Former Defense Secretary Suggests US Should Respond to China's 'Brazen Act' and Bring Down Balloon


The news that a suspected Chinese spy balloon is hovering over the continental U.S. has sparked a conversation about how to respond.

Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper appeared on CNN’s “This Morning” Friday and discussed the stunning development amid heightened tensions between the two countries.

When asked if he agreed with the decision not to shoot the balloon down, Esper said, “First of all, I’m surprised by all this. I think it’s a brazen act by the Chinese to do this.”

“We were just talking about whether or not it has more or less intelligence value than what they currently have. I don’t think we know,” he continued. “And so my interest would be not necessarily shooting it down but bringing it down so we can capture the equipment and understand exactly what they’re doing. Are they taking pictures? Are they intercepting signals? What are they doing, and what is the level of technical capability?”

He added, “Now, failing that, I would definitely shoot it down, provided that there’s no risk to people on the ground.”

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Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder revealed on Thursday, “The United States government has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now.”

“The balloon is currently traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground. Instances of this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years,” he added. “Once the balloon was detected, the U.S. government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.”

The balloon was hovering over Montana this week and Pentagon officials considered shooting it down. However, there are apparently concerns debris could hit people on the ground.

The New York Times notes Montana is “home to the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, one of three American Air Force bases that operate and maintain intercontinental ballistic missiles.”

China claims the object is a “civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes” that has “limited self-steering capability” and “deviated far from its planned course.”

A spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry said, “The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace due to force majeure. The Chinese side will continue communicating with the U.S. side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure.”

It seems odd the balloon would be a spy ship. It would be a brazen act to send a surveillance balloon into the U.S. as though it would not be noticed.

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But the explanation it is a weather craft should not be taken on its face. The U.S. cannot just let foreign aircraft that may be collecting intelligence hover near its bomber bases and send it on its way.

We obviously do not know everything the Pentagon knows about the craft and what it is really doing.

Still, it is not exactly clear what the argument is for not trying to capture the balloon or shoot it down. The U.S. is a large country. Presumably, there is an area where it could be shot down without the risk of debris hitting people.

Perhaps officials believe they have sufficiently acted to prevent it from gathering intelligence. Or perhaps they have determined the craft is not actually collecting intelligence, and it was truly an accident that led the balloon to float into the country’s airspace.

Still, the risk of bringing down an unmanned craft hovering near a military installation home to intercontinental ballistic missiles seems relatively low.

And simply for the principle of protecting the sovereignty of the country’s territory and airspace, it would make sense to either try to capture or shoot down the balloon.

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