Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?


That Downed Chinese Balloon Wasn’t Exactly For Spying. It Was a ‘Trial’ Balloon

F-22 Raptor
F-22 Raptor.

Weather balloon? Spy balloon? Nope, and nope. I guess that the Chinese balloon sighted over Montana and Missouri months back – and shot down off the coast of South Carolina by an F-22 Raptor  – was a trial balloon.

Sure, it may have gathered intelligence about military doings on the surface below, but that was a mere bonus.

If I’m right, Beijing’s chief reason for floating a balloon over North America was to see whether it would elicit a response from the U.S. government and military, as well as from the American people.

And so it did, judging from the subsequent uproar in the press and on social media. Advantage: Xi Jinping & Co.

Now China will use what it learned about American psychology to sharpen its “three warfares” strategy. Three warfares refers to China’s all-consuming effort to shape the political and strategic environment in its favor by deploying legal, media, and psychological means. This is a 24/7/365 endeavor, and it’s in keeping with venerated strategic traditions.

After all, Mao Zedong—the Chinese Communist Party’s founding chairman and military North Star—instructed his disciples that war is politics with bloodshed while politics is war without bloodshed.

In the Maoist worldview, in other words, there is no peacetime. It’s all war, all the time for Communist China.

And getting to know your enemy lays indispensable groundwork for victory. The greats of strategic theory and history—including China’s own Mao and Sun Tzu—constantly hector field commanders and their political masters to acquaint themselves with likely antagonists. But not everything that counts can be counted.

Sizing up a prospective foe accurately demands more than tallying up ships, planes, or tanks, or estimating industrial capacity. It involves fathoming intangibles relating to that foe’s culture and society.

Here’s how the balloon sightings may fit into China’s three-warfares offensive. Suppose you’re Beijing and you want to design strategies and tactics for deterring or coercing the United States, your major opponent. You need to find out how that opponent responds to external stimuli.

So you test its reflexes. You do zany-seeming things like sending lighter-than-air craft into U.S. airspace, in full view of people on the ground. And you gauge their response.

If they overreact to an incursion that poses no direct threat, you’ve learned something. Namely that you can strike a cultural nerve by getting in Americans’ faces. Ordinary folk seem largely indifferent to such worrisome developments as the People’s Liberation Army’s constructing anti-access sensors and weaponry specifically to kill American soldiers, sailors, and aviators in large numbers. Out of sight, out of mind.

But when an unarmed foreign aircraft appears over the North American heartland . . . OMG!

The balloon sightings had strategic import, then. Deterrence or coercion involves threatening something an adversary holds dear, and then convincing the adversary you can and will make good on the threat if its leadership defies you.

Beijing may have come to doubt that it can influence Washington’s strategic behavior by menacing U.S. expeditionary forces in the Western Pacific.

But it might deter, coerce, or even just distract by making mischief in the Western Hemisphere—and by sowing havoc in such a visible way that the man on the street must take heed.

That’s the lesson of the Great Chinese Balloon Blitz of 2023.

So this week’s events have taught, or rather reminded, us of something about Communist China: it is perpetually on the offensive, in wartime and peacetime alike. The episode also taught us something about ourselves and our acute sensitivity to threats to the homeland. One hopes the big brains at places like the White House, Foggy Bottom, and the Pentagon factor that knowledge into their efforts to manage popular sentiment for this age of great-power competition. They can harden American society against China’s three warfares.

Know your opponent; know yourself; and you stand yourself in good stead.

MORE: World War III – Where Could It Start?

MORE: A U.S.-China War Over Taiwan Would Be Bloody

Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., and a Nonresident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation & Future Warfare, Marine Corps University. The views voiced here are his alone.

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”



  1. Jesse C

    February 4, 2023 at 4:41 pm

    That is true! It is part of their CCP psychological warfare!

  2. JACK

    February 4, 2023 at 6:14 pm

    The only way to deal with China is to stop doing business with them….

  3. CRS, DrPH

    February 4, 2023 at 6:16 pm

    Probably so. We should respond by supplying Taiwan with nuclear warheads and seeing how the CCP reacts!

