U.S military commands NORAD and NORTHCOM have been soiling themselves during the last 48 hours because a Chinese spy balloon is flying over the United States mainland. The U.S. military initially recommended a shoot down and Joe Biden gave the green light. But cooler heads prevailed, in part because there was concern expressed within the military chain of command that falling debris could kill Americans on the ground, and the U.S. opted to let it fly.
The war party in the United States is apoplectic. The media is reporting that the military ignored Biden’s order. Jesse Waters on Fox News — he normally is a strident Biden critic — is openly siding with Biden and condemning the military for not popping that balloon.
This is madness. The countries with military satellites circling the globe do not have a formal agreement under international law defining where earth’s atmosphere ends and space begins. (More about that in a bit.)
Let me start with this question — what is the difference between a Chinese spy balloon flying at 55 miles above the earth collecting intelligence via sensors and cameras and Chinese spy satellite flying at 70 miles above the earth collecting intelligence with sensors and cameras? Simply a matter of altitude.
Currently, there is a de facto assumption by most nations that the line dividing earth atmosphere from space is 60 miles above the earth:
Until now, most scientists have said that outer space is 100 kilometers away (i.e., 60 miles). At that point, it’s been thought, the speed needed to achieve lift in the super thin atmosphere is equal to the speed needed to simply orbit the planet; once there, a spacecraft’s horizontal pace would counteract the tug of Earth’s gravity. It’s an insight that has long been credited to aerodynamics pioneer Theodore von Kármán, though he credited the term to the world’s first “space lawyer,” Andrew Haley, in 1963.
The Karman line is a bit of an artificial construct. It is not clearly delineated like a geographic border separating countries.
The Kármán line (or von Kármán line /vɒn ˈkɑːrmɑːn/) is an attempt to define a boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space, and offers a specific definition set by the Fédération aéronautique internationale (FAI), an international record-keeping body for aeronautics. . . . International law does not define the edge of space, or the limit of national airspace.[
At present, the United States, Russia, and China tolerate their adversary’s satellites flying over their territory and scooping up intel. As long as it is in space, satellites freely collect and no nation pitches a fit (yet) or threatens to shoot down the satellites (yet).
Some of my friends sent me this:
I can see both sides. On one hand, this is a foreign aircraft violating sovereign U.S. airspace while overflying sensitive military and nuclear installation sites. That’s a problem. These balloons also differ from satellites in the sense that they have longer loiter times (collection windows) and we can’t predict its presence quite like we can with orbiting vehicles.
On the other hand…dude, it’s a balloon. It’s got some kind SIGINT payload and probably a few sensor balls on it. They’re definitely just fucking with us to see how we’re gonna respond. I think the best way to play this game may be to refuse to play it.
I raised the point that China could park a satellite in geosynchronous orbit over the United States and do the same thing the balloon is doing but from the “comfort” of space. My man, let’s call him R2D2, wrote back:
Geosynchronous vehicles have to be pretty far out in order to park them over a designated spot…the physics demands it. It limits their collection capabilities. And LEO birds are awesome but they have very spotty coverage, nothing like what a balloon can do. In my opinion, having a high alt balloon literally in our backyard gives the CCP a decisive advantage, however, there’s a myriad of ways we can fuck with it and stymie their collection. Jammers, directed energy weapons, lasers, etc. We don’t necessarily need to shoot it down to accomplish our goals.
As you can see, R2D2 is a smart cookie. The heart of the issue is that the Chinese balloon does not pose a greater security threat to the United States than a Chinese military satellite. What has so many arm chair generals and pundits pissed off is that the Chinese are ridiculing our impotence. Nancy Pelosi goes to Taiwan as a deliberate insult to China and the Chinese now send us a balloon and daring us to shoot it down. That is a bait the U.S. should not take.
The objects floating above us are just a matter of perspective. The collection ability of satellites is light years advanced from what we were doing 30 years ago. But International law does not define the edge of space, or the limit of national airspace. We have de facto acceptance of an artificial boundary. The Russians, for example, will tolerate a satellite flying over Moscow but try that with a fixed wing, high flyer like the SR71 or U2. In contrast to the days of the Soviet Union, modern Russia now has the ability to shoot down satellites.
I think the Chinese are testing the definition of what constitutes acceptable overhead surveillance and may be trying to create a predicate for destroying our satellites if we go after their balloons. The United States has long resisted any legal definition of outer space to avoid restrictions on high-altitude military activities. Advances on the technological front involving satellites and other aerial collection systems has created a very murky area that is not defined by law or treaty when it comes to intelligence collection. At least none that I am aware of.
So let me conclude on a lighter note and solicit you suggestions on the best balloon themed movie or music for this situation. Around the World in 80 Days? Up, Up and Away?
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