Investigation of an Underwater Collision involving a US Navy Embedded Prototype System and an Unmanned Marine Vehicle in the South China Sea
Editor’s Note: Beth Sanner is a former deputy director of National Intelligence for Mission Integration, a position where she oversaw the elements that coordinate and lead collection, analysis, and program oversight throughout the Intelligence Community. In this role she also served as the president’s intelligence briefer. She is a professor-of-practice at the Applied Research Lab for Intelligence and Security at the University of Maryland and a CNN national security analyst. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
The US used force to attack the Chinese-made robot, which was an “obvious overreaction” according to the Chinese Defense Ministry.
In late 2016, the Chinese seized an unmanned US Navy underwater vehicle in international waters in the South China Sea, just 50 nautical miles from Subic Bay in the Philippines, and hundreds of miles from China. The biggest US naval base in Asia was withdrawn in 1992 due to disagreements about lease costs, and possibly soon the base will be returned to as a countermeasure. The incident was widely believed to have been a message to President-elect Donald Trump, just two weeks before his inauguration and several weeks after he angered Beijing by taking a congratulatory call from Taiwan’s president. Beijing returned the craft 3 days later, but never apologized and accused the US of espionage.
The best example is from the presidency of George W. Bush. On April 1, 2001, two Chinese fighter jets harassed a US Navy EP-3 surveillance plane over international waters near China. One was involved in a collision and crashed. An emergency landing was made by the pilot of the aircraft on China’s Hainan Island after he regained control of the plane. The 24 US crew members were held for 11 days, and some were repeatedly interrogated before US officials negotiated their release.
The Chinese President blamed the collision on the US. The two sides were able to reach an agreement for the return of the aircraft after nearly two months. The Chinese insisted on taking the plane and its equipment to another country so that the US could have the money to rebuild it. Beijing tried to charge the Bush Administration $1 million in costs related to the incident, including expenses for detaining the plane’s crew. Washington countered with an offer of some $34,000 it said was a “fair figure” — money China refused — and never apologized.
The decision to let the balloon pass over the US instead of shooting it down was criticized by lawmakers on Capitol Hill, as a counter intelligence threat.
The Bergen Effect: a Lieutenant General in the United States Air Force and the Trump Administration and the China War in the 21st Century
Biden has built on President Trump’s hostile attitude towards Beijing and has made it a point to create laws and policies that challenge China’s sway in the world. The new bipartisan House committee is dedicated to examining the perceived threat from the Chinese Communist Party, and it has been convened by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
Peter Bergen is a CNN national security analyst, vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. Bergen is the author of “The Cost of Chaos: The Trump Administration and the World.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. CNN has more opinions on it.
And it reminded me that when my father, Tom Bergen, was a lieutenant in the US Air Force in the mid-1950s, he worked on a program to help send balloons into Soviet airspace.
He was assigned to Headquarters Air Material Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in 1954. He worked for the Grand Union project, which deployed balloons that brought cameras to the Soviet Union. There are spy balloons from Turkey.
The program my dad worked on was a secret, but it has been declassified since the 70s, so he didn’t talk much about it.
What is a spy balloon? The number of unidentified objects in the sky in the past two decades from the Pentagon’s All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office
The cost of spy balloons doesn’t make them as expensive as satellites, but they can be more maneuverable. So it’s obviously worthwhile for the US military to continue to scan the skies looking for strange objects that might be Chinese balloons or spy drones.
The United States, as well as its competitors, have spy satellites which can take photos. They can do full-motion video! They have the ability to take thermal imagery that can show people moving at night. When the skies are clear, they can spy on pretty much anything, with a resolution of centimeters.
Indeed, commercial satellite imagery is now getting so inexpensive that you can go out and buy your own close-up images of, say, a Russian battle group in Ukraine. Just ask Maxar Technologies; they have built up a rather profitable business on this model, which was just acquired two months ago for $6 billion by a private equity firm.
It may help explain an aspect of the report published by the US Office of Director of National Intelligence.
