Shed More Light on the US Navy’s First “Spy Balloon Collision” by Killing a U.S. Aircraft
In her position as a deputy director of National Intelligence for Mission Integration, Beth Sanner oversaw the elements that coordinate and lead collection, analysis, and program oversight. 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 shooting down of the big, high-altitude balloon by the U.S. is heating up already tense relations between the two countries. China said the balloon was a civilian airship that drifted astray by accident.
Though still describing them as “infrequent actions,” the US Navy reported an uptick in unsafe intercepts by Chinese fighter jets last summer; in December 2022, a Chinese fighter jet flew just 20 feet in front of the nose of a US Air Force RC-135 surveillance plane carrying 30 crew over international waters in the South China Sea, forcing it to swerve to avoid a collision. This was just five weeks after the meeting between President Biden and President Xi in Bali during a G20 Summit — a meeting in which they pledged new mechanisms to stabilize the bilateral relationship.
The most memorable and instructive example dates back to 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 collided with the other and crashed. The EP-3’s pilot managed to regain control of his heavily-damaged plane and made an unauthorized emergency landing on China’s Hainan Island. Some crew members were repeatedly questioned by US officials before they were released.
Had any damage or loss of life resulted when China downed the unmanned US craft, Chinese authorities would have quickly placed both blame and liability on the US. Protests would have erupted in front of the US Embassy and China’s Ambassador to the US swiftly withdrawn.
The US military on February 4 shot down a Chinese spy balloon (which Beijing said was a weather balloon), followed by the downing of two unidentified flying objects on Friday and Saturday in US and Canadian airspace, which Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told ABC were likely also balloons.
Peter Bergen, the Cost of Chaos, and his first assignment as a spokesman at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base
Instead, let’s come up with a more strategic, measured plan to hold China accountable, but also allow room for needed dialogue. If we follow Beijing’s lead it will surely be a race to the bottom, making it harder to avoid what we all wish to avoid — military conflict with China.
Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. Bergen is the author of The Cost of Chaos. This commentary is from him and he has his own views. View more opinion on CNN.
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.
In 1954 he was assigned to Headquarters Air Material Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. There he worked on the “Grand Union” project, which deployed balloons that carried cameras over the then-Soviet Union. Those spy balloons were launched from Turkey.
My dad didn’t talk about this part of his career much, likely because the work was secret, but the program has long since been declassified since it happened around seven decades ago.
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Satellites offer some advantages over spy balloons; they are inexpensive and 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.
Now the United States and its rivals have these new-fangled gizmos called “spy satellites,” which can take photos! They are capable of doing full- motion video. They can take thermal imagery that detects individuals moving around at night! With a resolution of centimeters, the skies can be used to spy on anything.
Satellite imagery is now so cheap that you can buy your own close-up images of a Russian battle group, for example. 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.
The report published by the US Office of Director of National Intelligence last month had an aspect that may help explain it.
China’s latest airborne surveillance experiment revealed by CNN: UAPs are the world’s largest surveillance habitual offender and surveillance empire
Who are they? You might know them as UFOs, or their more formal name: UAPs (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena). The objects are flying over the North America.
The U.S. has been gathering intelligence on China since the start of last year, according to a Chinese statement. All this was proof, Wang claimed, that the U.S. is “without a doubt the world’s largest surveillance habitual offender and surveillance empire.”
A senior State Department official said Thursday that the balloon “was capable of conducting signals intelligence collection operations” and was part of a fleet that had flown over “more than 40 countries across five continents.”
The US has shot down three unknown objects in the skies over Alaska, northern Canada, and Lake Michigan.
There are many balloons like the one above Montana found above Japan, India and Taiwan in recent years. The balloon found in Latin America was owned by China, but it said the balloon was a civilian one doing weather research.
The link to the broader surveillance program, which was uncovered before the latest balloon was spotted last week, was first reported by the Washington Post.
“When the balloon is in our hands, we can look at the technology, we can rebuild the supply chain, find out who helped build it, what components were important to it,” said Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. You can tell its functions and specifications. There is a high intelligence value in having it.
The US was able to track the balloon before it entered US airspace. The Defense Intelligence Agency warned that the balloon was headed for the US on January 27, one day before it entered the country over Alaska, officials told CNN.
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.
So far, China has offered slim information to fill out its own version of events – maintaining the balloon was a Chinese civilian research airship blown off course and flatly denying a broader surveillance program.