  4. Walker

    February 4, 2023 at 7:08 pm

    There isn’t much that an uncontrollable balloon can capture that space satellites with predictable orbits can’t. Balloons are a poor device to capture spy info. So I couldn’t understand the hysteria. However, I have a saying that at first glance has nothing to do with this. That saying goes. “I don’t take offense when offense isn’t meant.” This saying is usually reserved for what normally falls under the umbrella of PC. I believe that this ideology particularly could make PC unnecessary. However, the saying has a flip side. What happens when someone intends to offend me? And that is where this comes into play here. China intentionally tried to get a rise out of us. Yes to see how we would react. So what about my saying how would I react. Well, I have decided that I won’t let anyone control me. So if someone says something to offend me and make me angry, that will be the last thing I do. Instead, I would extract myself from such situation. Instead I have learned about them. I have learned that they are not someone I want anything to do with. In the same way, we have learned that China has intentionally tried to make us angry. But unlike someone on the street or even a “friend” we can’t just cut ties and avoid them. So what are we to do? Was our reaction over the top? To be honest, I’m not really sure. And I’m not even sure our response is important. What is important is what we are learning from China. We are learning that they have a penchant for causing trouble. We definitely need to think about that and plan for it. So maybe this is a trial. And maybe it is for China to learn about us. But we can use it to learn more about them than they learn of us. And that really is, we should expect relations between us and them to get much worse.

  5. Hans Robert Etter

    February 4, 2023 at 7:24 pm

    China moves on to Taiwan, it is a checkmate to China. The Chinese navy relies on fossil fuels to move, the U.S. fleet has its own energy and carriers are nuclear and the navy can block all vital sea lanes, something Japan found out really fast in ww2. China still imports food to support its population, something the United States does not do. A total blockade, a few nukes, and any war would be over soon.

  6. Commentar

    February 4, 2023 at 7:30 pm

    It takes two to tango.

    US sees itself possessing the right to send military spylanes flying near other people’s coasts all the time.

    Now, for once, the chinese are brazenly giving themselves the right to fly civilian balloons across the Pacific.

    Advantage china.

    Reason is if US ever wages war on china, that balloon skill will be of great importance.

    Sending massive flights of balloons across will give US fits and make people march in the streets nam era style, demanding an end to war.

    In the northern latitudes winds blow from west to east.

    Thus USA at a very great disadvantage no matter how high its f-22s can fly.

    Biden needs to know war isn’t a solution to problems, neither is war an ideal way to show who’s the Mike Tyson of the ages.

    Blinken doesn’t need to fly over to there at all, just issue arrest warrant for exporting opioids to US.

  7. Johnny Ray

    February 4, 2023 at 8:26 pm

    Only China knows what was going on with that balloon and they ain’t saying. It was a provocation regardless. My view is the best route to deal with China is to have infinite patience. They simply are not as strong and powerful as they pretend. They are their own worst enemy. Let them defeat themselves.

  8. Wbej

    February 4, 2023 at 9:18 pm

    The article exemplifies the bat shit crazy paranoid US mentality that projects its own intentions into everything another party carries out.

    Expeditionary forces in the Western Pacific; is this like the Opium wars all over, where China has to acquiesce in being our bitch?

  9. David Chang

    February 4, 2023 at 10:22 pm

    God bless people in the world.

    China is not enemy. But China Communist Party and all socialism parties are enemies, so people should confess and repent to God.

    If CCP will observe the strategy weapons bases of U.S., and these weapon bases just deter them. Because of strategy determination is not the secret operation, but the display of our thought and behavior in public.

    China Communist Party send Yuanmeng Airship to recon the urrounding waters of mainland China, so we shall promote the truth in Bible to Asia people by balloon, airship, and radio. This is another way we against socialism warfare.

    God bless America.

  10. RZ

    February 5, 2023 at 12:47 am

    CRS DrPh

    How would the US respond to China giving Cuba nukes? I think we have a historical answer to that.

  11. TG

    February 5, 2023 at 12:49 am

    “One hopes the big brains at places like the White House, Foggy Bottom, and the Pentagon factor that knowledge into their efforts to manage popular sentiment for this age of great-power competition.”

    Oh, you mean the “big brains” that subsidized the export of our industrial base to Communist China because they wanted quick cheap profits and couldn’t be bothered to think ahead?

