Why the U.S. Isn’t Shooting Down the Chinese Spy Balloon

Homeland-security threats and national-security threats demand different responses.

The Chinese balloon spotted over Montana
Larry Mayer / The Billings Gazette / AP

Montana balloon crisis sounds a lot less dramatic than its Cuban-missile counterpart, and not just because the Chinese surveillance balloon spotted over Big Sky Country last night is inherently less threatening than Soviet weaponry just off the coast of Florida in 1962. This situation isn’t a crisis. It isn’t even close. Although the U.S. government had to acknowledge the presence of the balloon because regular citizens were posting pictures online, the Biden administration’s best option wasn’t to panic and respond with what the military calls a “kinetic action”—or what normal people call shooting the sucker out of the sky. It was to play for time.

The revelation immediately produced a chorus of armchair analysts and GOP politicians insisting that President Joe Biden was weak in the face of a clearly aggressive action by the Chinese. Some insisted that former President Donald Trump would never have allowed such a violation of American borders. Many commentators wanted the U.S. to do something—anything.

I’m no military expert, but I understand gravity. A surveillance balloon isn’t really a balloon; it likely has metal frames and carries electronic gear, and contains gases and other chemicals. These potentially dangerous materials will not reliably burn up when entering the Earth’s atmosphere, because they are already in the Earth’s atmosphere. Although the balloon lingers somewhere above where passenger jets normally fly, it is in American airspace—which is to say, the American homeland.

Homeland-security threats demand different responses than national-security threats. Blowing up an adversary’s airborne surveillance equipment over Montana, or even scrambling to capture it, involves different logistical and legal calculations than doing so in an active theater of war. Montana residents probably wouldn’t appreciate stuff spilling from the sky. Falling debris could maim or even kill Americans on the ground. Personal and property damage would occur. Kinetic action in a situation like this has a cost borne not by another country or its citizens, but by ours.

The balloon’s specific surveillance capabilities are unknown, and the Chinese government denies that it is collecting intelligence. That assurance seems highly dubious. But even if Beijing is gathering information it couldn’t otherwise get from satellites—balloons, after all, can hover over particular facilities, perhaps including nuclear-missile launch sites in Montana—the U.S. goal is to make China stop doing that while avoiding harm to Americans. We don’t have to jump into action immediately because China has provoked us—or because Biden’s domestic critics claim that China has provoked us. The balloon is not a nuisance to either commercial airlines or U.S. military capabilities. Protections on the ground can deny the Chinese surveillance access to whatever it is they are interested in.

We have time. One definition of crisis is a disruption that affords little time to respond before it turns into a disaster. Emergency management, then, presents two basic choices: Either prevent the disruption or buy yourself more time to minimize its consequences. The standard jargon for the latter approach—“extend the runway”—is conceptually helpful.

In this case, two things appear to be true: The balloon is not an immediate threat, and the balloon cannot remain over our skies indefinitely. A lack of clarity about how the U.S. plans to resolve those two propositions, including by shooting the balloon down at a later point, isn’t necessarily harmful. By exposing the balloon’s existence, the administration has put pressure on China to de-escalate the issue. This morning, Beijing said in a somewhat conciliatory statement that it “regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken has now postponed his expected visit to China next week. The State Department knows how to use language. Tellingly, he did not cancel his visit, but merely delayed it. The runway got a little longer.