a while. It’s just that people would rather talk about aliens from space.

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