Reply to the House Intelligence Committee Question on the China Air Balloon Detection Operations and its Connection to China’s spying operations
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.
OTE personnel are also responsible for managing court-authorized data collection and fighting efforts to penetrate the US, but they also are responsible for using surveillance devices to target national security threats.
But, according to one member of the House Intelligence Committee, “there’s number of reasons why we wouldn’t do that. You want to see where it is, and what it is doing, we want to collect off it.
A defense official said the US has procedures in place to protect sensitive locations from overhead snooping.
But senior Biden officials faced pointed questions on Capitol Hill from lawmakers in public hearings and classified briefings as Congress is demanding more information about why the balloon wasn’t shot down sooner.
An official said that the Chinese balloon was capable of monitoring US communications and was determined by the Biden administration.
Lawmakers were told Thursday that the order to send the balloon was dispatched without Chinese President Xi Jinping’s knowledge, sources familiar with the briefing said.
Only evidence that was on the surface of the ocean has been delivered to FBI analysts so far, one official said, which includes the “canopy itself, the wiring, and then a very small amount of electronics.” The official said that analysts hadn’t yet seen the load, which is where you would expect to find the majority of electronics.
Gen. Glenn VanHerck, the commander of NORAD and the US Northern Command, said on Monday that there was no assessment that it presented a collection hazard beyond what is already available from the Chinese.
The officials told lawmakers that the US has assessed that little new intelligence was gleaned by the Chinese balloon operation because the Chinese appeared to stop transmitting information once the US learned of the balloon, in addition to US measures to protect sensitive intelligence from China’s spying operations, according to the sources.
The officials told lawmakers one of the reasons the balloon was not first shot down when it entered Alaskan airspace is that the waters there are cold and deep, making it less likely they could have recovered the balloon, according to the sources.
Democrats and the Pentagon: A Defense Subcommittee Overview of the Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Democratic Democrat on the House Floor
The House briefing Thursday morning was tense, the sources said, with several Republicans railing against the administration, including GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who said that the Pentagon made the president – whom she noted she doesn’t like – look weak by their actions.
“The Pentagon was telling us they were able to mitigate in real-time as this was taking place and I believe that’s accurate,” Rep. Mike Quigley, an Illinois Democrat, told CNN.”I believe the preeminent concern they had, as they expressed in real time, was the safety of US citizens.”
The administration, the president and our military and intelligence agencies acted with care, I believe. Their capabilities are very impressive. Was everything done 100% correctly? I can’t imagine that would be the case with almost everything we do. Romney said Thursday that he came away more confident.
The military assessment of Chinese spy activity was a topic of discussion at the Appropriations Committee hearings on Thursday. Democrats Jon Tester of Montana and Edward Kennedy of Rhode Island pressed the officials that they did not know how they could tell if it was a military threat.
You have to help me understand that this baby is not the last one since I am telling you that this is not the last time. We’ve [seen] brief incursions, now we’ve seen a long incursion, what happens next?,” said Tester, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee.
The Defense Department isn’t concerned about the alleged spy balloon out of the Atlantic, but it is concerned about what the Pentagon can tell us about China
Pentagon officials said at the hearing that the Defense Department was not concerned about the balloon gathering intelligence over Alaska as it was not near sensitive sites.
The parts of the balloon recovered on the surface of the ocean have been delivered so far, while recovering additional pieces of the balloon that sunk has been complicated by bad weather, officials said.
It’s not yet clear where the balloon’s parts were manufactured, the officials said, including whether any of the pieces were made in America. Officials said that there hasn’t been a determination as to what the balloon was capable of and its specific intent, because analysts haven’t looked at the bulk of the equipment.
Analysts haven’t found any sort of material that poses a danger to the American public in the small portion of it they’ve examined.
There was English writing on parts of the balloon that were found, one of the sources familiar with the congressional briefings said, though they were not high-tech components. The source declined to provide detail on what specific parts of the balloon contained English writing.
If it were possible, this scenario would cause a separate set of concerns about China’s decision-making in relation to the US.
The official said that based on China’s “messaging and public comments, it’s clear that they have been scrambling to explain why they violated US sovereignty and still have no plausible explanation – and have found themselves on their heels.”
The official said that they don’t have an explanation for why the balloon violated the airspace of Central and South American countries. “The PRC’s program will only continue to be exposed, making it harder for the PRC to use this program.”
