Sunday, 5 February 2023 — Moon of Alabama
In 1964 Richard Hofstadter wrote about The Paranoid Style in American Politics:
Events since 1939 have given the contemporary right-wing paranoid a vast theatre for his imagination, full of rich and proliferating detail, replete with realistic cues and undeniable proofs of the validity of his suspicions. The theatre of action is now the entire world, and he can draw not only on the events of World War II, but also on those of the Korean War and the Cold War. Any historian of warfare knows it is in good part a comedy of errors and a museum of incompetence; but if for every error and every act of incompetence one can substitute an act of treason, many points of fascinating interpretation are open to the paranoid imagination. In the end, the real mystery, for one who reads the primary works of paranoid scholarship, is not how the United States has been brought to its present dangerous position but how it has managed to survive at all.
The paranoid style is not only used on the right-wing side of policies. Adam Schiff’s action during ‘Russiagate’ applied plenty of it. The paranoid style applies to internal U.S. politics as well as to foreign policies against this or that favorite enemy of that time.
It makes the story below, which otherwise just laughable, somewhat dangerous.
Furor Over Chinese Spy Balloon Leads to a Diplomatic Crisis
The Pentagon called the object, which has flown from Montana to Kansas, an “intelligence gathering” balloon. Beijing said it was used mainly for weather research and had strayed off course.
As some 80+% of all Pentagon intelligence comes from open sources the ‘intelligence gathering’ statement may well include a weather research system. Weather research and weather prediction are important for all kinds of military operations. But they are also important for many civil operations from agriculture, food availability prediction to drainage planning in cities.
The story’s opener:
WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on Friday canceled a weekend trip to Beijing after a Chinese spy balloon was sighted above the Rocky Mountain state of Montana, igniting a frenzy of media coverage and political commentary over a machine that the Pentagon said posed no threat to the United States.
Mr. Blinken called the Chinese surveillance an “irresponsible act” and a “clear violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law.”
China’s “decision to take this action on the eve of my planned visit is detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have,” he said at a news conference on Friday afternoon.
Blinken is of course wrong. Balloon drift planning is difficult if not impossible. There was likely no Chinese intent behind this.
The NYT also writes that this is not the first time that such a balloon is passing over the United States. The difference now the addition of paranoid panic. Balloon similar to those one sighted over the U.S. have been seen over Japan and India in 2020, 2021 and 2022.
Both flew in directions from China that are different than the current balloon drifting from China over to the United States. That is because the direction of the wind decides where a balloon flies to.
These balloon have cross like arms hanging below them with the two horizontal arms carrying solar panels. There are three gondolas at the ends of the horizontal and vertical structure. The gondolas could carry instruments, motors or both.
An estimate said that the diameter of the balloon is equivalent to the length of three school buses. It means that the air resistance and wind sensitivity of the balloon is huge. Winds in the upper atmosphere, like the Atlantic jet stream, are strong:
For instance, flying from London to New York takes just over eight hours, while the reverse journey is often under seven.
A few electrical motors depending on solar power are unlikely to be for propulsion propellers that would make this balloon steerable. But a Google company once used a machine learning system that found out how to tack a balloon like a sail ship which enabled it to follow its planned course faster than previously predicted. But it did not make it steerable. The Goggle balloon were ‘steering’ by changing their flight levels just like low fling hot air balloon do:
A solar-powered pump adds or subtracts air from the balloon. That air makes the balloon heavier or lighter, allowing it to ascend or descend in altitude. Rather than fight against the wind at one altitude, the balloon moves up or down until it finds a favorable wind current. By repeating this thousands of times over the lifespan of a balloon, we can drift on the winds to get to locations around the world.
It is likely that the Chinese balloon can use similar technics. But it will inevitable still depend on the ever changing and often unpredictable prevalent direction of the wind.
Blinken is also wrong with regards to international law. The space between the highest level jet fighters can fly (18 kilometer or 60,000 feet) and outer space were satellites fly is legally somewhat undefined. There are no treaties, international laws or even rules for that mostly unused space.
In the 1950s the U.S. flew ‘weather balloon’ over the Soviet Union for surveillance. But satellites has since replaced balloon surveillance as they can get more data with way more precision. China has satellites. It does not need balloon to check U.S. air fields or missile sites.
To use the balloon as an excuse for canceling the China visit shows that U.S. claims of wanting to lower tensions with China are not serious.
Brian Tycangco 鄭彥渊 @BrianTycangco –
If a wayward balloon is enough to make the US Secretary of State cancel a potentially crucial meeting with China to resolve standing differences & avoid potential armed conflict, it speaks very poorly of how serious he is about doing his job.
Some republicans have used the balloon and the paranoid style to attack the Biden administration. The Biden administration should have staid course by calling the overflight a non-event. Blinken’s reaction only adds to the anti-China hate.