U.S. military failed to detect prior Chinese incursions, general says

REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
The Pentagon is seen from the air in Washington, U.S., March 3, 2022, more than a week after Russia invaded Ukraine.

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 back 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.

Spokespeople for VanHerck’s command did not immediately clarify whether NORAD’s past shortcomings constituted mission failure.

The Pentagon’s disclosure over the weekend that previous Chinese incursions occurred during Trump’s time in the White House was met with surprise by the former president and a number of 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.

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 about which former Trump officials have been offered such information to the intelligence community.

Biden administration officials have said at least three such flights took place during Trump’s tenure, with another occurring earlier during 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 surveillance 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 Saturday was about 200 feet tall and carrying equipment measuring roughly the size of a regional jet liner, VanHerck said, estimating its weight to be about 2,000 pounds. There is some hazardous material, like solar panel glass and batteries, among the debris he noted.

Efforts are underway to recover the wreckage, though VanHerck offered few details about what the United States has since learned 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.

Personnel aboard Navy and Coast Guard ships are sifting through a debris field measuring about 1,500 square 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 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, Va., 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 encounter remnants of the craft to contact authorities.