More than three decades ago, the U.S. faced the threat of the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
Now, the U.S. might be facing a situation with China that could be more dangerous than at any moment in the Cold War, in the wake of the shooting down Feb. 4 of a Chinese spy balloon after it flew over U.S. territory.
“Well, one of the more concerning reports out of this whole thing is the fact that the Pentagon rang up their buddies over in China, a hotline, and said, ‘We’re concerned about this thing, whatever it is,’ and nobody on the Chinese side answered the phone,” Dakota Wood, senior research fellow in defense programs in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense, says on today’s episode of “The Daily Signal Podcast.” (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.)
“So, even during the heights of the Cold War, our U.S. Pentagon and their counterparts in the Soviet Union would at least keep these communication lines open. We’ve got communication lines with Russia as it continues to be involved in the war in Syria,” Wood says. “So, the ability to talk to each other really helps to mitigate the risk of misinterpreting something or a road to war or something along those lines.”
Wood joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss the Chinese spy balloon, whether we are seeing heightened aggression from China, and how the downed spy balloon compares with the three other downed aerial objects since.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Samantha Aschieris: Joining today’s podcast is Dakota Wood. He’s a senior research fellow here at The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense. Dakota, thanks so much for joining us.
Dakota Wood: Great to be with you. Thanks.
Aschieris: Yes. Now, let’s talk about these balloons. As of this recording, the U.S. military has shot down four objects over the last week and a half. The first was, of course, that Chinese spy balloon that drifted across the U.S. for a few days, and then on Friday, another one was shot down over Alaska. On Saturday, an object was shot down over Canada. And then on Sunday, we had one that was shot down over Michigan.
Dakota, first and foremost, what can you tell us about these four objects? Are they all the same? What’s going on?
Wood: Well, the government’s reporting they’re different. So, the very first one, this Chinese spy espionage surveillance balloon was very, very large. The balloon itself a couple hundred feet in length, and it was carrying a box, roughly a ton, so, 2,000 pounds. So, a very large container. Sometimes, it’s been described as the size of three buses, so it gives you visual image. And it had a large solar array. So, just like you see a space station with these big arrays to give it solar power. So, that’s the size of this thing.
The other three have been much smaller. Think of a small car, dramatic difference. So, the balloons are going to be smaller. They’re not having to carry as big a payload. What’s common amongst all these things is these weather balloons, if you want to think of them like that, the material is kind of a rubberized material, so there’s not a whole lot of metal. You consider it kind of a soft object, instead of a hard object.
So, if you have a radar system that’s looking for stuff in the sky, these are not commercial airliners. It’s really hard to get a radar return on a big, rubbery balloon. These things are going to be the same temperature as the surrounding air; so, you don’t have a hot jet-exhaust engine for a temperature differential. And again, the metallic component on this, not a big return.
I guess the last characteristic is the speed. So, you probably saw in the news that NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, has tweaked its radars. So, we’re not looking for flocks of geese or ducks or whatever. They’re looking for, in the old days, Soviet bombers or Russian military aircraft or a missile coming in. It’s hard, it’s hot, and it’s moving really fast. And so, that’s what these radar systems are looking for.
So, now that we’re dealing with balloons—soft, cold, moving really slow, weren’t geared to pick up on that. And so, you tweak the software to look for slow, soft, cold things, and now this stuff starts popping up on the radar scope. So, I think it’s a good way, and these altitudes, the Chinese [spy balloon] was at 60-some-odd thousand feet. Another one was about 40,000 feet. And then I think this last one might even been a 20,000 or something like that.
Aschieris: Yeah, I think so.
Wood: Yeah. And so, the varying heights. An average airliner flies about 30,000, 35,000 feet. Mount Everest is 29,000 feet. So, if something like the Chinese balloon was at 60,000-plus, twice the height of Mount Everest, there aren’t even very many military aircraft that can fly that high.
So, people have talked about, “Well, why can’t we just grab the thing?” There ain’t a helicopter built in the world that can probably get above 25,000 feet. Those are very specialized like mountain rescue climber crews and stuff. So, things just don’t fly that high. And that’s why these balloons are such an effective way to carry big boxes. The box can have anything—radio gear, cameras, sensors to pick up on thermal activity, or whatever it might be.