    But really, I don’t care about China. China is not my friend, but it’s also not my enemy. Sure, if China killed a bunch of American soldiers that would be sad, but it’s not like the American military is actually defending my country, so why should I care? China is not holding the border open and allowing the surplus population of the third world to invade. At current rates (which are grossly under-reported) it is plausible that America’s population could be doubled to 700 million in just 20-odd years. And with our elites not bothering to care if there will be sufficient investment to accommodate this influx, America is going to be made really poor much sooner than you think.

  12. RecoveringRepublican

    February 5, 2023 at 2:02 am

    So the times they sent balloons over the US when trump was in office didn’t count? By the way, why did trump bar the military from shooting them down and order them to deny their existence?

  13. Lawrence Lernor

    February 5, 2023 at 6:19 am

    Your thinking is flawed. It not the “dog in the fight,” it’s the “fight in the dog.”
    Ever since the Revolutionary War, we have always fought to the last for freedom. Human beings all want to be free. But for 3 Henious Dictators in China, Russia and North Korea, the population of each of those countries want to be free. We may lose the initial battles but they will never ever win the war.

  14. Friend

    February 5, 2023 at 6:24 am

    It’s the Sputnik of its age. It’s meant to promote nuclear scare which always works on your ass. You’ve been appeasing terrorists ever since 1970 and the Ostenpolitik. This opened the door to the 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre, the 1975 Vietnam, 1979 Iran revolution and the hostage crisis, the 1980 Iraq-Iran war, the 1981 Beirut attacks, the 1991 invasion of Iraq, which was your ally, two Chechen wars, the Yugoslav wars, the 9/11, another Iraq invasion, the Iran nuclear deal in 2015
    You did ALL of this to appease terrorism.

  15. renics

    February 5, 2023 at 9:09 am

    What nonsense from this ignorant Holmes. War is the main foreign policy of US militaristic circles, not China. How many wars has been waged by the US state since the collapse of the world communist system in 1991 and compare it with China, and then you will understand who initiated the wars.

  16. Paddy Manning

    February 5, 2023 at 9:10 am

    China will learn the wrong lessons from this,the CCP has no understanding of a free people.
    Any China has come and gone. Horrible demographics, Ponzi scheme economy and brutal, stupid tyranny.

  17. renics

    February 5, 2023 at 9:16 am

    Yes, and it is not clear what the information is based on, that this is a Chinese reconnaissance balloon and where are the facts, and the facts are a stubborn thing than these incomprehensible analysts writing stupid articles.

  18. Luigi

    February 5, 2023 at 10:19 am


    This balloon was a TRIAL yes, but not ONLY for psychological reason.

    MUCH worst than that. Here why.

    1) This balloon haS a size of 3 busses. It can transport a light nuclear bomb.(*)

    2) Its trajectory from North East of China to USA cannot be “exactly” predicted. Weather and winds are not. Once released from China you cannot know exactly when and where it will be. BUT you can be 100% sure about its “approximate” location will follow a trajectory crossing the USA. Alaska, Canada and USA. As it happened.

    3) Baloons are cheap. China can manufacture millions of them in a few weeks.

    4) If China wants to drop millions of nuclear bombs in random locations of the USA, all they need to do is release millions of balloons and look on TV what happens.

    5) We do not have millions of missiles to shoot down all of them. This because missiles are expensive and countermeasure of aircrafts (even more expensive).

    6) We cannot stop a flooding of balloons in our sky.

    7) This balloon technology TRIAL teaches us that China CAN destroy the whole US. We will see these balloons coming without any possibility to completely stop them. Slow delivery and on TV. That’s the MOST frightening thing. That will give time to China to negotiate a US surrendering.

    8) I’d call this strategy ATOMIC BOMBS FLOODING DELIVERY.

    (*) The W80 [atomic bomb current] is physically quite small: the physics package itself is about the size of a conventional Mk.81 250-pound (110 kg) bomb, 11.8 inches (30 cm) in diameter and 31.4 inches (80 cm) long, and only slightly heavier at about 290 pounds (130 kg).,Dimensions,290%20pounds%20(130%20kg).

