The top U.S. general responsible for protecting North American skies said Monday that past incursions by Chinese balloons went undetected by the Pentagon, exposing what he characterized as a worrisome deficiency that must be addressed.
The Defense Department has acknowledged that the craft shot down Saturday off the South Carolina coast after a days-long journey across the U.S. mainland marked at least the fifth time in recent years that Beijing has breached the nation’s airspace using such technology. Officials informed lawmakers over the weekend that, dating to Donald Trump’s presidency, there had been similar breaches near Texas, Florida, Hawaii and Guam.
“As NORAD commander, it’s my responsibility to detect threats to North America,” Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, who oversees the North American Aerospace Defense Command, told reporters during a news briefing. “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 declined to elaborate, saying only that it was the U.S. intelligence community that “made us aware of those balloons” after the fact.
President Biden on Feb. 6 said that it was always his position to shoot down a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon. (Video: The Washington Post)
Spokespeople for VanHerck’s command did not immediately clarify whether NORAD’s past shortcomings constituted mission failure.
The revelations have caused a firestorm in Washington, and intensified long-simmering friction between the U.S. and Chinese governments, leading the Biden administration late last week to postpone a trip to Beijing by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. China has insisted the most recent incursion was unintended, claiming the airship was merely collecting weather data when it was blown off course.
The Pentagon’s disclosure that previous Chinese incursions occurred during Trump’s time in the White House was met with disbelief by the former president and came as a surprise to senior officials who held prominent national security posts in his administration. VanHerck’s acknowledgment appeared to offer a plausible explanation for how that may have happened.
Two former defense officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that the earlier balloons may have initially been characterized by the Pentagon as “unidentified aerial phenomena,” mysterious craft that the Defense Department cannot fully explain.
The Biden administration has “reached out to key officials from the previous administration and offered them briefings on the forensics we did” on Chinese balloon flights that took place when Trump was in office, John Kirby, the National Security Council strategic communications coordinator, said earlier Monday.
“We did this in good faith,” Kirby told reporters. He said the briefings have not yet taken place, referring questions to the intelligence community about which former Trump officials have been offered such information.
Biden administration officials have said at least three such flights took place during Trump’s tenure, with another occurring earlier in President Biden’s time in office, in February 2022.
“I can’t speak to what awareness there was in the previous administration,” Kirby said. “I can tell you that we discovered these flights after we came into office.” The previous flights were “brief” and “nothing like we saw last week,” he said.
As U.S. military officials tracked last week’s incident, Canadian officials indicated they were monitoring whether a second balloon was aloft over their airspace. VanHerck said during Monday’s news conference that he dispatched Canadian CF-18 jets assigned to NORAD to investigate but that they found nothing. On Friday, the Pentagon disclosed that a second balloon had been discovered over Latin America. The Washington Post reported over the weekend that a third was being monitored elsewhere.
The craft shot down into the Atlantic Ocean on Saturday was about 200 feet tall and carrying equipment measuring roughly the size of a regional jetliner, VanHerck said, estimating its weight to be about 2,000 pounds.
Efforts are underway to recover the wreckage, though VanHerck offered few details Monday about what the United States has learned thus far about China’s intent or the technology it used. It is too early to tell how much of the craft will be salvageable, he said, though responders have already collected some components.
FBI personnel will analyze recovered parts, officials have said.
VanHerck said there could be hazardous material among the wreckage, including solar-panel glass and batteries, so recovery crews are proceeding cautiously. Though they had no assessment there were explosives on board, the general said it was appropriate for crews on the scene to proceed as though there could be.
Personnel aboard Navy and Coast Guard ships are sifting through a debris field measuring about 1,500 meters by 1,500 meters, the general said. Rough seas slowed the salvage effort on Sunday, which is taking place in about 50 feet of water.
On Monday, VanHerck said, Navy teams were working from inflatable boats as part of the search, and they are likely to deploy unmanned underwater vehicles, or UUVs, he said.
The search is led by personnel aboard the USS Carter Hall, an amphibious ship based in the Norfolk area. Shipping data on Monday showed it sailing in neat rows, indicating an apparent line search, more than 10 miles off the coast of Myrtle Beach, S.C. The Carter Hall is joined by other vessels, including the USNS Pathfinder, an oceanographic ship that will map the bottom of the Atlantic where the majority of the debris splashed down and sank, VanHerck said. Coast Guard aircraft flying from Elizabeth City, N.C., and Savannah, Ga., also are involved.
Some debris may float ashore, the general added, asking anyone who encounters remnants of the craft to contact authorities.
Charlie “Tuna” Moore, who retired from the Air Force as a three-star general in October, leaving as the No. 2 official at U.S. Cyber Command, described such craft as far more sophisticated than the name “balloon” implies. They’re maneuverable. They can hover in place for long periods of time. They can capture images. “All you have to do is swap out sensor packages that are hanging out beneath the apparatus, and you could pretty much do any type of mission you wanted with technology that’s available today,” he said.
Balloons, Moore said, can carry a mix of intelligence-gathering mechanisms and operate at altitudes lower than satellites, providing an adversary intent on spying greater flexibility and potentially better image resolution. The Chinese military’s use of surveillance balloons in the Indo-Pacific region was known to U.S. military officials for the past couple of years, he said.