China’s Trial Balloon Tests US Air Defenses

The ongoing brouhaha over China’s “weather balloons” has raised questions about a number of international principles governing the rights of nations to control their own air space.

The Chinese balloons are in fact a trial run for a “new” weapons system designed to slide under our missile defense systems to deliver a knock-out punch to our offensive capabilities, circumventing claims to sovereignty over our air space. (The concept is far from new, however. See below.) 


The concept of sovereignty over a nation’s airspace was inherited from the concept of “territorial waters” during the age of sail when the so-called “three-mile limit” was established by the extreme range of land batteries during that period in world history. (They could send rounds  further, but not that accurately.)

If seafaring nations couldn’t reach out and touch trespassing ships at sea beyond that range, there were no effective means for enforcing those restrictions. Shore batteries could effectively loft 48-pound shots at that distance. One such projectile could easily sink most ships then at sea, hence the traditional three-mile limit.

Today, however, the three-mile rule (or the subsequent 15-mile rule) is essentially meaningless since all seafaring nations (and some that aren’t) now have weapons that are effective over thousands of miles.

China’s “weather balloons” are being characterized as spy satellites by simple-minded media “experts.” The reality is that China has sophisticated spy satellites that have the ability to surveil our missile attack and defense systems from space. It is said that they produce images so sharp that you can clearly see a pack of cigarettes lying on the ground…and read the brand name on the package.

Ergo, there was no reason for the Chinese to use their “weather balloons” to spy on U.S. defense installations since (a) they obviously already know where our defense installations are located and (b) they already have all the visual information they might want to have about those installations.

Radio traffic is, however, a very different story. While the Chinese regularly eavesdrop on our military broadcasts (as we do with theirs) through other mechanisms, a spy balloon equipped with the right equipment could unscramble (or rescramble) American military radio traffic both on and off the internet…or issue false orders after capturing the frequencies and handshaking protocols for various command and control functions. (The handshaking protocols are the keys to unlocking the scrambling systems that protect military communications traffic.)

But those Chinese spy satellites are equally capable of intercepting and decoding the same traffic. (The New York Times has opined that spy satellites can’t capture voice or data traffic from US military assets. This is quite untrue, or else our drone pilots wouldn’t be able to pilot drones over Afghanistan from an installation in Las Vegas. More to the point, however, there are far easier and less obvious ways of collecting that data than overflights by weather balloons, such as from a small drone or motor vehicle, for example.) 

So why did the Chinese REALLY launch these balloons?


This was a test of the ability of the Chinese balloons to infiltrate American air space…but the Chinese weren’t testing their ability to spy on us from a balloon.

What they were really doing was testing the theory that the Chinese COULD infiltrate American air space over our air defense systems to deliver a knock-out punch with deadly force against both defensive and aggressive missile systems by dropping tactical nukes on those installations.

Now, the Chinese know that they can launch innocuous-seeming “weather balloons” and deliver them to their respective targets before American air defenses could respond.

China also knows they cannot win a toe-to-toe conflict with the United States (assuming that the Russians would stay out of it) on the basis of the funding disparities between the armed forces of the two nations…as long as they restrict themselves to conventional forms of warfare.

Even if we give them the benefit of the doubt in terms of the greater buying power of the USD equivalent in juan when it comes to underwriting their military, the Chinese haven’t fought an outright war against a credible opponent since 1953, while the United States has been constantly at war since 1941. Money can’t buy experience. The U.S. has it. China doesn’t.

The Chinese version of Fire Balloons, updated with nuclear devices, is a form of asynchronous warfare. They are cheap, easily produced in large numbers, and apparently innocuous, which is why the US air defense systems didn’t react to them immediately.

The Chinese also learned that, even after the balloons had been identified, it still took several days before the Biden administration could make up its mind to shoot down the balloon.

By asserting that the United States had no right to shoot down a Chinese asset that was invading American air space, China is attempting to desensitize American decision-makers to the presence of the Chinese balloons, encouraging those decision-makers to accept as normal something that was most definitely out of the ordinary.

This “progressive desensitization” process is one of the favorite tools that Russia and China have used to good effect in their various initiatives. 


Russia’s campaign against Ukraine actually began in 2014, when the Russian Republic invaded and occupied the Crimean region of Ukraine, creating a precedent for such annexations when neither NATO nor the United States did anything to interdict the Russian occupation.

At stake: the warm water port of Sevastopol, already much developed by the USSR dating from their decades-long occupation of Ukraine. Located on the Black Sea, Sevastopol gives the Russian Republic access to the Mediterranean through the Bosphorus. This has been a military objective of Russia’s since Catherine The Great’s time.

In fact, the real issue driving the Russian invasion of Ukraine is Putin’s desire to have his occupation of Crimea recognized internationally, and especially conceded by Ukraine, for whom the restoration of Crimea to Ukraine is one of the sticky points preventing any cessation of hostilities. Russia wants to keep Crimea. Ukraine wants it back.

For this discussion, however, focus on Putin’s efforts to desensitize the West to accept Russian micro-aggressions as long as they don’t affect any NATO members. (A very willing suspension of disbelief is required for anyone to believe Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is anything other than the opening salvo in an effort to pry certain NATO members out of the alliance, recreating the former Soviet Union’s “sphere of influence.”)


China, for its part, has been applying increasing pressure on South Korea (via client North Korea’s micro-aggressions against the South, the major American ally in the region) and Japan, by contesting Japan’s continued occupation of the Senkaku (or Diaoyu, if you speak Chinese)  Islands, which Japan sees as a buffer zone between itself and China while China sees it as a launching pad for further aggressions in the Pacific.

In the dispute with Japan, China regularly sends out warships to test Japan’s commitment to its territorial integrity, just as the Chinese balloons are doing with respect to American air space.


After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, a furious President  Franklin D. Roosevelt (who, like his cousin, Theodore, was once Assistant Secretary of the Navy) ordered the Army and Navy to collaborate on a bomber strike aimed at Toyko in which Army long-range bombers were launched off a Navy aircraft carrier.

After the successful Dolittle Raid in April of 1942, Japan launched some 9,300 Fu-Go balloon bombs from November 1944 to April of 1945. The Fu-Gu balloons were simply high-altitude weather balloons that were modified to carry incendiary devices and anti-personnel explosives.

More than 300 Japanese Fire Balloons actually made it to the Western United States, Canada and Alaska. Six Americans were killed by the bombs, but the incendiaries were unable to ignite the hoped-for massive wildfires because the weather was simply too damp for the fires to establish themselves.

If it sounds like the Fu-Go balloons were a desperate measure, you’re getting the picture. Japan, iron-poor, lacking in fossil fuels, was in no position to compete with the United States in the manufacturing of war materials…and they knew it.

The Fu-Go ballons were a low-risk, low-cost asymmetrical warfare scheme that would have dramatically changed Japan’s prospects if they had thrown all their resources into the project…and waited for drier weather…or if they had access to nuclear weapons in 1944 and 1945.

Nevertheless, a precedent had been set. Any country to the west of the United States can indeed launch high-altitude balloons across the broad Pacific with a reasonably good expectation that they would reach targets of opportunity throughout the country.

China is, of course, to the west of the United States with an almost empty Pacific ocean allowing unseen balloons to make their way to America to do what damage they could do here with their nuclear arsenal.