Over the past two decades, the US Navy and Air Force have reported more than 500 reports of unidentified objects in the sky. These reports were assessed by the Pentagon’s All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office, a fancy name for the office that tries to examine UFO sightings.
The F-35 Shootdown: An Ambassador to the United States, Not an Airspace Balloon? The Pentagon, the FBI and the Pentagon
China did much worse than that. The US has accused it of being aided by the theft of design data about the F-35 fighter aircraft by hackers in China and of sucking up personal information of more than 20 million Americans while they were members of the US government. The F-35 theft report was denied by China and the OPM hacking was also denied.
CNN asked the Chinese Embassy in Washington if the balloon that was shot down is part of a larger program.
Roughly half a dozen of those flights have been within US airspace – although not necessarily over US territory, according to one official familiar with the intelligence.
According to an official and another intelligence source, the balloon that was shot down off the coast of South Carolina was not the same model as balloons seen around the globe. Rather, there are multiple “variations,” these people said.
The link to the broader program was found before the latest balloon was seen, according to the Washington Post.
The photos from Sunday show sailors from a Navy explosive disposal team pulling debris from the deflated balloon onto a boat. The debris recovered is being taken to an FBI laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, for analysis as the US looks to understand the capabilities of the balloon.
And perhaps critically, the investigators will be looking at what digital signatures it emitted to see if they provide a better way for the US to track this kind of balloon in the future. The commander of US Northern Command, Gen. Glen VanHerck, acknowledged to reporters on Monday that the US had a “domain awareness gap” that had allowed past balloons to cross into US airspace undetected.
China maintains the vessel downed by the US was a weather balloon thrown off course but did offer a rare expression of “regret” over it in a statement Friday.
But multiple defense officials and other sources briefed on the intelligence say the Chinese explanation isn’t credible and have described the balloon’s path as intentional.
This elite team consists of agents, analysts, engineers and scientists, who are responsible for both creating technical surveillance measures and analyzing those of the US’ adversaries.
When it comes to targeting national security threats, FBI personnel are responsible for the construction and use of surveillance devices, but also manage court-authorized data collection and work to defeat efforts by foreign intelligence agencies to penetrate the US.
But, according to one member of the House Intelligence Committee, “there’s number of reasons why we wouldn’t do that. We want to collect off it, you want to see where it’s going and what it’s doing.
A defense official said the US has procedures – akin to a kind of digital blackout – to protect sensitive locations from overhead surveillance, typically used for satellite overflight.
China, China, and the Second State of the Union (Sep. 7): Biden’s Address before the World Wide Web
Biden called out Beijing on Tuesday before millions of viewers in the US and around the world as diplomatic tensions with China soar and new details emerge of an expansive Chinese balloon surveillance program.
The ad-libbed addition to Biden’s speech named the President of China as he slammed autocracies and argued for the superiority of democracies.
“Name me a world leader who’d change places with Xi Jinping. I’m going to name me one. Biden said of his Chinese counterpart, whom he last met in Indonesia last year and has known for years. The president was almost shouting at the end of the sentence that could be seen as contemptuous of China, at a time when he has his aura damaged by mismanagement.
Biden mainly talked about domestic issues. The address came at a time the United States is confronting another nuclear rival, Russia. He hailed the Western effort to counter President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and vowed to Kyiv’s ambassador, who was in the audience: “We are going to stand with you as long as it takes.”
Biden has repeatedly said as president he would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack, only for officials to insist the US stance hasn’t changed.
His remarks on Russia immediately proceeded those on China, making it impossible to miss the symbolic synergy between his policy toward both nations as he laid out what might be seen as a Biden doctrine of standing with democracies against autocracies and increasing attempts by nations like Russia and China to apply their power outside their borders.
Biden, who ordered the US military to shoot down the balloon over open water last week, said he has not spoken to the Chinese leader since the balloon was spotted. His administration and its Chinese counterparts continued to have continued contact.
The idea shooting down a balloon that gathers information over America makes relations worse. Biden told PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff in a wide-ranging interview a day after his second State of the Union address.
