The U.S. military failed to detect at least three Chinese spy balloon flights over the United States in recent years but that does not represent an intelligence failure, the Pentagon said Wednesday.
Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told a news conference that the U.S. has gathered extensive information about the Chinese surveillance balloons over time and will be able to detect them in the future.
Ryder said that “in terms of monitoring these and collecting on them, we have been able to put together a body of knowledge that enables us to be able to detect them and act.”
“It was not an intelligence failure,” Ryder said.
Ryder accused China of violating the sovereign airspace of the U.S. and other countries with what he called a global spy balloon program but declined to provide more details about previous incursions by Chinese airships over the U.S.
U.S. officials said previously that there were at least three Chinese balloon flights over American territory during the former Trump administration and another during the Biden administration.
Ryder gave no further details about the routes of those flights or other information, but said the U.S. government later determined some of those sightings were Chinese high-altitude spy balloons.
“What we do know is that in some cases, whereas some of these balloons previously had not been identified, subsequent analysis, subsequent intelligence analysis did enable us to indicate that these were Chinese balloons,” Ryder said.
He added, “We’ve acknowledged publicly that we know that they were looking to surveil strategic sites, to include some of our strategic bases in the continental United States.”
Ryder repeated the administration’s portrayal of the Chinese balloon program as a global operation with a fleet of surveillance balloons spotted over North America, Latin America, South America, Southeast Asia, East Asia and Europe. But he declined to offer more specifics, including whether the balloons have flown over or near U.S. military sites abroad.
Asked if the balloons flying in other parts of the world are similar to the one shot down last week off the coast of South Carolina, Ryder said the balloons are all surveillance airships gathering intelligence but that they vary in size and capability.
U.S. Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, the commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and U.S. Northern Command, said Monday that Chinese balloon threats went undetected by the U.S. in recent years, calling it a “gap” that needed to be addressed.
“I will tell you that we did not detect those threats. And that’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out,” VanHerck said.
A fighter jet passes a large balloon off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday.Chad Fish via APSecretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking at a news conference Wednesday with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, said he expected the administration would have more information to share soon about China’s surveillance balloon program.
“We will have more to say about that in the days ahead. We are getting more information almost by the hour as we continue to work to salvage the balloon,” Blinken said, referring to an effort to recover debris from the downed balloon in the Atlantic.
The Biden administration is working on declassifying U.S. intelligence that includes details of China’s flying surveillance balloons above dozens of other countries around the world, NBC News reported Tuesday, citing three administration officials.
Dan De Luce
Dan De Luce is a reporter for the NBC News Investigative Unit.