Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Affairs

The Chinese Balloon Was a Necessary Wake-Up Call

| Feb. 23, 2023

Why the United States Must Find New Ways to Protect Its Airspace

The United States tends to react to unexpected events with a combination of fear, political recrimination, and bravado—not a particularly effective mix when it comes to evaluating and responding to potential crises. Despite widespread expressions of concern, some warranted and some hyperbolic, the Chinese surveillance balloon spotted over Montana (and tracked across the country before a fighter jet shot it down over the Atlantic) did not represent a crisis. In fact, it was a gift from Beijing: a necessary wake-up call about the shortcomings in the United States’ national defense. 

The unsettling identification and downing of four objects in late January and early February should be a 9/11 moment for homeland defense—one in which, thankfully, no lives were lost. The 9/11 attacks revealed major gaps in defense against terrorism, including insufficient tracking, sharing of data, and coordination among the responsible agencies. Beijing’s blunder in allowing its spy balloon to enter U.S. territory has brought to light similar gaps, laying bare the inadequacy of the United States’ continental defense. While the borders and cities of many U.S. adversaries are protected by layered air and missile defenses, those of the United States are not. As a result, it cannot count on seeing—and thus on being able to respond adequately to—a range of threats in the event of conflict that go well beyond spy balloons, including cruise and hypersonic missiles, and even armed drones.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Sanner, Beth and Pete Fesler.“The Chinese Balloon Was a Necessary Wake-Up Call.” Foreign Affairs, February 23, 2023.

The Authors