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Washington is in a state of confusion about balloons and other unidentified flying objects, four of which have already been shot down. What is their purpose? Will there be more to deal with? Where are they all coming from and at who’s command?

The general consensus around Washington, voiced by Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, is that all of the “objects” are balloons, even though the White House denounced Schumer for saying so.

Likewise, there is a general understanding that all of these “objects” were different types of Chinese balloons.

The latest shootdown, as of February 12, was a balloon hexagonal in shape that was shot down over Lake Huron. This balloon is known to have traversed Montana, like earlier ones, operating over US strategic missile emplacements at Malmstrom Air Force Base.

That is one of three sites on US territory where Minuteman III MIRV missiles are emplaced in underground silos. The other two are at Minot, North Dakota and Francis E Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming.

It would appear from the White House complaint to Schumer that there is keen interest at the level of the National Security Council, the State Department and Pentagon to try and downplay China’s balloon operations.

It is, for example, more than abundantly clear that these intrusions have been ongoing for at least a few years and have been systematically covered up. The only reasonable explanation for what amounts to a cover-up is to not end up in a confrontation with China.

The main question, however, is why is China so intent on surveilling US strategic bases and missile defenses?

The answer could be that China is either preparing a first-strike capability against the US homeland or is preparing to checkmate the US if it threatens to intervene in Chinese affairs, or both.

China now has a bigger ICBM capability than the US and most of them are solid-state rockets that can be launched quickly on demand.

Unlike US reliance on missile silos and nuclear submarines, neither of which is a first strike system, the Chinese deployment combines fixed hardened launch sites with ICBMs that can move about on rail lines or roadways, making them hard to find and destroy.

Historically, the US has relied on the mutually assured destruction paradigm for security against nuclear attack. Known as the MAD doctrine, it worked reasonably well during the Cold War period, so much so that both the US and Russia (USSR) agreed to limitations on missile numbers and ballistic missile defenses.

Unlike Russia and the US, however, China never participated in missile limitations and has recently been rapidly growing its tactical and strategic nuclear missile capabilities.

The latest balloon over Lake Huron that was shot down probably is only the balloon component. Pilots tasked with destroying the balloon saw “strings” or wires hanging from the octagonal object, suggesting that the payload had already been detached and perhaps destroyed.

The first large balloon that flew across the United States and was shot down over Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, appears to have had an explosives package designed to destroy the payload before it could be recovered.

In video of that balloon takedown, a secondary explosion can clearly be heard well after the AIM-9X disintegrated the balloon. The latest Lake Huron balloon may be a repeat performance. There is no public information on the other two shot down, one off Alaska’s northern coast and the other over Canadian airspace.

Until some of the instrumentation is recovered, US authorities won’t know about the balloons’ capabilities. It is even less likely that the public will get the straight story. To date, the US record is to hide the facts and admit far less than is already known.

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“The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.”

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