Once upon a time, America’s greatest military strength was the creativity of its people. Our adversaries didn’t know what to expect from us on the battlefield or in the planning rooms, and it instilled the strongest of emotions in our adversaries – fear.
But there is no fear coming from the leaders of Communist China following its latest provocation of sending a spy balloon over the United States. Rather, China’s claims of “help” from flying a stratospheric “research” balloon over the heart of America sounds more like mocking derision.
Perhaps we should be thankful for their incursion as a lesson in what we must do better. For one, China is helping to test our air defenses and specifically our ability to deal with what defense experts call an asymmetric threat. This test provides insights as to what we can do and what we’re willing to do, both now and in any future response to this overflight.
Those of us who’ve dedicated our lives to defending this nation deeply understand traditional air defense and appreciate the new service dedicated to controlling the domain above the air, the Space Force. But between these two layers is the stratosphere, specifically the upper portion where the air is very thin. This is where the Chinese balloon was flying.
The stratosphere is a high-ground for observation and communications that, unlike the lower atmosphere and space’s low earth orbits, allows for long endurance sensing and is not crowded. Consider it an untapped growth area. Historically, the stratosphere is considered part of a country’s territorial airspace which some of America’s capability developers have explored how to exploit and dominate against any threat.
Undoubtedly, China’s real test is whether or not the American people awaken to this issue. Those who understand the strategic importance of the stratosphere have proposed concepts for using and defending it to the Pentagon, and debated the potential of balloons meandering over the adversary’s airspace.
There are many tactical considerations involved: Could an adversary do anything about a unique, slow speed stratospheric system; how might they react; is it a good exchange (using a million-dollar missile to kill a cheap floater); what could be lost with the payload; and what is the capability value?
But instead of taking some nickels and dimes from earlier $700+ billion defense budgets to explore the risks and rewards of establishing stratospheric capabilities, our keenly focused institutional processes and mega-suppliers yielded the same old stuff – traditional air defense, jets, rockets and satellites for space, and nothing in between; the space now occupied by China.
While Washington dithered, the Chinese were either thinking the same thing or took our concept and invested their yuan into actually building, and now using, a stratospheric balloon against us. Perhaps we should thank the Chinese for allowing us to see how our own stratospheric concepts might work.
The real purpose of this Chinese research experiment was to reveal both our military capabilities and our political resolve. They’ve likely concluded we lack the political will and, likely, the capability to effectively deal with this asymmetric threat, which lingered for days over the heartland of America.
In time China and other potential adversaries, as well as our allies, will witness how we react to this spy balloon stimulus. If we sluggishly respond by dumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the lumbering, traditional defense suppliers we’d be lucky to see anything in years, they’ll learn one lesson. But if we reopen the doors to America’s agile small business development community, they’ll learn another lesson: fear of the unbounded unknown and respect.
Will this past week’s events be a wake-up call to the nation? Perhaps, maybe a small one. But will it be enough to change the Defense Department and dislodge a calcified establishment into meeting new threats with new ideas? We cannot say. Either way, the world is watching.
As Japanese Admiral Yamamoto is rumored to have said after the attack on Pearl Harbor, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” The world knows how that story ended but we’ve rested on those laurels too long.
Whether the spy balloon incursion has awakened a 21st century sleeping giant depends on the American people. If it has, perhaps the best thing we can say is, ‘Thanks, China.’