Chinese surveillance balloons have previously entered U.S. airspace but went undetected by the Pentagon, the commander in charge of protecting American skies said Feb. 6.
The revelation comes as the Pentagon has sought to explain how a Chinese surveillance balloon was able to float over North America last week, getting far enough into U.S. airspace that the military said it was unsafe to shoot down without risking injuries to civilians on the ground.
“As NORAD commander, it’s my responsibility to detect threats to North America,” Air Force Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, the head of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM), told reporters. “I will tell you that we did not detect those threats. And that’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out.”
Pentagon officials said Feb. 4 surveillance balloons had entered U.S. airspace at least four times in recent years, during both President Joe Biden’s and President Donald Trump’s administrations. The intelligence community eventually made “us aware of those balloons that were previously approaching North America or transited North America,” according to VanHerck, but NORAD did not know about those cases in real-time, showing a deficiency in protecting American skies.
This most recent balloon sparked domestic and international uproar. It first entered the U.S. Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) on Jan. 28, before traversing the Aleutian Islands, entering Canada, and reentering the United States over northern Idaho on Jan. 31, U.S. officials said. VanHerck said the balloon was “up to” 200 feet tall and had a “jet airline type” payload of a couple thousand pounds.
The NORAD commander said when the balloon was near the Aleutian Islands and approaching Alaska, the U.S. “could not take immediate action because it was not demonstrating hostile act or hostile intent.” But the situation changed once it flew over the continental U.S.
Biden ordered the balloon shot down Feb. 2. By that point, the balloon was visible to civilians on the ground and was operating over U.S. nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. But military commanders thought shooting the balloon down might cause serious damage on the ground.
The U.S. waited for the balloon to drift off the coast of South Carolina before an F-22 shot it down with an AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missile.
VanHerck said “this balloon did not present a physical military threat to North America,” which is why the U.S. did not shoot it down when it was first detected and waited until the issue was raised to the highest levels of the government.
American officials have stressed the balloon did not pose a risk to U.S. citizens—as long as it remained airborne—throughout the entire time it transited North America. The U.S. “covered” and “minimized any collection” of intelligence by the balloon, VanHerck said. U.S. officials have declined to identify the balloon’s payload, though they have said it is clearly a surveillance asset. China claims it was a rogue weather balloon and the U.S. violated international law by shooting it down.
National Security Council strategic communications coordinator John Kirby dismissed those claims as disingenuous Feb. 6.
“In fact, that’s why we did it about six miles off the coast, inside our territorial airspace, so that we could comply with international law,” Kirby told reporters, “unlike the Chinese who didn’t comply with international law by flying it over sovereign U.S. airspace.”
VanHerck declined to specify how and when the intelligence community first informed the military about the previous balloons, noting he will be testifying before Congress to explain the situation. Members of both parties have demanded further details, and Senate Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the entire upper chamber will be briefed on the matter. Kirby said the previous cases were “brief” and “nothing like we saw last week.”
The revelation that NORAD failed to notice the previous incidents rather than simply not publicizing them shows a clear gap in America’s air defenses, which the Defense Department now hopes to plug with some of the information gathered from the debris of the balloon, scattered over about 1,500 square meters in 50 feet of water, as well as from information gleaned during its flight.
“We utilized multiple capabilities to ensure we collected and utilized the opportunity to close intel gaps,” VanHerck said.
Even after the first balloon was being tracked, “speculation” of a second balloon over North America led NORAD to launch Canadian and American fighters to conduct a visual search, according to VanHerck.
The Biden administration is willing to brief Trump administration officials about balloon incidents, according to Kirby. The Chinese government acknowledged that it has another balloon over Latin America. A senior defense official said Feb. 4 there were previous cases across five continents. It is unclear if any part of the U.S. government tracked previous Chinese balloons in real time.
Once the decision was made to shoot down the balloon, the mission was largely up to the Air Force, supported by additional assets under U.S. Northern Command. Aircraft included tankers from Oregon, Montana, South Carolina, and North Carolina and F-15s from Barnes Air National Guard Base, Mass.
An F-22 Raptor, callsign FRANK01, from Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., engaged the balloon with an AIM-9X Sidewinder, hitting the target. Other F-22s from Langley also took part in the mission, with at least one flying in support under a LUKE01 callsign, according to VanHerck. NORTHCOM said Feb. 4 that the F-22s involved in the shoot-down included FRANK01 and FRANK02. The callsigns were a nod to Lt. Frank Luke, Jr., a World War 1 Ace and Medal of Honor recipient nicknamed the “Arizona Balloon Buster.”
The aircraft used an AIM-9, rather than a more advanced AIM-120 AMRAAM for “safety considerations” because the AMRAAM has a larger warhead, VanHerck said. U.S. officials have said the F-22 fired its missile from 58,000 feet, and VanHerck said he was not aware of any air-to-air other engagements occurring at that altitude.
VanHerck said it was up to Langley’s 1st Fighter Wing to determine if the F-22 should receive a black balloon painted on the side, denoting a kill.