In the Aftermath of Balloongate, Now What?

This article had already been accepted for print in American Thinker when President Joe Biden “courageously” ordered the destruction of China’s spy balloon after it had soared out to sea, where there was nothing more to spy on.

That balloon crossed the entire country, passing over strategic U.S. assets, such as the field of silos at Malmstrom Air Force Base, which houses a major proportion of America’s intercontinental nuclear-equipped missiles.  

When Joe announced this “victory” over an unarmed eye-in-the-sky spy balloon with all the swagger of John Wayne at his peak, he tried to make it seem as though he he were bold, decisive, and in charge.

The facts, however, suggest something else.

Before we get into China’s balloon incursion and Biden’s week-long non-response to this flagrant violation of American sovereignty, consider this. 

In 1945, Japan launched a strategic bombing campaign against the United States, releasing hundreds – some say thousands – of stratospheric balloons, powered by the same jet streams the Chinese used this past week.  Each Japanese balloon carried a small bomb load.  When discovered, most were shot down by fighter aircraft crews.  The few that landed all settled into unpopulated mountain and desert areas in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and – wait for it – Montana. Only a few Americans died from this assault, and those who died were hikers who came across the landed balloons, tripping a trigger to their explosive charges.  

More than 75 years ago, the technology China used had already been proven.

Fast forward to Xi Jinping vs. Joe Biden in the new “War of the Balloons.”

Presidents going back to Lyndon Johnson have been taken down because of things they did – but with Biden, he may be taken down because of the things he didn’t do, such as stopping the Chinese spy balloon before it could spy on American secrets from Alaska to South Carolina. 

Johnson tried to micromanage the Vietnam War, only to discover that he lacked the wisdom and understanding that allowed FDR and Winston Churchill to closely manage their armies in World War II.  Nixon took a fall after learning that micromanaging his own political campaign, without regard to laws he clearly held in contempt, was his fatal flaw.  His crime – invading Democratic Party campaign headquarters in the Watergate complex, then covering up the burglary – gave the name “Watergate” to presidential malfeasance.   

With Carter, it was branding a skyrocketing inflation rate while the economy only stagnantly grew as “malaise” – rather than taking responsibility for his economic bungling – that finally did him in.  With Bush the elder, it was “read my lips, no new taxes,” a promise he didn’t just break, but dramatically broke by instituting the largest tax increase in our nation’s history.  With Clinton, it was “I did not have sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky” and the never-to-be-forgotten “it all depends what the meaning of ‘is’ is” that sabotaged his own administration – though not his electability. And so it has gone for other presidents since Vietnam, two generations ago.

But along comes Joe Biden and perhaps – just maybe – his ultimate downfall, the misjudgment that could cost him a second term, could come to be known as “Balloongate.”  Why?  Certainly not because of his actions, but in this case, because of his inactions. These range from not shooting down the balloon while it was still spying on America to refusing to even address the 800-pound gorilla in the White House – China really was blatantly spying on America, with no consequences whatsoever. 

No president since Truman has even considered letting our nation’s primary rival – first Stalin and the Soviet Union, now Ji and the Chinese Communist party – to invade our national boundaries and spy on us, or do whatever else it is that China is using that nefarious balloon to do, 60,000 feet over nuclear and military facilities across America’s heartland.  

Acting would be easy – one burst of 20mm cannon fire from an F-22 Raptor fighter jet could have ended that balloon’s existence in an instant. In fact, once there were no more strategic targets for him to protect, that’s exactly how Biden ordered the Air Force to “take out” the balloon.  However, as long as there were strategic targets to photograph and spy on, Biden chose to do nothing.  Going further, until he could claim “victory” by having the world’s most advanced jet fighter to knock on the world’s most primitive aircraft – an unguided balloon – the president repeatedly refused to even talk about it. 

This presidential inaction came at a strange time – with both the State of the Union address and a two-party summit meeting in China scheduled for this coming week.  To carry these forward successfully, powerful actions showing the president actively leading America would seem to be indicated.  Yet Biden buttoned up, leaving it to a pair of incompetent flaks to spread the non-word.  Worse for Biden, his refusal to act – or even acknowledge that action might be required – didn’t work. 

On Friday the 3rd, the press’s unrequited clamoring for news about the balloon all but overwhelmed surprisingly good jobs numbers released the day before.  When Biden tried to talk about jobs, the press kept demanding answers about the balloon.  Finally, Biden just walked away from the podium, silent.  A day later, when the danger of America’s secrets being exposed had passed, as the balloon floated out over the Atlantic, then Joe took to the airwaves to claim victory over an inanimate object.

In the absence of anything smacking of leadership during this unprecedented incursion into the United States, how did Biden expect his State of the Union speech, made last night, to go well? 

Even more important, perhaps, how does Biden hope his Secretary of State would meet with Xi as an equal among superpowers, after Xi has just successfully faced Biden down on the world stage? 