The meeting was delayed to a later date in order for Biden administration officials to stress that the meeting was not canceled. That date has not yet been set.
Biden did not agree with the question if US officials had any idea why China would do such a thing. “They’re the Chinese government,” he said.
Biden administration officials have maintained they were able to move quickly to mitigate any intelligence collection capacity of the balloon and have countered that they will end up benefiting from the ability to collect information about the balloon and Chinese intelligence capabilities, both during its flight and in the recovery of its wreckage from the Atlantic Ocean.
House Majority Leader Steve Scalise’s office said the chamber will vote Thursday on a resolution “condemning the Chinese Communist Party’s use of a high-altitude surveillance balloon over United States territory as a brazen violation of United States sovereignty.”
Republican lawmakers are asking why the Biden administration didn’t want to shoot down the balloon over Alaska and into the US before it reached the continental US.
The NORAD Response to the Late-time Shotdown of a Spy Balloon During the US Navy Invasion of Ukraine
As the US warned China not to give military support to Russia in its invasion of Ukranian, he shared that observation with Xi.
The recovery effort of a suspected Chinese spy balloon is being chronicled by the US Navy.
On Monday, Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of US Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), told reporters that the balloon was roughly 200 feet tall and carried a payload weighing more than a couple of thousand pounds.
“[F]rom a safety standpoint, picture yourself with large debris weighing hundreds if not thousands of pounds falling out of the sky. VanHerck said on Monday that they are talking about that. Glass from solar panels is potentially hazardous and there is a chance for explosives to blow up the balloon that could have been present.
VanHerck said that the opportunity to assess what they were actually doing and what kind of transmission capabilities existed on the balloon would be worth its value in the future.
The balloon was ultimately shot down on Saturday afternoon by a single missile from a F-22 fighter jet out of Langley Air Force Base, Virginia. The operation was carried out by active duty, Reserve, National Guard, and civilian personnel, according to the Navy’s photo captions.
The Foreign Ministry said that the Chinese side had informed the US side multiple times that the airship was for civilian use and occurred due to force majeure.
A visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing was delayed because of the situation.
The balloon was used for flight tests and deviated from its flight course by mistake, China admitted on Monday.
“China is a responsible country,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said on Monday. “We have always strictly abided by international law. We have informed all relevant parties and appropriately handled the situation, which did not pose any threats to any countries.”
China’s Spy Balloon Timeline Lack-Urgent Action: What the Pentagon Decided to Tell Us After the Jump
The officials that were familiar with the original report said that they didn’t see the balloon as urgent until it was already over US territory.
The “tipper” sent by the DIA also goes out across government channels routinely, and although US officials have access to these reports, whether they read them or whether those reports are included in briefings to senior policymakers is a matter of discretion.
The US decided to look at the object, rather than treat it as an immediate threat.
The military was briefed on Tuesday by Senate staff who pressed them about who knew what and when. The senators wrote a letter to the defense and intelligence chiefs questioning their decision-making after the balloon crossed into Alaskan airspace.
On January 28, when the balloon entered US airspace near Alaska, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, sent up fighter jets to make a positive identification, according to defense officials, reflecting a subtle shift in urgency.
How much control China exerted over the balloon’s path remains a matter of debate. The senior US official said the balloon had a rudder and propellers that allowed it to turn like a sailboat, but it largely rode the jet stream, which allowed officials to predict it’s path in advance.
Military officials said it is not necessarily surprising that the president was not briefed until January 31, given the expectations for the balloon at the time.
Congress was interested in the decision-making process on the balloon as more information trickled out.
Alaska is still a part of the United States – asks a senator: What are we supposed to learn from a photo of the U.S. surveillance balloon?
A Senate Republican aide told CNN there were still questions to be answered about Alaska. “Alaska is still part of the United States – why is that okay to transit Alaska without telling anyone, but [the continental US] is different?”
One pilot took a selfie in the cockpit that shows both the pilot and the surveillance balloon itself, these officials said – an image that has already gained legendary status in both NORAD and the Pentagon.