After a lot of heated speculation and a bunch of scrambled jet fighters over Canada and the far North of the United States we’re finally getting a credible explanation of the Chinese balloon saga. According to a new report from The Washington Post the United States is now examining the possibility that the People’s Liberation Army simply lost control of the balloon intended to surveil Guam. The U.S. was monitoring the balloon since it went aloft from Hainan Island along China’s south coast. It was tracking along a path to Guam but then seemed to veer north until reaching Alaska.
Here’s the key passage from the Post …
U.S. monitors watched as the balloon settled into a flight path that would appear to have taken it over the U.S. territory of Guam. But somewhere along that easterly route, the craft took an unexpected northern turn, according to several U.S. officials, who said that analysts are now examining the possibility that China didn’t intend to penetrate the American heartland with their airborne surveillance device.
The balloon floated over Alaska’s Aleutian Islands thousands of miles away from Guam, then drifted over Canada, where it encountered strong winds that appear to have pushed the balloon south into the continental United States, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive intelligence. A U.S. fighter jet shot the balloon down off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4, a week after it crossed over Alaska.
I should note that the Post report does not say that the U.S. has definitively concluded that the PLA lost control of the balloon. They’re saying that they’re now investigating that as a serious or perhaps likely explanation. The reference to winds from the arctic pushing the balloon south toward the continental United States sounds like a pretty good indication of an unplanned and out of control trajectory.
Who knows what the final story will be? But this is a far more credible explanation than most of those we’ve heard. Various reports over the last week suggested that the balloon had loitered over a missile base in Montana and flown near other bases in the midwestern United States. But whenever one tried to probe just where this information came from the reports were hazy, unspecific and unsourced.
This NBC report claimed that the balloon “came close” to Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, the base for B-2 Stealth Bombers. But the source for that report was freshman Senator Eric Schmitt (R-MO). I’m going to need some clearer and more reliable sourcing than that.
The idea that China was going to fly a visible-from-the-ground surveillance balloon across the entire breadth of the United States snapping pictures of military bases routinely photographed by satellites was always borderline absurd. Sure, high altitude balloons might conceivably have some advantages over satellites, specifically in radio signals surveillance. But the intelligence bang for the buck would have to be minimal compared to the immensely provocative and easily detectable nature of the effort. Since the U.S. was watching the balloon the whole time they were apparently, as administration officials said at the time, able to have the bases go dark whenever the balloon came close to them on its slow and loping journey.
The Chinese reaction also fits with this explanation. They began by apologizing and insisting the balloon was merely for meteorological research — mostly meteorological research. They then lashed out at the U.S. for overreacting to the incident and then finally refused to engage through military to military channels after the U.S. shot the balloon down off the coast of South Carolina. The Chinese foreign ministry also appeared unprepared and chagrined by Tony Blinken’s decision to cancel his trip to Beijing.
I don’t discount the reality of the United States strategic rivalry with China, the very real threat of conflict over Taiwan or the vulnerability and threat created by U.S. over-reliance on supply chains in China. But being clear-eyed about national security challenges means avoiding hysteria as much as wishful thinking. Maybe this isn’t the last word on the balloon saga. But if Occam’s Razor is our guide, it’s the best one so far.