As U.S. Navy crews continue to fish parts of the alleged Chinese spy balloon out of the Atlantic, a senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, gave reporters an update on Thursday on some of what has been learned so far.
One FBI official said that it was too early to assess the intent of the mission and how the device was operating.
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“That narrative is probably part of the information and public opinion warfare the U.S. has waged on China,” Mao added. “As to who is the world’s number one country of spying, eavesdropping and surveillance, that is plainly visible to the international community.”
She declined to comment on the equipment on board the balloon and the entities that own the balloon. Chinese statements have implied that the balloon was not operated by a government entity, but instead was linked to one or more companies. It has not named them.
Government is also investing in improvements. In 2018, for example, China launched a project to research materials that can be used to make balloons that can float higher without losing buoyancy.
The former Secretary of Defense, a former Secretary of State, as well as a former national security adviser for the Trump administration have all said that they were not informed that Chinese balloons entered US airspace.
According to CNN reporting, the assessment was shared to American lawmakers in briefings Thursday, and if true it could point to a significant lack of coordination in the Chinese system at a fraught period of China-US relations.
It could be that the Chinese underestimated the risks of the mission, and it could also be that they didn’t know about the visit by the most senior US diplomat since the end of the Cold War.
Beijing, in a statement last weekend, appeared to link the device to “companies,” rather than the government or military – though in China the prominence of state-owned enterprises and a robust military-industrial complex blurs the line between the two.
“The problem with the centralization of power under Xi Jinping is the lack of delegation of authority to lower levels,” said Thompson, who is a senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore (NUS).
Lower-level officials who may have the ability to more closely watch such missions, are not likely to be given permission to make political judgments about their impact. There could be power struggles between lower and higher ranked officials.
“There is a tension throughout the Chinese system – it’s a feature of Chinese governance, where lower levels fight for their own autonomy, and upper levels fight for greater control,” he said.
Past crises in China have pointed to these tensions, including the outbreaks of both SARS in 2002-2003 and more recently Covid-19, where reporting delays were widely seen as having slowed the response and compounded the problem. Some blamed local officials who feared repercussions, or were accustomed to a system where information flows from the top down, not the bottom up.
Balloon launches could also fall into a gap in which operations were not managed or overseen in the same way as space or other aircraft missions, according to Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago.
Entities launching balloons may have received little or no push back from other countries, including the US, and they may now be seen as routine based on weather conditions and at modest costs.
“As a result, while the leaders of these programs have also become emboldened over time to test new routes, it was likely that they didn’t get top priority attention from the perspective of political risk,” he said.
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China’s Foreign Ministry appeared caught off-guard by the situation as it publicly unfolded over the past week – releasing its first explanation of the incident more than 12 hours after the Pentagon announced it was tracking a suspected surveillance balloon.
Alfred Wu said that the man wants 100% control due to his personality. “I don’t think Xi Jinping allows for that kind of autonomy.”
The incident that diverted the attention of a public that was fed up with the faltering economy may have been a good idea, but he underestimated the US domestic response.
It is possible that the United States offered a message to Xi that he was unaware of the situation while they discussed it at the G20 summit in Indonesia.
There is less stigma regarding reporting unexplained objects in the sky now that the Pentagon is pushing service personnel to report them.
Congress should convene hearings to get to the bottom of this. The public has a right to understand why objects are flying around in American airspace that the Pentagon and the US intelligence community can’t identify.
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A statement from China said it was about to shoot down a flying object, just hours after the US fighter jets took out a third object in the same airspace.
In order to avoid danger and assist with debris recovery efforts, the maritime authorities of the neighboring port city of Qingdao told fishing vessels to be on alert.
Take photos if you see debris near your boat. The marine development department of Jimo district in Qingdao made a plea for help in the message cited by The Paper.
It was unclear if the object had been taken down or not, and Chinese authorities and state media had not provided any updates.
The object has sparked intense interest on China’s tightly controlled social media, generating hundreds of millions of views. Many users followed the news of the US’s response to the Chinese balloon, when a fighter jet destroyed it with a missile off the coast of South Carolina.
The US Commerce Department has banned Chinese companies from purchasing US technology without the approval of the government.
By Monday morning, the unidentified object had become the top trending topic on Weibo, with two related hashtags racking up more than 900 million views. There was a sense of disappointment among many who were wondering why the authorities had not released any updates on the shoot down.
