The second-most damaging impact to US security regarding spy balloon that the Chinese Communist Party floated over the entire US continent may have been the assessment that China's decision-makers gleaned from the perceived clumsy and indecisive manner in which America's political and military leaders responded to the incident.
China, flaunting a lack of respect for the US, publicly ridiculed the balloon's shoot-down and did not answer the phone when US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called. If China perceives that the America's leaders lack resolve or that its national security decision-makers are divided, these failures can only tempt Chinese aggression against Siberia or Taiwan. After watching America's debacles in Afghanistan and a week of hosting the balloon, China must be asking: If not now, when?
The saga of China's balloon, as well as other unidentified objects in the skies over the US and Canada, only adds to the confused and feckless decision-making process of America's political military leadership. Why, as reported, did the Pentagon brass really not follow Biden's order to shoot down the balloon immediately after the White House was notified?
The 200 foot tall Chinese surveillance craft , it turns out, was no trial balloon flight; it was another of several fly-overs of US territory. Reportedly, China has conducted surveillance balloon flights over Hawaii and Florida. Washington has admitted that these balloons, belonging to China's People's Liberation Army Air Force , have flown over about forty countries. The list includes India, Japan and Taiwan. The US, of course, has military bases in many countries.
President Biden ordered the balloon shot down only on Wednesday, February 1; the military waited until Saturday to take it down. As criticism of the failure to down it intensified, the public was informed that the hesitancy to shoot down the balloon was out of safety concerns for people on the ground who might be hit with debris. Now the White House is suggesting that allowing the balloon to pursue its mission gave US intelligence agencies an opportunity to collect data about the craft. If only.
The balloon passed over ballistic missile sites and a B-2 bomber base. The balloon's information-gathering may -- or may not -- have been degraded by US cover and concealment protocols to protect military installations when the Pentagon is aware of adversarial intelligence collection efforts.
These reconnaissance flights seem but one dimension of a vast, multidimensional intelligence-collection effort by China. Beijing does not seem even slightly phased by the diplomatic fallout that has ensued from the incident. The Chinese media first issued totally disingenuous statements, claiming that the balloon was a civilian aircraft to collect meteorological data and had accidentally strayed over US territory. One attempt at sardonic humor by official Chinese media suggested that the balloon had cost only $50, while the US spent $1.47 million to shoot it down. Chinese state-controlled media then accurately suggested that their balloon punctured the myth of NORAD's impervious defense early-warning system. One Chinese news outlet claimed that America's F-22 tactical fighter jet had to use three of its missiles to hit the balloon, succeeding only on the third attempt, and that the failures to hit the balloon were kept from the American people by the Pentagon and a cooperative media.
The most important lesson China might have learned, unfortunately, is that Washington's bungled balloon performance could well be replicated if Communist China's President Xi Jinping invaded Taiwan or other targets.
Dr. Lawrence A. Franklin was the Iran Desk Officer for Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. He also served on active duty with the U.S. Army and as a Colonel in the Air Force Reserve.