So, that’s just kind of a roundabout discussion of what these things appear to be. The last three, smaller than the Chinese [spy balloon]. The government hasn’t attributed them to a source. Everybody kind of suspects that they’re China, but we haven’t been explicitly told that. So, right now they’re just kind of unknown things. The furor that came up with not shooting down the China balloon, you can bet the administration is not going to make that same mistake. And so, they’re being much more aggressive at how we deal with them.
Aschieris: Yes, I was going to ask if we have heard anything else about where these last three objects, balloons have come from. As of this recording at least, we don’t know that information. But can you speak to the reaction that we saw? Obviously, the Biden administration received some backlash, some criticism for not initially shooting down the Chinese spy balloon when they first saw it. It was eventually shot down off the coast of South Carolina. So, can you talk a little bit more about the response that we’ve been getting from the Biden administration?
Wood: Yeah. So, where I think the Biden administration has continued to make missteps is in just not being honest. If you don’t know something, just say, “I don’t know.” And it actually enhances your credibility, this legitimacy, and at least I can trust that you’re telling me something because you’re not trying to pull one over on me.
And so, the Biden administration has just been very vague. They’re not saying, “Oh, I don’t know something,” but you’re not telling me something very specific. And so, that leads to doubt and speculation and everything from, these are alien spacecraft to something out of Area 51 to who knows what else. I guess all of those are possibilities, but at least tell me what we do and don’t know. So, I think that’s where the Biden team really messed up early on.
The other criticism was if we knew that this big spy balloon, the very first one, was from China, and it’s floating so serenely through all this U.S. airspace, why the heck didn’t we shoot it down to begin with? Hence, this more aggressive approach to the others. Now, in kind of defense of the administration, if I could put it that way, again, radar is looking for a specific type of thing. They have varying ranges. And the broader kind of surveillance aspect you have on these, the less likely they are to pick up very small, hard-to-define things.
For example, in a military use, a targeting radar is a fairly narrow beam. I’m looking in a specific direction, and I get a really strong return so that I can apply a weapon against it, as opposed to just a big surveillance. It’s like focusing on something or just looking around the landscape. And so, with this balloon coming across the Pacific Ocean, we don’t have a whole lot of radar systems in the middle of the North Pacific. And so, it has to get close enough to land before it could even be picked up.
This was probably visually spotted early on. And so, as you start to be aware that there is something there, now you can focus your efforts, maybe send up a high-flying aircraft or a very narrowly defined radar beam to get a better idea of what this thing is. And so you’re going to have these gaps. If our Alaska stations are focused westward towards China or the old Soviet Union, Russia kind of thing, well, once it gets past Alaska, well, who’s looking in that direction?
We don’t normally try to collect [information] on Canada. And so, it gets into the western reaches of Canada, pretty sparsely populated, not a lot there. You don’t really start to pick up things again until you’re getting down into the lower 48. And so, you are going to have these kind of gaps. You have to reacquire it. You have a sense of the path that it was on; so, there’s an idea of where to look, but you still have to find it. Again, it’s cold, slow-moving, soft target. And so, it just takes a while.
So, there is some defense of the military community or intel community not picking up on it real quickly, losing track and then having to reacquire it. But that does not forgive them, the government, the agencies for not being as forthcoming as possible, just keeping the public informed.
Aschieris: I want to talk a little bit more about one of the objects that was shot down was in Canada. We were talking before the recording and sort of why the U.S. was responsible for shooting it down. MSNBC asked White House Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre about this over the weekend. I just want to play that for you now and get your thoughts on her answer.
Jonathan Capehart: Why is the American military shooting something out of the sky over Canada?
Karine Jean-Pierre: Because it’s part of a NORAD. The NORAD is part of a, it’s what you call a coalition …
Capehart: A consortium, a pack of nations.
Jean-Pierre: A pack, exactly. And so, that’s why we were able to do that. Again, we didn’t do it on our own. We did it clearly in step with Canada.
Aschieris: So, Dakota, first and foremost, your reaction to the White House press secretary’s response. And then also can you tell us a little bit more about why the U.S. was responsible for shooting this object down that was in Canada?
Wood: Yeah, it wasn’t really a confidence-inspiring response from the spokesperson for the White House. Clearly wasn’t really familiar with what NORAD is. So, again, it’s the North American Aerospace Defense Command. It was organized back during the Cold War, where Canada and the United States said we both have mutual interest in making sure that old Soviet missiles don’t come over the polar cap and destroy our cities.
