On January 28, 2023, US officials first noticed a mysterious object floating over the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska. The object subsequently traveled over western Canada before floating back into US airspace in northern Idaho on January 31. The government publicly recognized the balloon’s existence on February 2, and it continued to garner media attention as it traveled southeast. Eventually, the balloon was shot down off the coast of South Carolina on February 4.
Even before the balloon was shot down and investigated by the FBI, the US intelligence community had already accused it of being a spy balloon used to surveil US military installations. This claim, designed to stir fear amongst American citizens, is an example of the US practice of deploying militarized rhetoric surrounding airspace altercations in order to garner public support for defense spending projects.
The US government had claimed that the craft was a military spy balloon deployed to collect high-resolution imagery of military bases throughout the western United States. This would be concerning given that sites such as Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana house nuclear weaponry. However, Chinese officials claimed the balloon was merely a civilian surveillance tool, strictly collecting meteorological data that was blown off course due to high winds in the Pacific and Canada.
Their claims are certainly plausible: While the Pentagon seems to know very little about the balloon, it has confirmed that the balloon was not capable of gathering any information that China could not have gained through its more than 500 satellites. Regardless, the true intent of the balloon remains unknown as investigations are ongoing. As they unfold, what we do know is that the US government is treading a slippery slope by conflating potentially innocent civilian surveillance with espionage.
Perhaps it is doing so in order to capitalize on a recent spike in the fears of nuclear warfare. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced on January 24 that the famous doomsday clock was reduced to 90 seconds to midnight, largely due to an increased risk of the use of nuclear weapons in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Now more than ever, US citizens feel a reason to fear the sky, creating an ideal circumstance for the exploitation of said fear.
The conditions are ripe for doing so: Following the first incident, three more unidentified objects were shot down over northern Alaska, the Yukon Territory, and Lake Huron. Although investigations are ongoing, some members of the intelligence community claim that they are likely a result of private research or commercial ventures and are completely unrelated to the first balloon. However, other US officials have already begun speculating that they may also be from China or another foreign power such as Russia.
While the close timing of all four of these incidents may seem to demonstrate a pattern of increased espionage, what they really demonstrate is increased awareness: The first balloon prompted the North American Aerospace Defense Command to adjust their radar system for increased sensitivity to objects in the sky. It is unlikely that there are suddenly more unidentified objects in our airspace. Rather, a new sense of hypervigilance has now made us aware of their presence.
Tellingly, these objects seem to have created less of an opportunity for China or any other foreign power to gain vulnerable information about Americans than an opportunity for the US government to stoke already heightened public fears of threats to American security. The timing of the incidents is especially convenient given its coincidence with the Munich Security Conference, where Secretary of State Antony Blinken sounded the alarm on potential Chinese support for Russia in the war in Ukraine.
US relations with both Russia and China are at critical points right now, giving US defense officials a reason to want to bolster our military. However, gaining public support for military spending can be difficult when our adversaries and our operations against them seem far away geographically. Accusing China of intervening in American airspace presents a potential solution by bringing the material threat of this tension much closer to home.
Capitalizing on airspace fears would not be a new tactic for the US government. Throughout the summer and fall of 2020, just before US elections, interceptions of Russian bombers near Alaska were broadcasted widely. Imagery of US and Russian fighter jets flying next to each other near the United States served to escalate existing fears of Russian encroachment on American democracy via election rigging. Similarly, in 2014, US media extensively covered Russian fighter jets nearing American and Canadian airspace in Alaska and California following Putin’s annexation of Crimea. Given that Russia has just invaded another sovereign country, reports of the Russian military nearing US borders reasonably stirred worries of further violence.
While some of these flights were closer to US airspace than normal, the fact that Russia was flying jets near the United States was not as unprecedented as many public officials and media outlets made it seem. In fact, the United States intercepts Russian jets about six to seven times per year, but never have these planes actually flown into American airspace. And even if they did, they would do so over the freezing ocean or sparsely populated parts of the Alaskan tundra. Russian bombers flying near the United States is a relatively common and harmless occurrence, but the US government chose to turn these incidents into major crises when it benefited them to make the American public antagonistic towards Russia.
The sky is a unique battleground for international actors. It has been heralded as a vast and unknown region with great potential to inflict pain upon humanity. What began as fears of lightning raining down from Mount Olympus has evolved over time into acute fears of Russian bombers, and now, Chinese balloons. Officials have capitalized on this fear, using it to their advantage when they sense our support of the defense system waning in times of uncertainty. This is the agenda of those that answer “no comment” to questions about the intentions behind a Chinese surveillance balloon and simultaneously assert that it was designed to collect sensitive military information. Those who further this agenda understand that one of the greatest weapons at the US military’s disposal cannot be manufactured, only selectively informed: public opinion.