In the latest event, a high-altitude object was shot down on Sunday afternoon by an F-16 over Lake Huron, which lies between Michigan and Ontario. The Pentagon did not see the object as a military threat, but as a flight hazard. But it did connect the craft to a radar signal picked up earlier over Montana, the home to US intercontinental missile silos and other sensitive sites.
Increased our radar and more closely scrutinizing our airspace at these altitudes is one way that we have responded to the increase in objects we detected over the past week.
A political storm is threatening after the US scrambled fighter jets for three days in a row to shoot down three aerial objects high over the North American continent.
The intrigue is also unfolding against a tense global situation, with already difficult relations with rising superpower China becoming ever more hostile and with the US leading the West in an effective proxy war against Russia in Ukraine.
“What’s gone on in the last two weeks or so, 10 days, has been nothing short of craziness,” Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana said Sunday on “Face the Nation” on CBS, hours before an airborne object was shot down over Lake Huron.
On Friday, an F-22 shot down another unidentified craft over Alaskan airspace . The US pilots were able to get up around the object before the plane shot it down, and they said it didn’t look like it was carrying anything.
In fact, NORAD commander Gen. Glen VanHerck said recent objects shot down were likely the first “kinetic action” that NORAD or the US Northern Command had taken against an airborne object over US airspace.
Blame Them All The Way: Attacking the Biden Administration Against the Black-Tie Intrusions Over Alaska and the Yukon
In a fast moving situation, the government may not know that much more than it is saying. But the piecemeal emergence of details is adding to the confusion. On issues including the Chinese balloon and the discovery of classified vice presidential documents at Biden’s home and office, the administration has sometimes struggled to control a media narrative to its own political detriment.
The blame game is heating up. Republican Representative Mike Turner of Ohio, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, blamed the incursions of US air space to Republican claims that Biden is failing to protect the southern border, and complained that senior officials were not briefed enough. He criticized Biden, too, since it was claimed that the president did not act quickly enough before.
“They do appear somewhat trigger-happy, although this is certainly preferable to the permissive environment that they showed when the Chinese spy balloon was coming over some of our most sensitive sites,” Turner told Jake Tapper.
The argument by the Biden administration that the balloon’s height made them have no concern was flawed, because we know whatever goes up can come down.
Biden, who didn’t address the new intrusions at a black-tie event with state governors on Saturday, has yet to speak to Americans in person about the trio of incidents over the weekend.
The lack of specificity isn’t likely to end speculation or partisan maneuvering in Washington. At the start of a new presidential election cycle and in a polarized political age when social media magnifies conspiracy theories, this odd series of incidents is heaping fresh pressure on Biden following recriminations after his decision to wait until the Chinese balloon had crossed the country before shooting it down over water.
“They are getting lots of positives that they did not get before. Kayyem, a former assistant secretary at Department of Homeland Security, said most of that will be airplanes.
We can only speculate on whether this is part of a bigger effort to gather intel, or if it is just some small group of people that are focused on doing their job.
There was more confusion on Sunday. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said on ABC’s “This Week” that the two objects shot down over Alaska and the Yukon were balloons but smaller than the original Chinese intruder, after saying he had earlier been briefed by Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser.
Even if there is no confirmation that the Chinese balloon and the objects are connected, Representative Matt Rosendale appeared to make a connection between them on CNN.
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“It doesn’t give me much safe feelings knowing that these devices are smaller,” he said. I am concerned with the amount of data being collected. … I need some answers, and the American people need answers.”
The White House had to puncture some thoughts that had been floating around after the United States shooting randomly out of the sky. The nation was told that they have been hearing alien speculation. This isn’t it.
There will not be any calls for the show’s characters to come back, according to the White House press secretary.
This particular action, sending the surveillance balloon over the heart of the United States was an irresponsible act and, of course, a violation of our sovereignty and of international law. So that’s what’s critical. It doesn’t detract from the fact that we’re committed to finding solutions to manage it.
We haven’t detected them because they’ve been going on before. There have been detections where our radar has picked up various phenomena. The equipment they detected is not that refined and so we haven’t been able to say what it was. It doesn’t have the ability to discern what an upset is in the air. And then the other thing is, occasionally we will pick up weather phenomena which will indicate, you know, that there’s a presence of something, maybe a balloon or an aircraft. It turns out that it is a weather phenomenon just in the atmosphere. Some of this could be fixed with newer technologies.