Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. Bergen is the author of “The Cost of Chaos: The Trump Administration and the World.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Shooting down China’s balloon was akin to my 11-year-old son finally popping the toy balloon he had been batting around the house all week.
And it reminded me that when my father, Tom Bergen, was a lieutenant in the US Air Force in the mid-1950s, he worked on a program to help send balloons into Soviet airspace.
In 1954 he was assigned to Headquarters Air Material Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. There he worked on the “Grand Union” project, which deployed balloons that carried cameras over the then-Soviet Union. Those spy balloons were launched from Turkey.
My dad didn’t talk about this part of his career much, likely because the work was secret, but the program has long since been declassified since it happened around seven decades ago.
Spy balloons are some really old technology, folks. Using them is like bringing a well-sharpened ax to the Afghan War; maybe it could have done something, but a 2,000-pound bomb would likely have a larger effect on the enemy. (China has denied the balloon was used for spying.)
Indeed, balloons have been used as spying devices since the late 18th century. Some of Napoleon’s soldiers used them for reconnaissance in 1794. In the US Civil War, Union forces used balloons to track Confederate armies; there was even a Union Balloon Corps.
Now the United States and its rivals have these new-fangled gizmos called “spy satellites,” which can take photos! They can do full-motion video! They can take thermal imagery that detects individuals moving around at night! When the skies are clear, they can spy on pretty much anything, with a resolution of centimeters.
Indeed, commercial satellite imagery is now getting so inexpensive that you can go out and buy your own close-up images of, say, a Russian battle group in Ukraine. Just ask Maxar Technologies; they have built up a rather profitable business on this model, which was just acquired two months ago for $6 billion by a private equity firm.
In other words, the overflight of US territory by China’s balloon is not a national security catastrophe as a bunch of hyperventilating Republican politicians from former President Donald Trump on downward have implied.
But it may help explain, at least in part, an element of a little-noticed report published by the US Office of Director of National Intelligence last month.
The report examined more than 500 reports of unidentified objects in the sky over the past two decades, many of them reported by US Navy and US Air Force personnel and pilots. These reports were assessed by the Pentagon’s All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office, a fancy name for the office that tries to examine UFO sightings.
The report noted that many of those sightings, 163, were balloons or “balloon-like entities.”
Now comes the news that three other balloons from China were in American air space during the Trump administration but did not become widely known then.
This raises some interesting questions about the work of the Pentagon’s All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office: Could some of the balloons they identified be from China? And could some of the 171 “unexplained sightings” of UFOs that they also assessed be Chinese balloons?
Republicans have called for congressional hearings into the balloon affair, and surely these questions will get a good airing.
Spy balloons do offer some advantages over satellites; they are relatively inexpensive and can be more maneuverable. So it’s obviously worthwhile for the US military to continue to scan the skies looking for strange objects that might be Chinese balloons or spy drones.
But China has arguably done much worse. US officials have accused it of benefiting from the work of hackers who stole design data about the F-35 fighter aircraft as China builds its own new generation of fighters – and of sucking up much of the personal information of more than 20 million Americans who were current or former members of the US government when they reportedly got inside the computers of the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in 2015. China called the F-35 theft report “baseless” and denied responsibility for the OPM hacking.
Pumping up the balloon story may make for good politics, but it doesn’t make for a great assessment of the actual threats posed by China.