Safest way to play this game
There he was, at 70,000 feet.
Radars tracked his plane from Pakistan to Norway, straight across the Soviet Union. Miles below, MiG fighter jets tailed him, unable to reach or engage him at that altitude. The Soviet’s SA-2 Guideline missiles — described by American pilots who had been targeted by them as “flying telephone poles” — rushed up. The first destroyed a MiG. The second missed the target completely. The third detonated behind the aircraft, causing the pilot to lose control.
When Francis Gary Powers’s U-2 did not arrive in Norway, the White House hastily put out a story about a lost airplane on a weather mission that drifted off course when the pilot blacked out.
But then Khrushchev produced the plane, the pilot, and most damning, the camera.
The US had been flying planes through Soviet airspace for four years at that point. But the Soviets had two very good reasons to not openly discuss it. First, they would be admitting that they could not stop the overflights. Second, flying a warplane through another country’s airspace without permission is an act of war, so by not acknowledging the flights, the Soviets kept the uneasy peace for us.
The US and the USSR were on the eve of the Paris Summit when Powers fell out of the sky. Both sides were planning to find a way to “peacefully coexist” (Khrushchev’s words). Khrushchev demanded an apology and the end of the overflights, but Eisenhower refused to do either. Left without any alternative, Khrushchev abandoned the summit and the Cold War stretched on for three more decades.
It’s easy to see why the Chinese were quick to call their balloon a weather balloon: it’s exactly what we did in a similar circumstance. It is fair to assume that spy/weather balloon overflights are not a recent development. Balloons are cheap, unmanned, low-observable, and weather balloons are abundant enough to provide plenty of cover. The Chinese denial of the program is exactly what Khrushchev had been hoping Eisenhower would do.
To bolster their position, the Chinese have also alleged that the US has been using similar devices.
If I were to have one of those Hollywood-style-spy-movie meetings with an old colleague from my days as an intelligence officer — you know, that one guy (in Hollywood, it’s always a guy) that owes me a favor and casually commits treason by passing on highly topical and sensitive information while we watch ducks swimming in the tidal basin in Washington on a cloudy day — if that guy were to tell me that the US uses balloons to augment its other collection efforts, would any of us be surprised?
The competition between China and the US has grown steadily since I left the intelligence community. At that time — the turn of the millennium — the Chinese had published a white paper conceding that the 20th Century was the American Century, and declaring that the 21st Century would be the Chinese Century. To bring this about, they have followed Eisenhower’s playbook. They invested heavily in infrastructure that directly supports domestic production and export. While Eisenhower was able to reduce defense spending because we already had the world’s largest military and he had an excess of military credibility, China has had to build a credible regional force. More importantly, they have amassed an immense amount of soft power by investing in and creating strong trade relationships with other countries. And they have heavily developed their international surveillance capabilities.
To include balloons.
It was Eisenhower’s idea to create an open skies agreement between the USSR and NATO. He believed that keeping tabs on each other would help keep us from accidentally entering a hot war. Ronald Reagan repeatedly said, “trust, but verify,” (an English translation of an old Russian proverb). Later, President George H. W. Bush — a former director of Central Intelligence — signed the Treaty on Open Skies.
It is increasingly difficult to determine whether our relationship with China is merely competitive or if it has become adversarial. In some domains — technology, international influence, and certainly surveillance — we are probably already locked in a cold war.
But there is no way for either side to win in a hot war, and a lot of ways we will both lose. So, while it is easy to say we should do something stronger or rage at China’s cover stories, for the time being, the heads of both nations know that letting this blow over is the safest way to play this dangerous game.