Let’s Put a Pin in the Spy Balloon/UFO Hysteria

A Chinese spy balloon shortly before it was shot down over Surfside Beach, South Carolina
A Chinese spy balloon shortly before it was shot down over Surfside Beach, South Carolina, on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023. (Joe Granita/Zuma Press/TNS)

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There is something about the last two weeks of America’s intense focus on the threat posed by balloons that is reminiscent of the “Summer of the Shark” in 2001, when sensationalistic coverage of shark attacks whipped the nation into a frenzy — until a real disaster came along on Sept. 11.

That’s not to suggest that the United States should ignore unidentified flying objects found wandering into its air space, particularly when at least one of them was confirmed to be a Chinese spy balloon. But to witness the intense media interest in the subject of airborne surveillance by steerable balloon — a circumstance that, at least to our knowledge, has caused no fatalities, no injuries or even evidence of serious security breach — while the death of tens of thousands killed by last week’s major earthquake in Turkey and Syria seem to get far less attention has been remarkable to say the least. Here’s what should be deduced from the downing of that spy balloon on Feb. 4 off the coast of South Carolina: Chinese spy satellites must really stink if that country is relying on balloons floating along at 60,000 feet to take pictures or even eavesdrop. Shouldn’t that be kind of comforting?

Let’s not get untethered about this threat no matter how novel it appears to be. We’re still talking about balloons. If there’s one thing we strongly suspect we can rely on the U.S. military to do, it’s to defend our airspace from modern day versions of the Hindenburg. Those slow-moving floating bags of gas appear to be highly vulnerable to the AIM-9X Sidewinder missile. That $400,000 missile launched by fighter jet seems to be the preferred munition for taking down spy balloons and other mystery UFOs these days. At what point should that be regarded as overkill? Were Americans filled with national pride when they saw the video of that spy balloon pop over the Atlantic Ocean? Is that going to be featured prominently in the Joe Biden reelection campaign?

That’s in no way to dismiss the potential security threat posed by this nation’s top foreign rival. But of all the things that stand to derail the enormously important relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China from a potential invasion of Taiwan and other territorial disputes to competition between the world’s two largest economies and human rights, is it really going to be about balloons? China’s counterclaim that the U.S. is sending balloons over Chinese airspace defies common sense given prevailing high altitude winds run west to east. But, hey, we’re willing to listen to any concrete evidence of a bizarre, previously secret balloon race between superpowers if Xi Jinping or anyone else in Beijing cares to offer it. At least we’ve set the international standard: Giant balloons, manned or unmanned, that have not been registered or filed a flight plan with the Federal Aviation Administration are fair game for patrolling fighter jets. That seems pretty reasonable — unless you’re Carl Fredricksen using helium balloons to create a makeshift airship out of your house. But since he was a fictional character in the Pixar movie, “Up,” we feel like we’re only pretty solid ground here.

Naturally, the politicians will use these events to their advantage. One day, the cautious approach the U.S. took in downing the spy balloon over water is evidence that President Joe Biden is weak on China, at least according to Republican hawks on Capitol Hill. The next, Biden is taking too aggressive an action on UFOs without properly informing Americans of what is going on — according to, well, those same Republicans. In reality, what appears to be happening is that U.S. intelligence agencies are still trying to figure out exactly what is going on. It seems in the real world, there are sometimes mysteries that take time to solve and don’t wrap up neatly like an episode of Scooby-Doo who, incidentally, appears each November as a giant balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. We’re not trying to draw a connection. But we’re not dismissing one either.

In sum, just like the sharks of 2001, the potential threat posed by spying by balloon is real, it just needs to be taken in perspective. Let’s stick a pin in the hysteria and focus on more important things — like donating money to earthquake victims. For a list of reputable charities, start with Charity Navigator at charitynavigator.org.


Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.


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