And so, there is a joint or a combined military command, where both governments contribute to that, and we share a common aerospace, common awareness. So, Canada, it’s part of that. A system picks up on this balloon. Justin Trudeau, the prime minister over there, says, “Wow, this is a problem. We want to take care of it, but we Canada don’t have the aircraft that can get up to that altitude and then engage this particular target.”
So, Canada has routinely purchased U.S. military aircraft, F-18s, et cetera. Those just can’t get to the altitude needed. So, we used American F-22 Raptors, which can fly to that altitude to neutralize or kill or destroy, take out this evil balloon. So, that’s the explanation. It’s a jointly shared command, NORAD. Both sides have various assets that they contribute to that. The F-22 is selected because it’s one of the few planes that carries a weapon that can get to that altitude and then engage that target and bring it down.
Aschieris: I was very interested in that because when I saw the news over the weekend, I was wondering, “Well, why?” But there we go. You just answered it for me.
So, I also wanted to talk about moving forward, Lucas Tomlinson, he’s a correspondent for Fox News, tweeted on Monday, “U.S. fighter jets have shot down three objects over the past three days. NORAD and Pentagon officials told reporters Sunday night they won’t rule out more in the coming days.”
So, do you think now that the U.S. is just more aware of these objects following the Chinese spy balloon incident and these other three objects that we saw, or is this happening more frequently? Are we seeing this kind of heightened aggression, so to speak, from China?
Wood: It’s probably both. And I’m reminded, when you buy a new car, it’s new to you, and then all of a sudden you realize how many other people are driving that kind of car because now you’re aware of it.
Aschieris: Yes, yes.
Wood: And they’re probably on the road all the time anyway. Well, now that everybody is aware that you have these balloons, and our radar systems are now tuned to find them where they weren’t in the past, these things could have been flying around all the time and just they never posed a threat. Nobody was concerned about them.
This Biden White House criticism of the Trump administration, that, “Oh, there were three or four balloons back in your day, and you didn’t do anything.” Well, the administration of the military is saying, “We went back to look at past game tapes. Now we know what we’re looking for. Oh, there was this unidentified thing. Nobody thought anything about it.” But now we, three years later, we’ll call it what we think it was back then. So, there is an enhanced awareness, but you could also have this greater use of these things.
So, increasing U.S.-China tensions over Taiwan, China could be using this as an opportunity to really conduct some fairly sophisticated surveillance. Why don’t you use the satellite? Everybody has them. A satellite appears through a huge layer of atmosphere. It’s far away from target sites they might want to collect on. A balloon instead of being 300 miles out in space is only 60,000 feet above the earth. So a balloon gets you closer to the emission sources of various types of energies that cameras don’t have to look through as much atmospheric air. So, it could be that China is just using things like this to look at areas of interest in the United States.
Intercontinental ballistic missile, ICBM fields, B-2, which is our stealth bomber base at Whitman Air Force Base in Missouri, naval ports on the eastern seacoast. So, it could be a combination. We’re aware, so now we’re looking more, and have tuned our tools to find [them]. There also could be a heightened use of these things.
And I think it’s also useful to recall that in the weather balloon world, something like 1,800 of these are launched every single day. So, most of them are fairly low-altitude, short-range, temperature-gradient, pressure differences. Is it raining or not, weather, wind patterns. They’re not going to go to 60,000 feet and fly a halfway around the world. But it gives you an idea of how many of these silly objects are floating around in the atmosphere, right?
Aschieris: Yes, that’s crazy. I didn’t realize that many weather balloons every day. That’s crazy. I didn’t even know that.
Wood: Yeah. And it’s again, these altitudes, what can you go up and get at that height? How easy or difficult it is to find? How many of these things? So, there’s just a lot of variables involved here. Everybody’s fixated on balloons. Wow, four in 10 days. Is it an alien invasion coming in, or is this just a heightened great power competition thing? Are they some college students that are kind of pranking the system?
So, you got a group, maybe they’re in India or Nepal or Japan or whatever, and they let this balloon up into the atmosphere, they float, and they see the crazy reaction from the Americans and the news media, going nuts. That could be the case. It’s just that we don’t know. And so, there is a risk of speculation, hysteria, really overreacting, and yet you cannot ignore the potential threat.
This one-ton box suspended beneath a balloon, well, maybe it’s a nuclear weapon. Maybe it’s an electromagnetic, an EMP, electromagnetic pulse source device that blacks out power grids and stuff. So, there are real dangers out in the world, and that’s why we have to be careful at this and can’t just dismiss it. But that doesn’t mean that every balloon poses a ginormous threat.
