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China spy balloon episode a Sputnik learning moment for America, black eye for Pentagon

Some security experts fear China was conducting a vulnerability assessment to see how U.S. air defenses would react to a threat from an object that looked like a weather balloon.

Published: February 6, 2023 7:00pm

Updated: February 6, 2023 11:06pm

The weeklong televised drama over the high-altitude spy balloon that traversed U.S. skies before being shot down by fighter jets may be this generation's Sputnik moment, alerting Americans to the dangers of rising Chinese aggression while also raising troubling questions about the Pentagon's ability to protect the nation's airspace.

Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, the commander for NORAD air defenses, bluntly acknowledged Monday that his vaunted command simply failed to detect several Chinese spy balloons that incurred U.S. air space prior to the one shot down Saturday off the South Carolina coast.

In classic Pentagon-speak, VanHerck called the failure to detect the earlier spy balloon incursions a "domain awareness gap" that needed to be closed.

It's a gap definitely raising serious questions inside Congress about how NORAD, with all of its vaunted capabilities, could fail to detect an object that the Pentagon admitted was about 200-feet tall and weighing as much as a regional airliner.

Some also see failure in the Biden administration's handling of the episode, citing its failure to brief the president for three days, then keeping it from the public for several more days before finally reacting when national television made it a riveting story to the masses.

"I think they once again showed that we're weak, and when we are weak, that generates aggression overseas, especially with the Chinese Communist Party and Russia," Rep. Marianette Miller-Meeks (R-Iowa) told the "Just the News, No Noise" television show Monday night.

"The balloon was finally brought down, and I think brought down because the public had brought so much attention to the fact that there was a Chinese Communist Party spy balloon, you know, coursing over our country," she added.

Victoria Coates, former deputy national security adviser to President Donald Trump, said the silver lining, if there is one, is that the episode so captured Americans' attention that it could create a learning moment for the masses on China's ill intentions toward the United States comparable to how the Soviet Union's launch of the Sputnik satellite awakened Americans to the Cold War's dangers.

"Literally, Americans are watching in real time as their sovereignty is being invaded by something the size of three Greyhound buses loaded with surveillance equipment," Coates told the John Solomon Reports podcast Monday. "And, you know, the good news is that I think the wake-up moment has worked. We have awakened, and I think it's late in the game, but there's still time for the United States to reposture itself onto almost a Cold War-type footing like after Sputnik and really confront this for the intolerable threat that it is."

Much is still not known about China's intentions. The Pentagon declared the balloon it shot down was trying to surveil sensitive sites like nuclear warhead batteries, while Beijing insisted America was overreacting to essentially a weather and climate research project.

A growing number of security experts, however, believe the Chinese balloon may have been less involved in espionage and more designed to test American defenses to see if they could be foiled by something that looked like a research balloon.

"The Chinese Communist Party, you know, is testing our vulnerabilities, testing our willingness to engage," Miller-Meeks said. "As you know, we have seen the Chinese Communist Party become increasingly provocative and aggressive, especially after Russia invaded Ukraine.

"So we've seen them increase their incursions into the South China Sea. We've seen them launch hypersonic missiles. We've seen they have increased, you know, air traffic over Taiwan, and then now this balloon that traverses the entire country and over some very sensitive military sites as well. So it's extremely problematic." 

The threat of using balloons to deliver attacks is hardly theoretical. While relatively old technology, air balloons have been considered by China for deploying hypersonic missiles, and by the United States for deploying drones equipped with explosives.

Fred Fleitz, a longtime CIA intelligence analyst and former chief of staff at the National Security Council, said he too assesses that China was testing vulnerabilities more than it was spying. He said he also fears the Biden administration will try to minimize the episode in an effort to ease increasingly hostile relations with China, noting that during the 2020 campaign Joe Biden repeatedly suggested China was not a U.S. adversary.

"I think they are going to sweep it under a rug and send [Secretary of State Antony] Blinken back to China," he said. "I don't think it will make a difference in Biden's China policy. I really expect the administration to remain in denial."

What can't be denied any time soon is the black eye the Pentagon and its air defenses have suffered,

"We had gaps on prior balloons," VanHerck told reporters Monday during a briefing at the Pentagon.

The comment by the North American Aerospace Defense Command commander both raised concern about NORAD's vaunted ability to detect airspace threats and also undercut a bungled weekend effort by the Biden administration to suggest former President Donald Trump failed to react to three incursions on his watch.

In fact, VanHerck told reporters during a Pentagon briefing, the Trump administration wasn't told about the incursions because NORAD missed them, and they only recently were detected after the fact by U.S. intelligence agencies.

"I will tell you that we did not detect those threats," he said, declining to be more specific about how earlier flyovers of Chinese spy balloons were missed. 

He explained in general terms how the prior incursions were discovered. "The intel community, after the fact ... made us aware of those balloons that were previously approaching North America or transited North America," he said.

VanHerck said the military deliberately moved slowly in downing the most recent spy balloon after discovering it hovering near the Aleutian Islands of Alaska on Jan. 28. He said officials determined it posed no immediate threat of attack, and allowed it to maneuver across the United States while blocking its ability to collect sensitive data so that the military could learn how it missed the earlier spy balloons and how they worked.

"We utilized multiple capabilities to ensure we collected and utilized the opportunity to close intel gaps," he said.

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the earlier incursions dating to the Trump administration were discovered because "we were able to go back and look at the historical patterns."

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