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February 4, 2023

Many Americans may react casually to the startling news that a Chinese reconnaissance balloon is drifting unmolested over the American Midwest. Because the blood sport of international politics is seldom presented honestly either by the legacy media or their allies in academe, the average citizen might be lulled into thinking that this latest violation of US sovereignty is something that only diplomats care about. After all, isn’t US sovereignty violated every day by thousands of illegal border-crossers – to say nothing of the Mexican drug cartels? And what can a reconnaissance balloon see that cannot also be viewed by a score of commercial reconnaissance satellites licensed by Google Earth?

True enough, but the real significance of this event lies in what it suggests about the current state of our deterrence, i.e., that elusive quality dissuading your adversary from attacking because he believes you have both the capability and intent to retaliate. For years, the numerically superior Soviet Army was deterred from attacking US and NATO forces in Western Europe because they correctly believed that American nuclear weapons would quickly act as a trigger to counter any Russian advance. That balance of terror endured throughout the Cold War but where do we stand today? Think of that reconnaissance balloon as an upraised Chinese middle finger pointed directly at Joe Biden.

Equally alarming is the Pentagon’s craven reluctance to bring down the balloon. That institutional obstinacy clearly demonstrates that a whole new mind-set holds sway in which any defense consideration must give way to the possibility of damaging the environment - even in wide-open Montana! In my thirty -year career spent in and around our intelligence establishment, we always relished the chance to acquire intact the intelligence -gathering technologies of our adversaries. What in the world can our latter-day successors be thinking when they studiously avoid even the possibility of recovering that reconnaissance balloon and systematically examining its intelligence systems? It might even help to even the score with Chinese intelligence with their long track record of reverse-engineering American defense technologies.

American deterrence is in trouble, whether it results from Joe Biden’s abysmal foreign policy record (including the Afghanistan debacle) or those persistent character issues belatedly coming under media scrutiny. It is hard to escape that admittedly grim conclusion when enemies on every side no longer fear us as they once did. Well so what, you might ask, can’t we avoid those consequences by just being more cautious in our foreign policy? Maybe but also remember that Ukraine is up for grabs, so is Taiwan and who knows what mischief the Iranians or the North Koreans have in mind: But rest assured that all of those powers are watching us closely! It reminds me of those timeless questions once posed by Sean Connery in The Untouchables as he explained Chicago gangland tactics to young Eliot Ness. “He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send two of his to the morgue. What exactly are you prepared to do, Mr. Ness?”

Whenever deterrence seems to be failing, the central question is about timing, specifically how much time do we have to prepare before hostilities commence?  Veteran defense analyst Bill Gertz has been following the especially lively debate kicked off when Air Force General Michael Minihan recently told his command that “my gut tells me we will fight (China) in 2025.” By any measure his stunning admission attracted more than its share of cautions, reservations and shade-throwing from Pentagon higher-ups. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin conceded that, while Chinese air and naval harassment of Taiwan “is some very provocative behavior” that might be an attempt to create “a new normal. …But whether or not that means an invasion is imminent, I seriously doubt that.”

Another respected defense policy analyst, Jed Babbin, argues that, despite the increasing evidence of Chinese preparations for war, the Biden administration has only created more uncertainty while trying to find “the right approach.” Written shortly before the appearance of the Chinese reconnaissance balloon, Babbin offered a blunt conclusion: “We are sleepwalking to war with China. While (the generals and admirals) are sending up warnings, Mr. Biden and congressional Democrats are ignoring them. We have to do better but Mr. Biden apparently has no intention of doing so.”

Having watched eerily similar oversights from my home close to our overrun southern border, one can only speculate that Mr. Biden’s lamentable presidency may be best remembered for its twin pillars of indolence and incompetence.

Colonel Kenneth Allard, United States Army (Ret.) is a Vietnam-era draftee who became a West Point professor and Dean of the National War College. He is also the author of Command, Control and the Common Defense, winner of the 1991 National Security Book Award. After leaving active duty, he served for nearly a decade as an on-air military analyst for the networks of NBC News.

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