History does not repeat, but sometimes it rhymes

This image of a Chinese surveillance balloon, taken by Billings, Montana resident Chase Doak on February 1, 2023, was circulated among news organizations, leading to acknowledgement of the balloon by United States government and military officials. The balloon’s trajectory included sensitive U.S. military installation airspace, and led to a ground stop at Billings Logan International Airport that lasted two hours. The balloon was eventually shot down over the Atlantic Ocean on February 4 after traversing much of the continental U.S.
Chase Doak, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Puffins of a certain age will recall that seminal moment in 1987 when Mathias Rust, a West German teenager, seemingly did the impossible when he flew a Cessna light aircraft through 500 miles of the most highly defended airspace in the world, all in the name of peace. Rust had just 50 hours of flying experience when he performed this daring stunt, during a time when the Cold War was still in full swing. He was motivated by the feeling that he could make a difference after a summit between the U.S. and USSR ended in a stalemate. After leaving Helsinki, & still not entirely sure whether he was going to go through with his plan or not, he informed air traffic control that he would be heading to Stockholm. He was about half an hour into his flight when he settled on his decision & changed direction and headed straight to Moscow. Soon after, air traffic control realized this change in course and tried to make contact, as he was heading into the busy Helsinki-Moscow route, but Rust had already dropped off of radar, turned off his communication equipment, and was full steam ahead on his mission. Soon detected by Soviet air defence radar, attempts were made to contact him but to no avail, & caused him to be given a threat status. Rust was tracked by multiple SAM missile sites, which wanted to engage but failed to be given permission. Two MiGs were scrambled to intercept him. “It passed me on my left side so close that I could see the two pilots sitting in the cockpit and I saw of course the red star of the wing of the aircraft,” Rust recalled. Soon after this, unable to receive permission to engage, the MiGs lost Rust in the clouds. While attempting to relocate him, he dropped off of the radar again. Thanks to an almost unbelievable combination of new routines, training, confusion, and luck, Rust’s aircraft was re-designated as friendly, allowing this 19-year-old free passage through the most heavily guarded airspace in the world. He reached Moscow where his original goal was to land inside the Kremlin, but he changed this to Red Square after realizing that landing within walls could let the Soviets deny the event ever happened. After circling low around the square, large numbers of pedestrians meant he had to again change his landing location to the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge, near Red Square.  After touching down, he was quickly greeted by shocked and confused locals, declaring “I am here on a peace mission from Germany.” Some asked for autographs. He told them he was from Germany, to which they assumed East Germany, but were surprised when he said West Germany. Naturally, Rust was quickly arrested and interviewed by Soviet police, who refused to believe he acted alone. After it became clear he was a lone teenager on a perhaps slightly unwise mission, and after major international embarrassment, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev acted to use the de facto intrusion of Soviet airspace as a prime opportunity to remove people from power who opposed him politically.  More than 150 people in various USSR defence departments were sacked as a result.

Fast forward to February 2023, & the intrusion into US airspace of a balloon from Chyyyyyyna.

Apparently in a belief that “Well, Trump did it!” is kryptonite to any criticism, some anonymous Department of Defence person told the Washington Post that Chinese balloons had transited continental United States airspace on at least three occasions when the Donald the Dreaded was POTUS. Virtually everyone in Trump’s national security upper echelons – including people who viscerally loathe him, like Bolton and Esper – immediately called BS. They all said they were never informed of this. So what are the possibilities? First, it never happened and this is just somebody making shit up to clean up after Joe. (Always a real possibility). Second, it did happen, and the balloons were detected in real time, but the DoD decided to withhold this information from the commander in chief. That would be a scandal of major proportions. And sad to say, it is believable. Third, the administration’s elaboration: the previous balloons weren’t detected in real time, but they were uncovered after the fact by the intelligence agencies through some undisclosed means. Although all of these explanations are disturbing in their own way, this would be the worst. It would imply a gaping hole existed in US detection technology. Although the administration claims that THIS time they detected the balloon as soon as it passed over the Aleutians, and this suggests that the vulnerability has been addressed, we can’t be sure whether it’s just that NORAD got lucky this time.

With regards to the first explanation. Why did the WaPo rely on a single source for a story like this? Why won’t the Pentagon reveal who made the statement to the reporter? Note that the story– if it was true – would have involved the leak of highly classified information: a crime. If it wasn’t true, a “senior” official is spreading –wait for it– disinformation, supposedly the greatest threat to “our democracy.” Either alternative is unacceptable, and should result in the investigation, termination, and perhaps prosecution of the perpetrator. And he/her/it/they/them should be identified immediately while these steps are proceeding. See also Chelsea Manning.  Letting the balloon meander from Alaska to South Carolina (apparently on a tour of US nuclear facilities) is bad enough, but this clumsy attempt to exonerate Biden through whataboutism (“whaddabout Trump!!!”) makes things even worse. It reveals the US military and Department of Defence to be incompetent, mendacious, or both. Biden didn’t say anything either at a shout or a whisper about the balloon in his State of the Union address. He obviously wants this to go away. Howevah, being a national security embarrassment of the first order, and the head of NORAD, and the head(s) of the intelligence agency or agencies that allegedly discovered previous violations of US airspace ex post facto should be hauled in front of Congress for a public grilling.


Less than 4 years after a gawky teenager humiliated the Soviet military & political establishment by confirming that their seemingly invulnerable defences were as much use as a chocolate samovar, the USSR was no more.

Will a Chyyyyyynese balloon ensure the same fate befalls the US?

© DJM 2023