China and the strange history of balloon warfare

1 month ago The Spectator Australia

China’s ‘spy’ balloon, (or is it an errant weather balloon?), is currently being tracked across America. Picked up above the Aleutian Islands, it was buzzed by US planes above Montana and is now headed eastwards as it is pushed by the prevailing Jet Stream. The Pentagon has decided not to shoot it down; it does not want debris landing on middle America. China insists the balloon is used for meteorological research and strayed because of bad weather. But the incident has prompted US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone his trip to China that was scheduled for next week.

Was the balloon inspired by Japan’s Emperor Hirohito? Starting in November 1944 the Japanese army sent Fu-Go (Operation Fu) balloon bombs across the Pacific from various sites along the east coast of Japan’s main island of Honshu. The idea was to start forest fires in the northern states of America. During the five-month campaign some 9,300 Fu-go bombs were launched of which about 385 are thought to have made to the US. They carried several 11-lb incendiaries and a 33-lb bomb.

The balloons were made of washi, the beautiful paper from mulberry bushes that Japan still produces today albeit for more artistic purposes. The washi strips were then glued together by Japanese high school girls and the balloons were brought for final assembly at Ryogoku Kokugikan, the sumo wrestling arena in Tokyo.

They were a pathetically inaccurate weapon. The bomb balloons were found as far apart as North Dakota and Hawaii. One reached as far east as Michigan. There were no reports of forest fires despite Japanese propaganda claims. But there were casualties. Elsie Mitchell, the wife of a preacher, was killed along with five young children when they stumbled upon one of the balloon bombs during a picnic in Fremont National Park in Oregon. It is thought that one of the kids kicked it. They died instantly.

However, one of the bombs did significant damage of some strategic importance. By extraordinary luck rather than judgment one of Hirohito’s bombs landed on the power lines that fed the Hanford Engineer Works located in Washington State. This top-secret facility, part of the Manhattan Project, was producing the plutonium later used in Fat Man, the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki in August 1945. Fortunately for the US – though perhaps not Japan – the reactors were only shut for three days.

Overall however, Hirohito’s balloons were one of those useless fantasy weapons that Japan used in desperation to turn around its fortunes in the Pacific War. Why, then, might Beijing be turning to balloons in its ongoing tussle with the US? Chinese state media is following the balloon’s flight closely; ‘If balloons from other countries could really enter continental US smoothly, or even enter the sky over certain states, it only proves that the US’s air defence system is completely a decoration and cannot be trusted,’ the paper said.

Whatever is going on, the balloon isn’t a one off: ‘this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years,’ the Pentagon said. The current Chinese projectile is the latest episode then in the long history of balloon warfare. They were first used as military signalling devices by chancellor Zhuge Liang, a famous Han dynasty leader in the 3rd Century. He is still celebrated in China’s annual Lantern Festival. In Europe, silk balloons were used in the wars of the French Revolution, though Napoleon did not think much of them and disbanded the specialist balloon brigade in 1799.

Fifty years after that Austrian Hapsburg forces dropped bombs from balloons onto Venice during the First Italian War of Independence. Twelve years later, the Union Army of General Irving McDowell used a balloon for artillery observation at the First Battle of Bull Run; they were frequently used thereafter by both Union and Confederate Forces including engagements at Sharpsburg and Fredericksburg.

Britain used balloons to support Imperial adventures in current day Botswana and the Sudan; 15 year later the British Army used them in the Second Boer War, notably at the Siege of Ladysmith in Natal Province.

Such was the fear of balloons that they were banned in the 1899 Hague Convention’s article IV, ‘Declaration of Projectiles from Balloons’ which stated that ‘the contracting powers agree to prohibit, for a term of five years, the launching of projectiles and explosives from balloons or by other new methods of a similar nature.’ The Convention made a timely bid to future proof bombing from the air. Studies on manned flight were already being circulated, though it was four later, in 1903, that the Wright brother made their first powered flight.

Despite the Hague’s best efforts, the proliferation of balloons, and more importantly military aircraft, doomed the banning of bombing. Only desultory attempts were made thereafter. Bizarrely it was Hitler who tried to ban bombing in a proposal to Britain and France in 1936.

Two years later at a meeting in Hitler’s apartment, it was suggested to Neville Chamberlain the idea of bombing women and children was abhorrent – even though it was Hitler’s Condor Legion, commanded by Wolfram von Richthofen, that bombed the ancient Basque town of Guernica on General Franco’s behalf on 26 April 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. Later, of course, Great Britain had to use blimps to defend London from Hitler’s V2 rockets.

In this bizarre balloon episode, Xi Jinping’s name will now be added to the role call of dastardly leaders who have used their intimidatory power. But don’t expect balloon limitation talks anytime soon.

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