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Why do we have a balloon hysteria in the U.S.?

Originally published: Peoples Democracy on February 19, 2023 (more by Peoples Democracy)  |

THE newsfeeds from the U.S. seem to be completely insane. First, an F22 Raptor, the most expensive U.S. military aircraft, is used to shoot down a Chinese balloon over the Atlantic ocean. Three more “unidentified flying objects”—definitely not balloons are shot down in three days, two over the U.S. and one over Canada. On being asked whether they could be of extraterrestrial origin, the General Glen VanHerck, in charge of the U.S. North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), said in his press conference: “I’ll let the intel community and the counterintelligence community figure that out. I haven’t ruled out anything” (Italics mine).

I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. A U.S. Airforce General, not presumably a UFO nutcase, talks about the possibility of the objects being shot down could be of extraterrestrial origin! Or is it an attempt to focus the attention of the people and the media away from what rightly should have been the story of the week: Seymour Hersh’s account of the U.S. navy sabotaging of NordSteam 1&2 pipelines on the orders of President Biden? Or is it a part of a new geopolitical tension that the U.S. would like to ratchet up with China? Or is it simply paranoia?

First, the Chinese balloon episode and the non-stop media coverage during its seven-day journey over the U.S. From President Biden to various spokespersons of the U.S., the unanimous verdict was it was a sophisticated Chinese surveillance balloon “entrusted” with gathering data on important military installations in the U.S. The “proof” that it was a surveillance device was that it had some limited steering capabilities and was capable of transmitting data from transmitters mounted on the balloon. And once the U.S. dredges up the remnants of the balloon from the shallow waters of the Atlantic coast, there is little doubt that the U.S. will declare that it has found “corroborative evidence” that this was indeed a surveillance balloon.

Among the many claims about the Chinese balloon, the U.S. and the media have taken for granted that the Chinese balloon was in U.S. airspace. Neither has China challenged this view. The problem here is that while airspace is defined in horizontal terms, the airspace above the territorial waters of 12 nautical miles belongs to the littoral country concerned. No such definition of sovereign airspace exists for the airspace of a country vertically. In other words, it is possible for any country to claim anything beyond, say, 60,000 feet (or 19.8 Km), which should be considered international space. No country makes this claim as that will also limit their own sovereignty.

Is there a vertical limit from which height onwards we should consider space to be international space like international waters? Though there is no such agreement, almost every country considers that beyond the von Karman line of 100 Km above the ground as global commons and not any country’s airspace. The fuzziness lies in the space between 60,000 feet (19.8 Km) or what is definitely a country’s airspace and 100 Km, the von Karman line.

Interestingly, the U.S. has a lower ceiling for space of 80 Km, and its astronauts had initially managed only suborbital flights, unlike the Soviets who, in April 1961, had sent the first astronaut into a full space orbit. The difference between the sub-orbital flight of Alan Shepard, who followed Yuri Gagarin in space, was that though Shepard’s journey crossed the Von Karman line, it did not complete a full orbit and stayed only 15 minutes in space. Yuri Gagarin had completed a full orbit around the earth and stayed in space for 108 minutes. Though the U.S. beat the Soviets to the moon, on every other count, including the rockets, the Soviets were ahead of the U.S. After the cold war was over, the U.S. used Russian rockets for its space launches till very recently, as they were cheaper and had superior performance compared to the U.S. rockets.

The Chinese have claimed that the balloon that the U.S. shot down after seven-day hysteria in the U.S. media was a meteorological balloon. How credible is this claim? Or was it indeed a surveillance balloon?

All countries use weather balloons to generate information. The U.S. launches 60,000 such balloons a year, and the total number of such balloons released each day  in a year is 1,800! These balloons have instruments mounted on them for measuring pressure, temperature, wind speed, relative humidity, etc., and send their measurements back via radio signals. That means all  weather balloons have the ability to transmit their measurements back to their base stations. They also have some limited ability to manoeuvre, at least vertically and using suitable air current, even horizontally, so that they can generate weather profiles over a large area.

If such a large number of balloons are sent up every day, how come the space is not littered with balloons? Once the weather balloon accomplishes its tasks, it goes up till the difference between the higher internal balloon pressure and the lower external pressure, as it climbs up, causes it to rupture. However, a few of the balloons fail to rupture and can wander around carried by atmospheric currents as litter. Since these currents do not obey national laws, such balloon junk can travel across the globe and “violate” country boundaries.

Weather balloons are not the only kind of balloons. There are also scientific balloons, which are more sophisticated and carry many more instruments. They may also have limited means of navigation, meaning propellers and a small engine to power the same. Though they are not cheap, they are far less expensive than using a satellite, the only other carrier of such instruments.

The U.S. has claimed that the Chinese balloon is not an innocent weather balloon but possibly carried instruments to monitor U.S. military sites on the ground. Why the Chinese would do that when for such missions, they have military satellites in orbits to perform such tasks, is not clear. The only advantage that balloons have is that they are much cheaper than satellites. But surely, money is of little concern when strategic objectives—finding out what your adversary is doing—are involved.

Strangely enough, while the U.S. has been breathing fire and brimstone on the Chinese balloons, the U.S. had a plan for using military surveillance balloons. Politico writes (July 5, 2022) titled: US military’s newest weapon against China and Russia: Hot air.  It says, “The high-altitude inflatables, flying at between 60,000 and 90,000 feet, would be added to the Pentagon’s extensive surveillance network and could eventually be used to track hypersonic weapons.” In layman’s terms, inflatables are balloons, but balloons do not sound so good when you are talking about war; therefore, the more impressive word “inflatables”! Though the descriptions of the program make it sound impressive, it has a budget of only $27.1 million for the fiscal year 2023. For Pentagon, where in 1986, toilet seats cost $640 and coffee-maker a cool $7,622, $27 million, it is chump change.

The other question is, why the sudden finding within one week of one balloon and three other unidentified flying objects, definitely not balloons)? The answer lies not in much more surveillance activities by “hostile” powers but simply in the changes that NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defence Command, has made to their equipment to find smaller objects and balloons. Earlier, they had been configured to look for planes and missiles (larger or harder outer shells) and did not include balloons and smaller objects. As one NORAD official said, they have now opened the aperture wider, meaning examining shapes and sizes they would have disregarded. As a lot of these are either air space litter or balloons over which the organisations launching them have lost control, the question is how do we deal with the resulting hysteria? Or making a mountain out of a molehill?

So why am I referring to the U.S. balloon program? Is the U.S. doing what it is accusing China of sending up surveillance balloons for military purposes? If such balloons are indeed sent up, how can the countries prevent them from going rogue and wandering into other countries’ ill-defined air space? Has the time come to discuss what are the boundaries and the rules for air space, near space and outer space?

But to address such issues, we require a very different climate, not the current one of military hysteria that we are witnessing over balloons. Building up a balloon hysteria is only one more step in the U.S. strategic vision of isolating Russia and China economically and surrounding them militarily, apart from distracting the people from Seymour Hersh’s NordStream pipeline sabotage exposure.

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