Some buses are bigger than others, of course, but by all counts the Chinese balloon was big – maybe three-buses-big, we’re told. In fact, its size—and subsequent concern for the damage it could wreak if it fell in the wrong place—allegedly helps explain the Biden administration’s reticence toward shooting it down until it was safely within closed airspace over the Atlantic coastline. Of course, the other way to put it, critics assert, is that an adversarial nation’s surveillance platform was allowed to complete its espionage tour of the continental United States before the administration did anything about it.

Naturally, the claims and counterclaims will be thrown back and forth for some time. Administration officials assure us that because US military leaders determined the transiting balloon posed no military threat there was no warrant to take even the low-level risk of attempting to take it down over—even uninhabited—American soil. To be fair, there’s surely something to be said about not knocking something down in our own front yard if we don’t know what’s in it. This option is made more attractive if it’s true, as the administration tells us, that US intelligence officials were able to take immediate steps to eliminate any Chinese intelligence collection efforts when the balloon was first detected. We’re not told what these steps involved—rightly so—but if we really could take effective countersurveillance measures and, crucially, if the Chinese saw that we could, that, it seems to me, would be the essential thing.

This is because I suspect the fact that the balloon was spying is largely, though not entirely, beside the point. And do let’s be clear, the trajectory of the balloon’s flight path, conveniently crossing over critical US military assets, should—if nothing else does and despite inane Chinese claims to the contrary—be sufficient to cast aside any doubt whether the balloon was, in fact, an intelligence gathering mechanism. Some poo-poo this fact as irrelevant. The balloon, they insist, is archaic technology unable to procure for the Chinese anything a satellite cannot already give them. At the risk of belaboring what might be a minor point, this, apparently, is not quite the case. If I rightly understand what is certainly an oversimplification, a satellite can fly in one of only two kinds of orbit. It can either fly in a low orbit, in which case it is able to gather images of significant detail but for only relatively brief bits of time given its speed. Or it can orbit in a much higher trajectory, sacrificing detail due to its height but affording itself more time as it travels at speeds more in harmony with the earth’s rotation. Mitigating these tradeoffs, however, a spy balloon offers a kind of hybrid option. It can fly low enough to be able to gather images of significant detail and slow enough—and typically can ascend and descend to adjust its speed—that it gains significantly increased persistence—it can loiter for longer. I might note that having entered my fifth decade I’m heartened to know that old things still have their uses.

That said, the spying itself probably wasn’t the main effort. It seems like it would be silly if it were. A three-buses-big white balloon floating low and lazily over the American landscape—especially when the landscape in question is dotted with vital military assets is unlikely to escape notice. Doomed from the start then, one wonders what the point would be in the Chinese Communist Party bothering with the espionage effort at all.

One could surmise that despite it being a predictable failure, Beijing had nothing to lose in trying to gather as much intel as they could until their floaty got popped. Why not? I think back to childhood games of capture the flag and the reasonable, if doomed, tactic of simply sprinting recklessly into enemy territory while wildly looking around in hopes of seeing where the other team’s flag is, or isn’t, before getting tagged and dragged off to jail—from where, incidentally, you could continue looking around. Despite knowing you would eventually—even quickly—be caught, the effort was often worth it. At the risk of mixing cultures, the Chinese might simply have determined that the kamikaze surveillance run might pay sufficient dividends.  

But a better explanation is that the Chinese were simply probing. They were testing us in order to see how we would respond. The intelligence they wanted primarily had to do with our behavior. They wanted to map our ability to observe a threat, orient toward it, decide what to do about it, and to act on that decision. Understanding an adversary’s observation-orientation-decision-action (OODA) sequence is key to being able to thwart it. This OODA loop grounds a theory of conflict advanced by US Air Force officer John Boyd. By uncovering the characteristics of your adversary’s OODA loop you have a better chance of paralyzing his ability to observe, orient, decide, and act. In practice, having observed how your adversary responds to a single threat, you can predict how he will respond to others and his capacity and limits in doing so. This allows you to develop strategies designed to render the enemy command powerless by denying him the ability to cope with, or adapt to, the—probably multiple—threats you throw at him.

My inexpert suspicion finds more credible support in an idea advanced by a US Naval War College colleague, James Holmes, in a sobering essay in 1945. Holmes submits that Beijing’s chief reason for floating a balloon over North America was to observe the response from the US government, military, and, just as importantly, the American people. They will leverage what they’ve learned, Holmes asserts, to sharpen their “three warfares” strategy, China’s “all-consuming effort to shape the political and strategic environment in its favor by deploying legal, media, and psychological means.”

One critical thing in all of this is Holme’s assertion—it should, by now, be merely a reminder—that China’s effort to control the political and strategic environment is a “24/7/365 endeavor.” China is always “on.” This is in keeping with Mao Zedong’s assertion that politics is simply war without bloodshed. “In the Maoist worldview,” Holmes cautions, “there is no peacetime.” The balloon—trial balloon as Holmes calls it—was one more effort by Beijing to get to know the enemy just a bit better as one more brick laid in the groundwork for victory. If you’re Beijing, Holmes writes, and you want to know how the US will respond to external stimuli, you’ve got a clear way forward:

You test its reflexes. You do zany-seeming things like sending lighter-than-air craft into U.S. airspace, in full view of people on the ground. And you gauge their response.

If they overreact to an incursion that poses no direct threat, you’ve learned something. Namely that you can strike a cultural nerve by getting in Americans’ faces. Ordinary folk seem largely indifferent to such worrisome developments as the People’s Liberation Army’s constructing anti-access sensors and weaponry specifically to kill American soldiers, sailors, and aviators in large numbers. Out of sight, out of mind.

But when an unarmed foreign aircraft appears over the North American heartland . . . OMG!

The lesson of the “Great Chinese Balloon Blitz of 2023”, Holmes suggests, might be that Beijing may have come to doubt its ability to influence Washington’s strategic behavior by threatening US forward deployed forces in the Western Pacific. So now it may be trying to test whether it can deter or coerce us by threatening the American man on the American street.

Countering such probs is tricky business. If the Chinese really are testing to see how we respond to external stimuli in order to better predict how we might respond to something else, there’s a certain value in keeping them in the dark. A part of deterring enemy behavior is keeping them from knowing precisely how we will react. Not only should they not be able to predict our behavior and thereby sidestep it, but they also cannot always be allowed to know, for certain, what the costs to them of harassing us will be. But another part of deterrence is possessing recognized strength and a credible reputation for being willing to use it to protect national interests.

America needs to wake up to the fact that the Chinese Communist Party is always playing offense. The American public and its political sentiment need to be shaped according to this reality. This doesn’t demand that we become bullish and belligerent. But, it does necessitate we strengthen our political, cultural, diplomatic, economic, and military power and ensure they are aligned with our values and demonstrate the credible capacity and resolve to defend them.

Not having access to all the details, we can only hope that the US response to the Chinese floaty did not hearten them, did not incentivize them to further mischief, and did not allow them to feel they can take such brazen actions with impunity.

One sure sign that we have, as a nation, responded well to the Chinese balloon saga will be a renewed recognition among our political leaders that China—and not the political party across the aisle—is the primary threat to American flourishing.