Top Air Force general says the U.S. failed to detect previous Chinese spy balloons

Top Air Force general says the U.S. failed to detect previous Chinese spy balloons

A suspected Chinese spy balloon flies near Charlotte, N.C., on February 04, 2023. Photo: Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Air Force general overseeing American air space admitted Monday that the military had failed to identify multiple Chinese surveillance balloons that flew over the U.S. in the past, calling it a “domain awareness gap.”

The big picture: A U.S. fighter jet shot down a Chinese spy balloon over the Atlantic Ocean on Saturday after it had floated across several states, raising concerns that China was collecting sensitive information on military sites.

Over the weekend, a senior defense official said Chinese government surveillance balloons had flown above the continental U.S. four other times in recent years — three times while former president Donald Trump was in office, and once under Biden — “but never for this duration of time.”Driving the news: “I will tell you that we did not detect those threats,” Air Force Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, head of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, said Monday of any previous balloons.

“That’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out,” VanHerck said in a briefing with reporters. “But I don’t want to go in further detail.”VanHerck said U.S. intelligence agencies relied on “additional means of collection” to retroactively identify the other balloons.He said the most recent balloon — which China has claimed was a civilian weather airship — was “up to 200 feet tall” with a payload comparable to that of a “regional jet.”Zoom out: VanHerck said that the U.S. “took maximum precaution to prevent” the balloon from collecting intelligence while it was above the country but declined to provide further details.

“We did not assess that it presented a significant collection hazard beyond what already exists in actionable technical means from the Chinese,” he said.He also said the balloon provided the U.S. an opportunity to collect intelligence on its purpose, capabilities, and more.The U.S. Navy on Monday continued to collect debris from the balloon, which will be used for further analysis. The balloon’s presence over the U.S. led Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel his upcoming travel to Beijing, which would have been the first trip to China for a top American diplomat in a half-dozen years.

The saga also prompted criticism of President Joe Biden from congressional Republicans, who accused him of acting too slowly to take down the balloon — but military leaders have said they delayed in part due to safety reasons.Go deeper: Everything we know about the China balloon

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