Streetwise Professor

February 5, 2023

Up, Up, and Away, In Xi’s Beautiful Balloon

Filed under: China,History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 4:53 pm

The carnival of the Chinese balloon transcontinental transit is bringing musical flashbacks, such as this from 1983:

Or going even further back–deep into my childhood:

Groovy, baby.

Seriously though, I am of mixed minds regarding the decision–the Pentagon’s according to Biden–to defer destroying it until it had traversed the US from sea to shining sea. On the one hand, I can perhaps see that there is intelligence value in observing it. On the other, it makes the United States look pathetic before a strutting China.

On balance, I believe the latter consideration substantially outweighs the former. The lame excuse given for not puncturing it with extreme prejudice earlier–that its fall would endanger people on the ground–belies an intelligence collection motive: if that was the reason, just say so! At least that sounds more boss:

And what are the odds of someone on the ground being hurt in Alaska, the Yukon, or even eastern Montana FFS?

And was the benefit to us of the intelligence we collected on the balloon greater than the value of the intelligence the balloon collected on us?

And perceptions are reality. It’s not like this is a new super weapon. Pretty sure we had figured out everything it was doing and capable of doing during the time it was flying over thousands of miles of trackless waste–if we didn’t already know before it breached US airspace over the Aleutians. But the image of a spy balloon flying with impunity over the fruited plain does convey the image of a “pitiful, helpless giant” (to quote Nixon, reading what the just-retired Patrick Buchanan wrote). This is especially true given that there is a pitiful, helpless mental midget holding the position of Commander in Chief.

This reinforces the image of fecklessness that hangs around this administration like a bad smell. And fecklessness encourages recklessness. That is, we have to think about how Xi interprets this, and believe me, he’s not going to believe “we were protecting people on the ground” line for one second.

He may laugh, though.

But after he’s done laughing, he’ll incorporate what he surely perceives as an image of weakness and indecision into his calculus regarding Taiwan and other points of potential conflict.

This raises the question of motive. After all, China has supposedly reined in its “wolf warriors” and was trying to present a more conciliatory face to the US, and the world. Blinken was supposed to meet with the Chinese to help reset relations. (Nod was to remain in the White House.)

One possibility is that this was a test–would the US still proceed with a rapprochement despite a provocation (humiliation, in fact)?

Another possibility–never to be dismissed in one party (but many faction) states–is that elements in the CCP (including, perhaps, aforesaid wolf warriors) wanted to derail any rapprochement, and figured that creating an incident like this was the way to achieve that objective.

Given the opacity of the CCP/Chinese government, it’s hard to say. But under either scenario, the return message should have been: don’t fuck with us. Instead, we sent the message that we are eminently fuckable.

For their part, the Chinese lost their shit when an F-22 FINALLY took down Chairman Xi’s Amazing Flying Machine.* To which we should have replied: fuck you and the balloon you rode in on, commies. Instead, we gave a mealy mouthed, diplomatic reply.

We are in a very fraught period with China. We are trying to recover from “locust years” (as Churchill called them) of military distraction and decay and recover at least a semblance of our former naval and air dominance over China. China is ruled by a megalomaniac with ambitions to crown his achievements by retaking Taiwan. The last thing do do under those circumstances is to convey weakness. And regardless of the true justification for allowing the balloon to traipse over American unhindered, that’s exactly what happened.

The phrase “the balloon went up” means that the situation is very serious. It dates from WWI, when the appearance of a reconnaissance balloon was a harbinger of an artillery barrage incoming. Well, the balloon went up, and to my mind, was brought down far too late.

*The F-22 took down the balloon with an AIM-9X Sidewinder. A testament to how sensitive the heat seeking infrared sensor on that weapon has become. In early versions of Sidewinder it was necessary to get right on the tail of an adversary for the guidance system to be able to pick up the heat signature of the engine. To be able to take down a balloon, which has far less of a heat signature than a MiG’s exhaust, is pretty impressive.

The F-22 pilots used the call signs Frank1 and Frank2, apparently an homage to WWI “Balloon Buster” ace Frank Luke (whom Eddie Rickenbacker called the best pilot in WWI). There is some irony here, though, because it is clear that the current Pentagon leadership is shall we say slightly less aggressive than Lt. Luke.

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  1. The 9-X actually now uses light contrast to lock-on and track the target. It can also receive datalink target data from launch aircraft.

    Comment by The Pilot — February 5, 2023 @ 7:20 pm

  2. Why does the USA care at all if China take Taiwan or not? Taiwan has never been a part of the USA, it is literally an ocean away from the USA border

    Comment by Ilya — February 6, 2023 @ 12:44 am

  3. Why use an expensive missile? Don’t fighter jets carry low calibre cannon any more?

    Comment by dearieme — February 6, 2023 @ 7:56 am

  4. At M1+ and at 58,000’, no one is strafing a balloon while closing to 1,100 per second.

    Comment by The Pilot — February 6, 2023 @ 9:27 am

  5. Its not clear to me that this was an intentional provocation by China, there is no reason to think this is the first balloon so why did the US government suddenly flip its shit? Sure, civillians saw it, but if they had just said “weather balloon mishap” I don’t think anyone would have cared.

