I know one doesn’t want unnecessarily to ruffle the feathers of a dictator with a nuclear button on his desk, but why doesn’t the US get on with it and shoot down the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon which has been floating across Montana for the past few days? President Biden reportedly wanted to do just this, but the Pentagon ruled it out, arguing that it could lead to civilian casualties.
I haven’t yet had the pleasure of visiting Montana but a quick excursion on Google Earth confirms what I have long suspected: there isn’t an awful lot there. There are a few one-horse towns with splendid names like Roundup and Checkerboard, but the chances of a citizen finding themselves draped in the remains of punctured balloon I would say are pretty small. Moreover, surely leaving the balloon up in the air is a risk, too – a plane could always fly into it.
Why wouldn’t you want to respond to an incursion of your airspace by a potentially hostile military power? If it is too much to risk civilian lives, is the Pentagon sending out a message to other adversaries, such as Vladimir Putin for example, that he is free to send the odd MiG over the Mid West because the US won’t dare shoot them down.
There is only one plausible argument for not shooting down the balloon: the possibility that that is what China wants the US to do. Many have wondered why Beijing would want to try to surveil the US using mid 20th century technology when it has access to satellites. But the answer is surely obvious: China wants its balloon to be spotted. It wants the US – and the wider West – to know that it is watching us all the time. The balloon is a very bulky metaphor for all the Chinese-made CCTV cameras and other equipment which we have foolishly allowed to become ingrained in our public networks and broadband – which are now having to be removed at great cost.
But even so, I still don’t see why the US wouldn’t want to shoot down the balloon. Fail to do so and it suggests you don’t really care about the sanctity of your airspace, or about military surveillance by a foreign power. If the Pentagon is worried about a diplomatic incident ruining Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to China next week, China hasn’t actually admitted that it is responsible for the balloon. So what’s wrong with Blinken telling his opposite number: “So sorry, but we didn’t realise it was your balloon. Must have got lost – these things happen. But we had to shoot it down for safety reasons. Would you like us to FedEx the remains back?”
This is a job for a latterday Biggles to get out his goggles and get airborne. If China is going to send over antiquarian bits of kit, why not make a period spectacle out of it and shoot it down with a Mosquito? That would be doing it with style.
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