General says Air Force didn’t take immediate action ‘because it was not demonstrating a hostile act or hostile intent’U.S. Northern Command Commander Gen. Glen VanHerck said Monday the Pentagon now believes there were four prior incursions into U.S. airspace by Chinese surveillance balloons. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 6, 2023 at 6:30pm
U.S. military leaders detected late last month what they surmised was a Chinese surveillance balloon entering Alaskan airspace, but they chose not to shoot it down at that time because it was not considered a lethal danger, a top U.S. general told reporters Monday.
“It was my assessment that this balloon did not present a physical military threat to North America,” said Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, the commander of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command. “Therefore, I could not take immediate action because it was not demonstrating a hostile act or hostile intent.”
VanHerck later got approval to intercept the balloon, which occurred in the Atlantic Ocean off South Carolina on Saturday, but only after it had spent several days transiting across the U.S. heartland. The U.S. Navy launched a search Monday in the waters off South Carolina for remnants of what officials said was the balloon’s surveillance equipment.
VanHerck acknowledged there were four previous incursions into U.S. airspace by Chinese balloons in recent years and prior to this latest one. He disclosed that his command was not aware of any of the incidents at the time but was only told about them later — once U.S. intelligence analysts had discovered the events after the fact.
“I will tell you that we did not detect those threats, and that’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out,” he said of the previous incursions.
Bucking up to buckle down
The additional revelations about Chinese spy balloons will be digested now by a Congress that is likely to be more focused on the Chinese threat than lawmakers were before last week’s sky-high drama.
How that heightened focus will manifest itself in defense budgets and policy remains to be seen. But early clues could come Tuesday at a House Armed Services Committee hearing titled “The Pressing Threat of the Chinese Communist Party to U.S. National Defense.”
The witnesses are Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., a former commander of U.S. Pacific Command and former ambassador to South Korea, and Melanie W. Sisson, a foreign policy fellow at The Brookings Institution.
Tuesday’s hearing is the first since the Chinese balloon captured Americans’ attention, and it will provide a live look at how members are processing what appears to be the latest — and, to the public, most visible — instance of Chinese intelligence-gathering on U.S. targets.
The incident seems likely to bolster the arguments of defense budget hawks, especially when it comes to aerospace and maritime systems that are important to countering China. These could include radars and satellites for monitoring threats, cyber defenses, anti-missile systems and more.
The Armed Services committees in both chambers have been looking to refocus attention on the threat from Beijing — not to diminish support for backing Ukraine’s war against Russian aggression but in addition to that challenge, aides say.
On Thursday, all senators are invited to a classified briefing on the Chinese surveillance balloon, according to a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.
Meanwhile, Sen. Jon Tester, chairman of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, has promised a hearing of that panel focused on the Chinese balloon incursion.
The Montana Democrat’s state, which is home to many of the Air Force’s land-based nuclear missiles, was one of the first U.S. states to be overflown by the Chinese balloon.
“I will be pulling people before my committee to get real answers on how this happened, and how we can prevent it from ever happening again,” Tester said in a Friday statement.
Debris in the ocean
The Chinese balloon that lofted across America last week was some 200 feet tall and carried at its base a set of equipment the size of a regional commercial jet that weighed “a couple of thousand pounds” and would have posed a risk to citizens if it had been downed over land, VanHerck said. It might have also contained self-destructive explosives, he noted.
As the balloon overflew America, the U.S. military was able to shield its assets from the balloon’s spying apparatus, VanHerck said, without elaborating as to how.
Meanwhile, U.S. military and intelligence agencies were able to gather information about the Chinese balloon, including its “transmission capabilities,” the general said.
On Sunday, the waters off South Carolina where the remnants of the balloon’s cargo had fallen the previous day were still too rough to try to collect debris, VanHerck said.
But on Monday morning, ships with the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard, joined by personnel from other agencies, including FBI counterintelligence agents, were able to begin collecting the debris in an area of water the general described as “15 football fields by 15 football fields.” The ships had one or more unmanned underwater vessels, he said.
Explosive ordnance disposal teams were also involved because of the possibility of explosives in the water.
It sounded as if the retrieval process could take days, but VanHerck did not put a timeline on it.
Also on Monday, John Kirby, chief spokesman for the White House National Security Council, told reporters the balloon had further damaged already “tense” relations between the U.S. and China. Amid the incursion, the State Department announced that Secretary of State Antony Blinken would postpone a planned visit to Beijing.
“This balloon incident has done nothing to help improve the U.S.-China bilateral relationship,” Kirby said. “And now’s just not the appropriate time for us to have those sort of face-to-face discussions with them on larger diplomatic issues.”