    Comment by Ryan — February 6, 2023 @ 11:33 am

  6. an image of weakness and indecision

    It’s not weakness and indecision. Joe Biden is bought and paid-for. He is Xi’s man in DC, with $1.5 billion in his pocket to show for it. And who knows what pictures and videos the Chinese have of Hunter snorting coke and screwing 12 year old girls while he was in China with his VP dad. Xi is just collecting his quo for the quid he paid out.

    The DC regime is in the hands of Progressives, who detest US individualism and despise the Constitution. They are actively hostile to the Republic and work to bring it down. That’s why the balloon wasn’t immediately speared, why the border is open, why the vote is debased, why mRNA mandates are forced on the military along with woke intolerance, why Antifa is encouraged while police are hamstrung, and so ad nauseam on.

    And Gen. Milley already genuflected to China during the Trump years. He clearly has no moral courage and is unfit for command.

    Treachery rather, not weakness and indecision.

    Comment by Pat Frank — February 6, 2023 @ 1:03 pm

  7. “At M1+ and at 58,000’, no one is strafing a balloon while closing to 1,100 per second.”

    Are you suggesting that God instructed the jet to fly supersonically? Doesn’t God know that the balloon is travelling at wind speed? Or is it possible that the approach velocity is not God-given? That a human might have chosen a different speed?

    Come to that, why didn’t a human choose to shoot it down over the Aleutian Islands? Fear that falling debris might strike a walrus?

    I am suspicious of any argument along the lines of “this happened therefore it had to happen”.

    Comment by dearieme — February 6, 2023 @ 1:44 pm

  8. Mind you, I have no idea what the devil this episode is all about. As Churchill said “China is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma within a crispy won-ton.”

    Comment by dearieme — February 6, 2023 @ 1:48 pm

  9. @dearieme,

    God, except in the sense that physics was God’s idea, has nothing to do with. The air density at 58,000’ is such that the required airflow for flight needs to be about 220 knots equivalent airspeed or 265 knots calibrated. That EAS is about M1.2- M 1.3. That boils down to a true airspeed of 670 knots +/-. True the ballon is driving in the wind, but so is the plane, This simple flight dynamics.

    Human might have chosen to fly slower, but they wouldn’t remain at 58,000’.

    Comment by The Pilot — February 6, 2023 @ 9:40 pm

  10. @The Pilot, Dearieme: I would add two other reasons to use a missile:
    1. The service ceiling of an F22 is 65,000 feet – or so says Wikipedia (if it is capable of more, no reason to reveal that over a balloon). If the balloon were at the reported 80,000+ feet, getting bullets on target would not be an easy task. I suppose you could do a ballistic arc to get closer, but that adds even more complexity.
    2. Given the political cost that The Prof argues the US has paid in this incident, it would be unwise to risk damaging the payload with a stray bullet and end up with nothing in exchange for that cost.

    Honestly, with my aerospace engineering hat on, I don’t see what else they could have done. Sending up a U2 to snag it with a trailing wire (as used to be done to recover spy satellite film, albeit at much lower altitude with slower aircraft) would be at such high airspeed that it would risk doing more damage to the payload than simply letting it fall. I doubt any drone or helicopter could get that high. It would be hard to steer another balloon into it.

    Comment by HibernoFrog — February 7, 2023 @ 4:16 am

  11. Service ceiling says zip ability to achieve a gun firing solution with safe escape. The missile was the best choice. Earlier, yes, but we may have gained something by watching it play. No helo is going above 29,000’ by much. See Everest rescues.

    Comment by The Pilot — February 7, 2023 @ 7:22 am

  12. A ballistic curve is jet that ballistic. Pretty hard to put the plane in a ballistic curve that arrives at the precise point of firing solution without any maneuvering ability.

    Comment by The Pilot — February 7, 2023 @ 7:24 am

  13. Thanks, pilot. Persuasive.

    Now then, on “what the devil this episode is all about” I found this ranter more plausible than the media.

    Comment by dearieme — February 7, 2023 @ 10:06 am

  14. Professor, did you see Naftali Bennett‘s recent interview? What do you think of his claim that Western leaders stopped negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, which had big chances of producing peace deal, in order to inflict maximum harm on Putin?

    Comment by mmt — February 7, 2023 @ 11:39 am

  15. @dearleme Paul Craig Roberts is a Truther. Nothing said by him can be taken seriously.

    Comment by mmt — February 7, 2023 @ 12:25 pm

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