A senior U.S. general in charge of taking down a Chinese spy balloon stated on Monday that the military had not noticed prior spy balloons until the one that surfaced on Jan 28.
The Pentagon stated during the weekend that Chinese spy balloons have flown over the U.S. at least 4 times, 3 of which took place during President Trump’s tenure and one during President Biden’s.
VanHerck claimed, “I will tell you that we did not detect those threats, and that’s a domain awareness gap.”
Gen. Glen VanHerck, the head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and Northern Command in the U.S. Air Force, stated that the latest spy balloon was 200 feet tall and carried a payload weighing a few thousand pounds.
Gen. VanHerck added that U.S. intelligence was able to determine the past flights through “additional means of collection” of intelligence, but did not provide additional information on the sources, whether it be cyber espionage, telephone intercepts, or human intelligence.
Senior U.S. officials have offered to provide the former administration with details about the previous balloon overflights during President Trump’s term. Republican Rep. Michael Waltz, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, stated on Sunday that the Pentagon informed him of multiple Chinese balloon incidents that occurred in recent years, including over Florida.
The U.S. Air Force shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the South Carolina coast on Saturday, a week after it entered U.S. airspace and sparked a public espionage incident that worsened U.S.-China relations.
Gen. VanHerck did not rule out the possibility of explosives on the balloon, but stated that he did not have any evidence to support it.
However, this risk was taken into consideration in his decision to shoot the balloon down over open water. The mission involved multiple fighter and refueling aircraft, but only an F-22 fighter jet from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia took the shot, using a single AIM-9X supersonic, heat-seeking air-to-air missile.
The debris was collected from an area of roughly 1,500 meters by 1,500 meters and a number of military vessels are assisting with the recovery. The U.S. Coast Guard announced a temporary security zone in the waters off Surfside Beach, South Carolina, where the balloon was shot down.
The condition of the payload of spying sensors carried by the balloon after it crashed into the ocean is unknown, which will determine the success of the shoot-down from an intelligence-gathering perspective.
National security experts are now saying that the spy balloon’s path may have been a strategy to better map out and understand the location of U.S. missile silos and other artillery.
According to the Daily Wire, Director of the Hudson Institute Center for Defense Concepts Bryan Clark said that the balloon may have not been “a direct threat” but could have allowed China to “obtain close-up visual imagery from different angles.”
“That could improve China’s ability to target U.S. missile silos and better understand the construction and layout of U.S. bomber bases in places like Montana and North Dakota where the balloon is flying,” Clark said.