  19. henry manzueta

    February 5, 2023 at 10:33 am

    Mission accomplished’ (‘Mission accomplished) That’s what the Xi government has said. The American Intelligence Agency, knew about this balloon for more than a month, this balloon was intended to spy, not only the military bases that have warehouses of war nuclear, but also, water conservation reservoirs, oil refineries, energy , etc.
    The Chinese are doing well by putting planes and whatever they want into Taiwan’s space, and nothing happens, surely imbued with that candy they want to try in the West, logically this gives infinite readings and speculations, and what is not calculated is the damage that this it does communist china… you will say what harm, many things can be justified against china, and they will become evident. now protected in this balloon, huge sales of military technologies to taiwan can be justified, which needs it so much and of course you have to do it..
    with a single purpose to obviously weaken the morale of the Chinese army in its future onslaught on this island, in addition, it is now justified, filling the island chains that surround China, with advanced weapons, and now more than ever there is no justification for continue to allow China, its shameless penetration into Western economies… I told you this balloon justifies many actions against China, this balloon is a shot, which backfired on the Chinese strategists, they could well take the instruments captured from the globe and put together a whole spy paraphernalia against china… there is a saying that knowing too much is sometimes very dangerous, the usa has a formidable weapon on this globe, to justify any deep action against china, and it should be done They are evidence accumulated to undertake and justify actions against China, in all areas…-
    It is impossible to understand how they have let this balloon reach the US, how it is possible that they have not shot it down or captured it before it was in the US sky. This balloon had been known for months, now it is understood why the balloon was let in, this balloon gives a rich opportunity to justify unspeakable actions against the Chinese.
    This is very dangerous, not only for the US, but for the whole world, particularly the West. As a precedent, the Japanese in World War II sent incendiary balloons over the US, which did not achieve much but which constituted the only attack on American soil suffered by the US since 1812…
    Of course it’s dangerous, but for the Chinese, they can’t even imagine what can be justified with that balloon, the time has come to return to Taiwan a true porcupine, give Taiwan the technological and military package, so that it sinks at least 70% of the Chinese fleet trying to invade it, and in doing so…
    the opportunity will be given, that the US missiles and aviation, thoroughly bombard all Chinese infrastructure adjacent to the China Sea… the conditions must be created for the invasion of Taiwan, which is China’s goal, to be so brutal and painful, that ruins the hegemony of the Chinese communist party, the West has no choice but to move towards that goal…

  20. froike

    February 5, 2023 at 10:56 am

    Considering that Biden is owned by China, is this surprising. Let’s not even mention Pelosi, Swalwell, McConnell, Feinstein, and God knows who else.

  21. Dave Nelson

    February 5, 2023 at 4:40 pm

    It is possible the target area for the balloon was the high Canadian Arctic, not the lower 48 as it appears it entered the US around Nome Alaska.

  22. Ben d'Mydogtags

    February 5, 2023 at 7:38 pm

    Why a balloon? Let me give you several possible reasons.

    1. “In Space No One Can Hear You Scream.” Spy satellites fly in near vacuum. Balloons fly high in the atmosphere but still inside the atmosphere. All the talking-heads, the Pentagon weenies, “experts” all seem to think optical cameras are the only game in town and that the cameras on satellites are sufficient to detect everything that needs to be detected. But from a satellite you cannot get sounds, you cannot sniff the chemical makeup of the air, you cannot pick up a whole bunch of signals that are blocked by the atmosphere (particularly lower-frequency EM signals below microwave). You might not be able to pick up low-energy neutron emissions from radioactive decay. So there are a lot of ways a balloon is more capable than a satellite. Sixty thousand feet is very high up but not like 100 miles of a low-earth satellite. The balloon is 8 to 10 times closer to the target.

    2. “Watch the birdie.” The Pentagon made a big point of saying they took steps to make sure the balloon would not overfly anything sensitive. But of course the balloon was not the only set of Chinese eyes watching. While we were hiding and covering up stuff because of the balloon we must have also been shifting some functions to other bases. Guess where the Chinese spy satellites and agents on the ground were probably watching.

    3. “See…nothing up my sleeve.” Pentagon folks also slyly hinted they were getting more intel from the balloon than the balloon was getting from us. First that is a spectacularly hubristic statement. Second if China knowingly sent this balloon into our airspace right before Blinken’s visit they must have known we could see it, we would be watching it, studying it and probably would shoot it down to collect the wreckage. So they might have sent an intentionally benign airship to lure us into thinking balloons were not a serious threat. Then when they send a future one with all the stuff they removed from this one we will be lulled into complacency.

    4. “Alpha behavior.” Remember the first big meeting between Biden admin and China, held in Alaska? The Chinese yelled at and cursed out the hapless Biden team who just sat there and took it. China has routinely administered spankings to Biden’s team. China is constantly signalling their psychological dominance over Biden. This incident might be just another example done in plain sight for all to see.

