Because Americans tend to take our security for granted, it takes a lot to wake us up when new threats appear. Pearl Harbor was one of those calamities, depression-weary Americans confident that the Japanese would never dare to attack our mid-Pacific Gibraltar. Were those people even allowed to have aircraft carriers? Six decades later, a similar naivete became the backdrop for 911. On that sparkling September morning, it seemed inconceivable that Arab terrorists could successfully attack the World Trade Center, killing even more innocents than at Pearl Harbor. Working then as a military analyst for NBC News, I was repeatedly asked an unanswerable question, “Colonel, why do those people hate us?”
Now we are athwart another historical sticking point since it appears that our national security infrastructure has gaping holes– from porous, overrun borders extending from south to north as well as a new, 4100-mile diagonal aerial slash from our northwest to southeastern coasts. Because George W. Bush and his cohorts failed to mobilize the country after 911, less than half of one percent of Americans even wear our country’s uniform. Because of that poor choice, a generation later we have become a nation of militarily illiterate, long-distance kibitzers, somehow unable to grasp that we are traversing snake country until hearing that chilling rattle shockingly close to our path.
As in previous disasters, those preliminary reports about the Chinese spy balloon are only getting worse. After White House briefers first claimed the Trump administration had missed at least three previous Chinese balloon forays, the four-star general heading the US Northern Command (responsible for overall defense of the American continent) belatedly stepped forward. Actually, those previous balloon flights had been made but, “We did not detect those threats, and that’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out, but I don’t want to go into further detail.” https://www.militarytimes.com/news/your-military/2023/02/06/us-military-failed-to-detect-previous-spy-balloons-from-china/?utm_campaign=dfn-ebb&utm_medium=email&utm_source=sailthru&SToverlay=2002c2d9-c344-4bbb-8610-e5794efcfa7d
Got that? As our intelligence and security agencies dithered and dickered over ambiguous data and preliminary conclusions, they allowed a “domain awareness gap” to persist over our strategic airspace, a vulnerability the Chinese exploited aggressively. See how adept our generals have become at assigning absurd titles to their most grotesque military failures? How much are we paying these guys, anyway? And wouldn’t the Republic survive just as well (or even better!) if some of those four-star generals became three-star generals?
Instead of their Powerpoint briefing charts, those generals and the precocious staffers who support them might do well to review some ancient but still relevant history. In his foreword to Roberta Schelling’s classic history of Perl Harbor, Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling wrote, “Surprise , when it happens to a government, is likely to be complicated, diffuse, bureaucratic thing…(While) the results at Pearl Harbor were sudden, concentrated, and dramatic…(the) failure, however, was cumulative, widespread and rather drearily familiar..” (Roberta Wohlstetter, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, Stanford Univ. Press, 1962, p.viii)
Pearl Harbor happened primarily because the government agencies charged with our defense were neither required nor expected to communicate with one another. After comprehensive legislative reform and 60 years of exhaustive experience, 911 was a startling example that those “domain awareness gaps” were recurring problems particularly resistant to reform. In the 21st century, the Chinese spy balloon is another wake-up call that sluggish decision-making and risk avoidance are our collective scourge. Like it or not, one has to admire the boldness and aggressiveness of the Chinese initiative. While both sides had comparable technology and geo-political positions, the PRC pursued their goals with an aggressiveness and determination that must be studied and respected.
As always, the United States faces must recognize that we are no longer the only super-power. Confronting China as our principal adversary - while never forgetting Russia - means honing our national nervous system, particularly the extended kill-chain running from forward sensors to drones to national decision-makers. First of all, it is vital to convene an inter-agency after-action review: Who knew what and when; who ordered what actions; and how our deterrence of the Chinese intelligence and military machines can be pursued. Bottom line: What assets do the PRC value most and how best can they be placed at risk?
It was not especially surprising that President Biden hardly mentioned any of these dilemmas in his State of the Union address, despite their implications for war and peace. Far better for him to lead by example, determining first to perform more effectively as our National Command Authority: He hardly could have done any worse.