Aschieris: Just speaking of a ginormous threat, I want to talk about the U.S.’s relationship with China now after this balloon incident. And what does this mean for the United States’ relationship with China? Are we potentially heading for a war with China?
Wood: Well, one of the more concerning reports out of this whole thing is the fact that the Pentagon rang up their buddies over in China, a hotline, and said, “We’re concerned about this thing, whatever it is.” And nobody on the Chinese side answered the phone.
Wood: So, even during the heights of the Cold War, our U.S. Pentagon and their counterparts in the Soviet Union would at least keep these communication lines open. We’ve got communication lines with Russia as it continues to be involved in the war in Syria. So, the ability to talk to each other really helps to mitigate the risk of misinterpreting something or a road to war or something along those lines.
So, when the other side doesn’t even pick up the phone, what does that say? And to me, it says they’re either trying to play the United States, they think the Biden team is weak, and so who cares what the White House in the U.S. says? All those, it’s a recipe for disaster.
So, we have had increasing tensions over Taiwan as the U.S. has been involved in European affairs, especially with Russia’s assault of Ukraine. We’re focusing kind of on that direction. It’s kind of like the balloon thing. Which direction are you looking in? So, maybe there’s an opportunity that China senses for a distracted U.S. to not be in the Indo-Pacific and maybe they would make a move against Taiwan.
So, they’re kind of playing this, and they aren’t open on lines of communication. So, there is a risk. Does that result in war next week? Who knows? Could war never happen? Absolutely. But you can’t guarantee one of those outcomes. And so, talking is very helpful. Having a military and intelligence community that’s robust enough to do more than one thing at a time is also very helpful.
Aschieris: Well, just speaking of our military, the Chinese spy balloon incident comes after polling revealed nearly 70% of active military members have witnessed politicization in the military. And 65% of active duty military members are somewhat or very concerned about this development. And that’s according to the National Independent Panel on Military Service and Readiness.
So, Dakota, can you tell us a little bit about this poll ,and are you surprised to see such a high percentage of active military members saying that they witnessed this?
Wood: So, the commission was helped put together by The Heritage Foundation and some great colleagues in Congress to really look at this problem. We talk about wokeism and gender identity things and lowering military standards so that you have more people that are making the cut because you lowered the cut line. Where does all this lead?
And so this commission was put together to look at these factors. Why is it that services have such a difficult time recruiting? Most of the services did not make their recruiting goals this past year, and the forecast is fairly bleak. So, what’s going into all this stuff? And so, the survey was done: “People in the military, what do you think about the military?” And to the point that you made, they just hate the fact that all of this stuff is being forced on the military from the political establishment.
So, it seems to be White House, top-down directed. Some of these initiatives come from Congress via legislation, opening roles or service opportunities to communities in the United States that previously would not have been eligible for a great variety of legitimate reasons. But when you’re in the military and you see standards being lowered or slipping, you’re forced to attend—I don’t know—gender awareness training classes when you’d rather be out fixing the tank or flying the plane and all that, it really sours your perception.
And it’s not like you can say no, I don’t want to do that. Military folks, men and women salute smartly, and they’re going to execute to the best of their abilities. So, compounding this then is, you have presidential appointees who are put in as the service secretaries or key defense department officials, and you do have some politicization within the general officer and the admiralty flag officers within the Navy, and sometimes you find somebody that wants to climb the ranks by currying favor in political ways. And so, they will kind of work this to their advantage.
The military isn’t immune to these sorts of things that also afflict other sectors of America. It’s just people. It’s popular with people. And so, this perspective of a hyper-politicization of the military was supposed to be apolitical, really rings hollow. It causes friction within the force. People then think about getting out early instead of staying for a career or not reenlisting or re-upping.
And when that happens, it makes the recruiting scene, bringing new people in, that much more challenged. And so, the results of this survey say we’ve got some warning lights and bells and sirens sounding in all these areas.
Aschieris: Well, Dakota, thank you so much for joining me today. We discussed a lot. I appreciate all of your insight, and I would love to have you back on in the future. Hopefully, no more objects will be shot down, but that remains to be seen. So, thank you so much for joining us.
Wood: Great pleasure.
Aschieris: I really appreciate it.
Wood: Thank you.
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