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‘I will take it down’: Biden rolls the dice in the not-so-friendly skies

‘I am not sure the president had any other choice,’ strategist says

President Joe Biden deplanes Air Force One in Hagerstown, Md., on Feb. 4.
President Joe Biden deplanes Air Force One in Hagerstown, Md., on Feb. 4. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

President Joe Biden has been playing with fire in the once-friendly skies.

Biden covered a lot of ground in remarks Thursday about four military shoot-downs of aerial objects, including the Chinese spy balloon. But there was one crucial detail he left out.

“Make no mistake, if any object presents a threat to the safety and security of the American people, I will take it down,” the commander in chief declared.

Biden did not tell us in much detail just how he would decide whether to shoot down future unidentified objects cruising over the homeland, saying only that he gave the four orders out of worries about civilian airliner safety and concerns the mysterious aircraft might be gathering sensitive information about national security facilities inside the United States.

After Biden ordered a second, then a third object to be shot down late last week, House Intelligence Chairman Michael R. Turner sounded relieved that the president and his team had, in the Ohio Republican’s words, turned “trigger-happy.”

“They do appear somewhat trigger-happy, although this is certainly preferable to the permissive environment that they showed when the Chinese spy balloon was coming over some of our most sensitive sites,” Turner told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. (A few hours after Turner’s remark, U.S. officials ordered the shoot-down of a fourth unidentified aircraft.)

“Trigger-happy” is a term almost always used as a pejorative — especially when discussing military operations. Typically, if a president or general is slapped with those words, members of Congress are warning they are being too risky, too scattershot, too beholden to a questionable and ultimately ineffective battlefield strategy.

“There’s always a risk factor. And we have to weigh that,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., said Thursday. “So that’s a big reason why the Chinese spy balloon was not shot down sooner. One of those reasons … was the risk factors involved on the ground.”

Senate Armed Services Committee member Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, this week described efforts to track and then eliminate relatively slow-moving, unidentified flying objects this way: “These are not easy missions. They’re complicated missions.”

Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill have been offering alternatives to Biden’s sudden shoot-first mentality.

“We have to fix our domain awareness challenges,” Sullivan said. “We have to have systems and capabilities that can pick up a slow-moving balloon, that can pick up a hypersonic missile that’s traveling, you know, eight, nine times the speed of sound, and that can pick up low-flying cruise missiles.”

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., also a Foreign Relations member, called the establishment of some international “rules of the road” for small aircraft traveling above 20,000 feet “a perfectly sensible response to a series of recent incidents where things were intercepted that may not have previously been as closely tracked, followed or understood.”

Lawmakers this week, after being briefed by national security and administration officials, made clear the briefers simply have no solid idea — yet — what the heck they’ve been ordering fighter pilots to blast out of the skies.

“We don’t know if they were actually collecting intelligence,” Austin told reporters in Brussels this week.

John Kirby, a National Security Council spokesman, on Monday left open the possibility that American fighter jets shot down “benign” aircraft that were floating around doing “legitimate” corporate functions. “Even though we had no indications that any of these three objects were surveilling, we couldn’t rule that out,” Kirby said of the most recent three objects Biden ordered to be taken down.

Biden said Thursday the second, third and fourth objects, based on initial analyses, appear to belong to private firms and research institutions and were performing perfectly legal functions. That finding underscores just how much officials are giving off that unmistakable aura of making up the shoot-don’t shoot metric as they go.

No wonder lawmakers in both parties are pleading for more information.

When asked about a Sidewinder missile that missed its UFO target Sunday over Lake Huron, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley did this week cast some light on how the military goes about planning for a shoot-down.

“We go to great lengths to make sure that the airspace is clear and the backdrop is …. clear to the max effective range of the missile. And in this case … the missile landed harmlessly in the water of Lake Huron. We tracked it all the way down. And we made sure that the airspace was clear of any commercial, civilian or recreational traffic,” the Army four-star general said.

“We do the same thing for the maritime space. So we’re very, very deliberate in our planning,” he added. “So we’re very, very careful to make sure that those shots are, in fact, safe. And that’s the guidance from the president: Shoot it down but make sure we minimize collateral damage and we preserve the safety of the American people.”

Operative word: minimize.

As a student of war, Milley was careful — not to mention wise — to make no guarantees. But he and senior Biden administration officials still have not clearly explained how they will decide to shoot things down over the homeland, something that hasn’t happened since NORAD and U.S. Northern Command were created.

“This is pretty extraordinary,” Senate Intelligence Vice Chairman Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said in a video posted Tuesday on Twitter. “For the first time in 65 years, the United States has shot something down over our airspace — not once but four times.”

The more times American fighter planes try shooting down a small object over the homeland, the greater the odds that something could go catastrophically wrong.

Oftentimes, the big screen, when a film is done correctly, serves up accurate portrayals of armed conflict — and, make no mistake, America is at war with spy balloons and what some aviation experts call “sky trash.” Perhaps we’ll soon be debating whether Biden’s Global War on these objects has become a dangerous quagmire — especially since a single Sidewinder missile costs $400,000 of U.S. taxpayer money.

With one lethal Sidewinder already missing its whatever-the-heck-it-was target, U.S. officials should heed a warning from Rear Adm. Joshua Painter — portrayed by the late Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn. — in the 1990 film “The Hunt for Red October.”

This business will get out of control,” Painter said after a combat jet crashed on the aircraft carrier he was commanding. “It will get out of control and we’ll be lucky to live through it.”

For Biden, his approach also could create new political risks as he mulls a reelection bid, with Sidewinder missiles zooming over the homes of voters. But some Democrats say he chose the best of several bad options.

“I am not sure the president had any other choice but to order the military to shoot down the surveillance balloons,” Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist, said in an email. “I would rather take the hits that are already coming, accusing the administration of overreacting rather than not doing anything.”

Cardin was more blunt when asked about the missed Sidewinder shot: “If that object would have run into a commercial flight and caused multiple casualties, we would not be talking about that.”

But on the other hand, what if a malfunctioning Sidewinder did?

Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett reports and writes the subscription-based CQ Afternoon Briefing newsletter. Parts of this report first appeared there.

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