Veteran weighs in on balloons and air defense
Last updated 2/14/2023 at Noon
Sisters resident Jim Cunningham knows a thing or two about air defense. As a brigadier general in command of the Oregon National Guard from 2000 to 2006, he was responsible for patrolling the skies above the state, on the lookout for intrusion by any hostile force. He held that command in the tense days in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S.
As the U.S. shot down four “objects” — at least two of them clearly balloons — in the space of 10 days earlier this month, Cunningham has been looking on with interest. From his standpoint, there is no arguing that the balloon shot down over South Carolina waters was anything but a surveillance device.
“I don’t think it was, I know it was,” Cunningham told The Nugget. “It’s beyond circumstantial evidence now.”
Cunningham rejects the idea that the first balloon was a scientific launch with which the Chinese lost communications, a possibility presented last week in The Nugget by Steven Peterzen, who has conducted stratospheric ballooning missions for three decades. Cunningham notes that the balloon “loitered” over Malmstrom, F.E. Warren, and Whiteman Air Force bases.
“How do you explain stationary positioning over strategic targets?” he said.
Based on his background and experience, what does Cunningham believe the balloon was up to?
“My 32 years of prosecuting the air defense mission tells me that this specific balloon was launched in order to gather data and probe our defense reaction once it was detected,” he said.
As of press time, it was unclear what the subsequent three objects shot down by U.S. planes were or who they belonged to.
Cunningham believes that the spate of shoot-downs is designed to send a geo-political message, “to show (People’s Republic of China President Xi Jinping) and (Russian President) Vladimir Putin that we can respond and we have resolve.”
Showing resolve is important to Cunningham, who believes that the U.S. has failed to do so at critical junctures. He cites the August 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan as a case in point. He believes that the U.S. did need to leave the country where we had been fighting for two decades — but how we left, he believes, sent a dangerous message — abandoning allied personnel, billions of dollars in equipment, and strategic assets, primary among them Bagram Air Base.
“That was almost as consequential as the shot at Lexington and Concord — the ‘Shot Heard ’Round the World’,” he said. “I think the East interpreted that as the United States is in decline now.”
Cunningham considers the People’s Republic of China to be not merely an adversary, but an enemy, and showing lack of resolve before an enemy makes the U.S. vulnerable. He also believes that the U.S. has erred in “outsource(ing) critical strategic resources,” including rare earth materials, pharmaceuticals, and semi-conductors.
Cunningham cited another strategic reason for shooting down the objects.
“The other thing is to gather and reverse engineer the equipment these balloons were carrying,” he said.
The retired general and commercial airline pilot said that if he had been giving the orders, he would have shot down the first balloon over Eastern Montana, which he believes would have been safe, and facilitated easy recovery of the payload. Shooting it down over the Aleutian Islands in Alaskan airspace would have put it into deep, cold waters unsuitable for a recovery operation. The area off South Carolina where the balloon did come down allows for payload recovery by the equivalent of a commercial dive.
While the incidents of the past two weeks have exacerbated an already fraught U.S./Chinese relationship, Cunningham doesn’t expect the flurry of incidents to continue indefinitely.
“Now, it’s going to be pretty hard for anything to get in,” he said.
He does not believe any serious damage was done to American security.
“I’d say we got caught with our pants down to a minor degree,” he said. “Was much damage done? I don’t think so.”
Cunningham remains highly confident in the capabilities of U.S. air defense — particularly the unit he once commanded in Oregon.
“The best air defense system on the globe resides in this country,” he said. “You can take it to the bank. We’re the best at what we do.”