For a week, Biden hid, cowering, unable to act, even when law and precedent support dynamic action. Instead, this “vital” trip to Beijing was canceled at the last minute – not by Xi, but by Biden. This left Xi alone as the premier leader on earth, a man willing to act decisively.

This latest Chinese incursion has, I believe, more significance than even Republican Party spokespersons or Fox News hosts are ascribing to it.  As an aside, I am currently researching a Tom Clancy-esque kind of novel about a future war between China and the United States, set in or around 2035 – about a dozen years into our future.  With this balloon invasion, the timetable for such a war may have been dramatically shortened. 

As an author of historical novels, I do extensive research before I begin writing.  This approach also applies to novels set in the near future. Since late last year, I’ve been wading through both speculative non-fiction assessments written by warriors and academics, as well as “what if” novels by men including top-ranked retired admirals and generals – who served at the highest levels of our government. These books – whether novels or clearly non-fiction assessments – speculate about what might lead to such a war. 

My own book, when written, will speculate about such a war in fictional terms, but with an intense grounding in fact and informed speculation.  Having done all that research, I can’t help look at this balloon invasion as a potential trigger point on the path to a real war with China.

Frighteningly, almost all those sources I’ve been tapping believe that some small incident involving one country’s sovereignty will lead to war.  One of the most powerful, 2034, by a retired admiral and a career defense expert, sees a deadly nuclear exchange begin with the capture on the high seas of a small Chinese fishing trawler that secretly carries beyond state-of-the-art Chinese cyber-technology. When three American Navy destroyers on a “Freedom of the Seas” mission overtake that fishing trawler, the Chinese retaliate by sinking all three American ships.  Very plausibly, the two nations’ actions and counter-actions lead to a series of “tactical” nuclear exchanges which wipe out millions living in carefully targeted cities.  The end result is as horrific as it is plausible.

We’re not there yet, and I’m not predicting that we ever will be.  Still, the possibility is not without plausibility, given that a virtual state of war has existed between China and America – over the fate of Taiwan – dating back to 1949.  Thousands of deaths – American, Taiwanese and Chinese – have occurred over nearly 75 years have been washed from the records of history.  Both side seem wary of pushing too far.  Yet each routinely pushes “just far enough.”  One of these days, one or both rivals will push too far.  That’s the premise of my in-progress book, but it may also become the premise of the relationship between China and America in 2023, a time when Biden remains in charge, even as he seems to remain unwilling to act, no matter how egregious the provocation.

Of course, the sky may not be falling.  I hope not.  The consequences of being right would be catastrophic … not only because my wife and I live five miles from Nellis AFB, America’s largest base, right outside of Las Vegas.  Living that close to a potential target gives you “skin in the game,” and a stronger-than-average reason to expect the president to defend our nation’s sovereignty –to “call China’s bluff” before it’s too late.

Others who are closely monitoring this issue see America being humiliated on the world stage because of Biden’s inept unwillingness to act, but they don’t see the potential end-game.  For instance, Fox News Fox’s high-rated Laura Ingraham called Balloongate “China’s Trial Balloon. ”  And, while a bit flip, she also scored right on target, at least from a short-term perspective. China’s dictator, Xi, literally used this balloon to determine if the U.S. has the backbone needed to defend its sovereignty, to keep its airspace free of observation. With a now-canceled summit in the offing between Xi and Biden’s secretary of state, Xi’s move made him, at least for the moment, the dominant partner in that game of summitry. That balloon might also be a new kind of “brinksmanship.” 

Then again, some suggest that no high-altitude balloon can gather information not available in other ways.  While nothing can be done about satellite reconnaissance, something China has in abundance, certainly – if only symbolically – America has the military might to defend itself from a high-flying balloon. 

Biden’s made excuses – or, rather, he’s ordered or allowed his inept civilian and military flaks to make up excuses for him. 

Consider the path of the balloon.  From sparsely-populated Alaska, it’s drifted over sparsely-populated Montana and Wyoming, followed by agricultural western Nebraska and Kansas. Only as it drifted over Missouri on Friday did it pass over heavily populated metro areas – and as it headed toward the ocean, it passed over other states with population centers – and vital military operations.

Yet the military excuse for not shooting it down before it was over the Atlantic was that “it might hit a kindergarten.”  Not if it was shot down over Alaska, nor if brought down over Montana or Wyoming, nor if it crashed into a fallow corn field in Nebraska or Kansas, or into the sparsely-settled Appalachians.  The truth is, Biden dropped the ball, giving Xi both a windfall of new intelligence, and a new status as the boldest leader among the superpowers. 

Ned Barnett is an historian and author, with 40 books published, including ten historical novels set in the 1941-42 air war between Japan and China. That period has odd similarities with today.  He’s currently researching a novel – in the spirit of Tom Clancy – of a near-future war with China over Taiwan … a war triggered by China.  When he’s not writing his own books, Ned ghostwrites books for other authors (17 to date).  He also edits and coaches writers creating their own works, then guides them into book marketing, creating best-sellers.  He can be contacted at or 702-561-1167.

Image: U.S. Fleet Forces / Twitter screen shot

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