Gongol.com Archives: February 2023

Brian Gongol

February 3, 2023

Threats and Hazards Look! Up in the sky!

It probably has something to do with vestigial fears left behind by our evolution up from tiny pre-primate mammals, but the thought of something unknown and potentially hazardous in the sky above our heads seems to terrorize our human minds much more than other threats. These concerns, while not entirely irrational, seem to activate something different and more lively in the human imagination than other threats. ■ Thus, we witness the widespread and loud alarm over the Chinese surveillance balloon floating over the continental United States. Is the balloon a matter for unusual concern? Definitely. It's an unwelcome and illegal provocation. ■ We can be certain that even if the US Air Force doesn't dispatch the balloon, someone on the ground is still going to shoot at it. It won't be smart, and it definitely won't work, but it's practically certain to happen, even if the government deemed shooting it down to be too risky. It's an unfamiliar incursion, and that has snapped Americans to attention. ■ Yet, novelty isn't the only thing that matters. It may be perfectly sensible to be alarmed by the spy balloon, but let some of that alarm also be transferred to other known hazards, like spyware, massive data harvesting, and the intimidation of dissidents abroad (including within the US). ■ There are many other threats that are much more immediately threatening than the spy balloon, as deeply concerning as it is, but it seems to be the "unknown threat overhead" aspect that alarms many of us. And, even if it collects no useful surveillance for China whatsoever, it likely will end up as a net adversarial win. That's because they don't have to produce a weapon, be it kinetic or electromagnetic. ■ China's government merely needs a proof of concept that makes it appear sufficiently plausible that it can penetrate American airspace (and that it is willing to do so) to force the United States to spend a lot of resources on hardening our own infrastructure. The Defense Department has even confirmed taking "additional mitigation steps" against surveillance by the balloon, even while claiming that "it does not create significant value added over and above what the PRC is likely able to collect through things like satellites in Low Earth Orbit." ■ Unfortunately, whatever measures are taken, they consume time, effort, and resources. If a car thief is known to prowl your neighborhood, it is relatively cost-free for you to lock your car. But if that isn't deterrent enough, then installing a car alarm, buying a LoJack, mounting surveillance cameras, or building a garage all consume resources that might have gone to better productive uses. Triggering your adversary to spend liberally on new defenses can be an effective military strategy. ■ But Americans shouldn't let ourselves fixate on the specific form of this threat just because it activates that portion of the brain we got from smaller mammals millions of years ago. We should, however, use it as the catalyst for much wider strategic debates about how better to protect our interests domestically, whether in physical space or in the electronic domains. There are plenty of things to be concerned about, and we haven't necessarily given any of them sufficient consideration. Perhaps the response to the spy balloon can nudge us to do better.

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