  23. H.R. Holm

    February 6, 2023 at 3:36 am

    @Hans Robert Etter—–the heck the U.S. does not import a significant portion of its food supply. Most non-citrus fruits and a number of vegetables in our wintertime come from Central and South America & Mexico, or even Asia. Cocoa comes from Africa, mainly, none stateside. Most coffees are grown/harvested overseas, just one variety from a U.S. state (Hawaiian Kona). Ditto for teas, from overseas. And where do you think bananas, for another example, originate? (Hint: central America!) Just look around at your local grocery stores sometime, and/or ask a produce manager. Also an increasing number of meats/fish, and likely nuts too. And a huge chunk of these imports traverse by sea.

  24. H.R. Holm

    February 6, 2023 at 3:42 am

    @RecoveringRepublican OK, list all the times that the Chinese floated these balloons over the U.S. while Mr. Trump was President. Evidence/documentation, please? Dates, flight paths, any corroborating evidence. As reported by whom? If these had occured then, the media would have been all aflame over them. Just more baseless allegations from the ‘Orange Man Bad’ crow-crowd.

  25. H.R. Holm

    February 6, 2023 at 4:13 am

    @Luigi—–you really prove that ignorance is not necessarily bliss, and in your case total ignorance is just that. Your level of thinking on this matter is infantile. First of all, China does not have ‘millions’ of atomic/nuclear bombs, *no one does*, because that is impossible given the world’s total uranium/plutonium supply for starters. Second, contemporary nuclear weapons are custom-designed to be employed with precision by certain delivery platforms, and you show me the balloon that can deliver even a credible conventional explosive with even some precison. Never been done, never will be. Even the first bombs dropped on Japan required specialized training on a specialized aircraft with a specialized bomb-bay fitting, requiring split-second timing by the bombardier over the release point. You think that is going to be duplicated by an unmanned balloon from 60,000 feet? All nuclear weapons are designed to be delivered by missile, aircraft, artillery/gun, torpedo/depth bomb, (and possibly some day spacecraft), or ground emplacement by a special ops team trained to transport and handle them. And if China would otherwise find it so easy to use ‘millions’ of balloons (another lunatic notion), why bother deploying any of the other known, standard means, then? Now, an EMP device? Perhaps, but that would still require its own unique engineering, and would require being above a certain area for required effect. So we should definitedly consider and be wary of that possibility. But even that would provide no guarantee of success. And yes, we can shoot these balloons down. If an F-15 can hit a satellite, a big balloon like the one used should be no special challenge. After all, we did eventually shoot this specific one down in the end, reportedly.

  26. Dee_Hoss

    May 5, 2023 at 10:14 pm

    The author has this all wrong. Testing America’s reaction to anything is an idea far too stupid for a rational actor like China. Everyone knows the US over reacts to pretty much everything it’s one of our defining characteristics.

    The King of England raises taxes on tea.

    We dress up like Indians, dump all the tea in a harbor and tar and feather the poor tax collector.

    Spain may or may not (but 95% didn’t) attack a warship in port in Cuba.

    After kicking them out of the Caribbean we dismantle the last of their empire in the far East.

    Japan bombs Pearl Harbor.

    We nuke 2 cities. I’m a little surprised we didn’t nuke Tokyo)

    More recently some terrorists knock down a couple buildings.

    We invade 2 countries simultaneously on the opposite side of the planet.

    China is cunning and deceitful not stupid. They launched the balloon because they did it 3 times before and we either didn’t notice or care. Also satellites track a very predictable path, which is very expensive to alter even a little. Balloons are cheap and if we hadn’t cared in the past they figured why not? Now that we’ve reacted I highly doubt they do it again.

  27. Gary

    May 8, 2023 at 8:41 pm

    The Chinese government looked distinctly upset after the balloon was discovered. The government made whining demands that the U.S. not get upset, that it play nice in private talks about the event, and that it not shoot down the balloon. All this made China look weak, not strong.

    So the notion that it was a deliberate trial balloon is doubtful.

    Of course, when it comes to China, reciprocity is always a good tool of analysis: can you imagine how the Chinese government would react if a U.S. balloon in its airspace became public knowledge?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *