Balloons and UFOs

Today, I’ll jump from local to world events for a brief comment about the Chinese balloon that was shot down by the US off the coast of South Carolina on February 4, 2023, after transiting much of the United States. I assume it was an intelligence collection platform that vacuumed up electronic emissions and relayed them back to China. I read that cell phone signals don’t make it up to satellite height, but they do reach to 60,000 feet, the altitude of this balloon.

I also assume there is some kind of stealth technology used in the design of the balloon and its payload that made it hard to see on radar and on other US surveillance devices. I’m reminded of scene in the 1990 film, The Hunt for Red October. The movie features the latest Soviet submarine that uses a new propulsion system that was thought to be undetectable by US sonar operators. In the film, one such sailor hears what he thinks is a whale, but with the help of the story’s hero, Jack Ryan, he realizes that what he is hearing is the new submarine. After that, it’s easy to track it.

Similarly, US surveillance devices may have previously detected other balloons – those would be the ones that were over the United States during the Trump administration – but no one knew what they were seeing on radar screens. This time, either due to better technology or the fact that the balloon was clearly visible from the ground, US operators were able to match the unknown signal with the known object. With that knowledge, they could review recordings of past events and identify similar electronic signatures long after the fact.

In a recent edition of his Substack newsletter, journalist and pilot James Fallows explained that radars use filters to exclude certain things from the radar operator’s attention. For instance, if you’re worried about North Korean ICBMs or Soviet reconnaissance aircraft, you’re looking for something moving at high speed with a certain signature on the radar. If the operator had to sift through every flock of birds that cluttered their radar screen, they might not see the missile in time, so the equipment is tuned to filter out slow moving objects like flocks of birds and also balloons, apparently. Fallows likened it to the Scan or Seek functions on your car radio that will detect weaker stations but then pass them by in favor of stronger signals. He did say that the radar filters are easy to change and they probably already have been which would explain why we’re suddenly “seeing” so much in the sky.

Fallows also doubted that the Chinese purposely steered this balloon over the continental United States. More likely, he wrote, that it was surveilling US bases in the Pacific region but got caught in an unpredictable and unusual jet stream that pushed it from Canada to Charlston. It was no coincidence that the balloon’s incursion occurred at the exact time when the northeast United States was whacked by subzero temperatures blown in from Canada by high winds. Those same winds propelled the balloon on its southeasterly path.

Countries all over the world routinely conduct surveillance of other nations. Since the benefits of doing this outweigh the negatives, it is generally tolerated. However, it is always a potential flashpoint. You may recall an incident in early 2001, shortly after George W. Bush became President. A US Navy EP-3 surveillance aircraft, a large plane with a crew of 24 sailors powered by four propellers, collided with a Chinese fighter jet that was harassing it as it flew off the coast of Hainan Island, home of a major Chinese military base. The Chinese plane crashed and the pilot is presumed to have died. The US plane was heavily damaged and almost crashed, but the pilot was able to regain control and make an unauthorized emergency landing at the Chinese airbase on Hainan Island. The American crew was held and interrogated by the Chinese for 10 days until the US delivered a “letter of regret” at the loss of the Chinese pilot’s life and for the unauthorized landing. The Chinese characterized this as an apology but the US maintained it was just an expression of sorrow. In any case, the crew was freed and the aircraft was eventually returned to the United States, after first being mined by the Chinese for all the intelligence value that survived the crew’s rapid attempts to destroy it before their emergency landing.

So yes, this stuff happens continuously. I think the US was justified in shooting down an un-crewed balloon that flew directly over actual US territory, but it is an area that requires great caution and delicacy. It is not a great leap from us shooting down a Chinese balloon to the Chinese shooting down an American airplane with crew onboard as it patrols what we say is international airspace but what the Chinese maintain is their territory.

As for the other three objects that were shot down last week, one over Alaska, another over Canada, and a third over the Great Lakes, they remain a mystery since there’s been no reporting on what the objects were. Are these other instances of us finally being able to discern stuff that’s always been there but shrouded in mystery, or is it something new?

This entire episode did remind me of the 1983 hit song 99 Luftballoons by the singer Nena. (It was a hit in Germany where I was living at the time). The song tells the story of a bundle of 99 balloons that was innocuously released by a civilian on one side of the Iron Curtain but which triggered military alerts on the other side of the border. The situation rapidly became a crisis when the investigating military aircraft began firing indiscriminately which in turn caused the country on the other side of the heavily defended border to scramble its military, all escalating to a devastating war.

Here is the English language lyrics to the song which is available in the original German in this YouTube music video.

You and I in a little toy shop
Buy a bag of balloons with the money we’ve got
Set them free at the break of dawn
‘Til one by one, they were gone
Back at base, sparks in the software
Flash the message “Something’s out there”
Floating in the summer sky
99 red balloons go by

99 red balloons
Floating in the summer sky
Panic bells, it’s red alert
There’s something here from somewhere else
The war machine springs to life
Opens up one eager eye
Focusing it on the sky
The 99 red balloons go by

99 Decision Street
99 ministers meet
To worry, worry, super scurry
Call the troops out in a hurry
This is what we’ve waited for
This is it boys, this is war
The President is on the line
As 99 red balloons go by

99 knights of the air
Ride super high-tech jet fighters
Everyone’s a superhero
Everyone’s a Captain Kirk
With orders to identify
To clarify and classify
Scrambling the summer sky
99 red balloons go by

As 99 red balloons go by

99 dreams I have had
In every one, a red balloon
It’s all over, and I’m standing pretty
In this dust that was a city
If I could find a souvenir
Just to prove the world was here
And here is a red balloon
I think of you, and let it go