In the depths of the Second World War the Japanese empire tried to start a plague of forest fires in the United States with squadrons of incendiary balloons. It failed, although six civilians were killed in a single successful balloon bombing in Oregon in May 1945.
In February 1942 there was what people at the time thought was an aerial battle above Los Angeles. Later the authorities said everyone had been shooting at nothing. Although some theorists said it was aliens, this episode was eventually attributed to the release of one or more weather balloons by army meteorologists. Spotters mistook them for Japanese airships, causing anti-air guns across the region to open fire for an entire evening and night.
A supposed alien crash site discovered in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947 and subsequent alleged cover-up was later revealed to be the result of an early spy balloon – part of the classified Project Mogul – landing unexpectedly in small-town America. Naturally, the authorities wanted to keep this under wraps. What they spawned instead was eighty years of UFO mania.
Balloons and war and espionage: in American eyes, it’s a potent brew.
Now another alleged spy balloon is floating across America – at the moment it seems to be Chinese, and to be gently making its way across Montana.
To understate things a little, this has captured a lot of attention. It’s on the front page of everything; there are many jokes doing the rounds. All of this makes it essentially the opposite of “covert” operations. Is a spy balloon really a problem if you can see and laugh at it?
Some very enthusiastic people are extremely happy at all this attention. They have maintained for quite a few years that balloons are being underused in espionage. Balloons are silent, unlike heavier drones, and they can hang around until they pop in the upper reaches of the atmosphere. They are cheaper than satellites. They can be silent guardians – sentinels made of cheap plastic. So their advocates say.
Others have elected to travel the route of General Buck Turgidson, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, the 1964 film that satirised the Cold War. The general is told that, if the world were to be destroyed by nuclear armageddon, some people might survive by being hidden in mineshafts for decades. He goes on to declare that the Soviets might breed more effectively in their mineshafts, leaving them well prepared to take over the world once the radiation levels dropped. “Mr President”, he declares, “we must not allow a mine-shaft gap!”
“Mr President, we must not allow a spy-balloon gap” has been said many a time on Twitter, and almost certainly more than once – with no hint of irony – within the vast halls of the American national security state.
The timing is not ideal: Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, is visiting China next week. China and the US are trying to stabilise the situation and put some solid ground under their relationship. But now, attention is once again on China’s activities, increasing pressure on the US administration to take a hard line. The Pentagon press secretary, Patrick Ryder, and the “senior US defence officials” always on hand to supply quotes to the press, intimated that other alleged Chinese spy balloons have floated over America several times in recent years. Keen-eyed watchers noticed that the American response this time – the scrambling of F-22 Raptor jets and refuelling aircraft – looks rather similar to something that occurred over Hawaii a year ago.
Either way, it seems this technology is buoyant. Whether the balloon-gap will change the world is yet to be seen.
This piece was originally published in the New Statesman.