Phew! Another Threat Not to Worry About (Spying From Above Dept.)

Yesterday I was doing an errand in the car and caught the tail end of a discussion on a rebroadcast Diane Rehm show about Chinese spying in the United States. A flight instructor called in to mention something that greatly concerned him. Prospective pilots for Chinese airlines often came to the US for flight training, as do pilots from many other parts of the world. The US may be lagging in many areas, but we're still far and away #1 in the flight-school category.

What bothered the instructor is that Chinese students would bring cameras along on flights and take pictures from the cockpit. Including when they were near military bases! (Or doing practice approaches at military airfields, which in some case is possible as part of flight training.) He didn't like that at all, and he made them erase the photos before they could leave the plane. As I was getting out of the car, the guest was starting to congratulate the flight instructor on these prudent steps.

It is a relief to know that he has been so careful. Imagine the threat to national security if there were some way for non-Americans to know what U.S. military facilities looked like from above.

If, for instance, they could get an idea of the looks and layout of the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in southern California, one-time home of the Top Gun school:


Or the Lemoore Naval Air Station in central California, where the Pacific fleet's aircraft units have their land base:


Or a facility I won't name but have flown over many times in small airplanes, where nuke material is stored:


Or parts of the naval shipyard and base whence nuclear subs set sail:



Or even the Pentagon!


So it is heartening to know that, given their dispute with Google, the Chinese would never stoop to using Google Earth to get a glimpse of these sites.

(Larger point, installment #12,872: If you get upset about things that don't matter, what's left over for real threats?)

After the jump, the other side of the balance: that China's facilities are of course exposed in just the same way.

For instance, a PLA Air Force base outside Beijing:

Thumbnail image for BeijingAirBase.png

For better and worse, mainly better, visibility-from-above is a reality governments everywhere need to cope with. And we can check "foreign pilots with cameras" off the list of things to fret about.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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