General Says NORAD Missed Previous Chinese Spy Balloon Incursions During the Trump Administration

United Sates Air Force General Glen VanHerck, Commander of United States Northern Command
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and Northern Command (NORTHCOM), admitted Monday that the joint U.S.-Canada organization missed previous incursions of Chinese spy balloons, including during the Trump administration.

When asked during a press briefing whether NORTHCOM was involved in tracking previous Chinese spy balloon that flew into the U.S. airspace during the Biden and Trump administrations, VanHerck responded:

So those balloons, so every day as a NORAD commander it’s my responsibility to detect threats to North America. I will tell you that we did not detect those threats. And that’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out. But I don’t want to go in further detail.

He indicated that the intelligence community tracked those previous balloons after the incursions through “additional means.”

“The intel community, after the fact — I believe has been briefed already — assess those threats to additional means of collection from additional means and made us aware of those balloons that were previously approaching North America or transited North America,” he said.

The Biden administration had revealed last week that China had sent spy balloons into U.S. airspace during the Trump administration, implying that the most recent incursion was not a new occurrence and that the Trump administration did nothing about it. However, the fact that the U.S. military did not detect the incursions that happened under the Trump administration deflated that criticism.

VanHerck’s disclosure also raised questions as to how NORAD missed the previous incursions.

He said that the Chinese spy balloon that entered U.S. airspace on January 28 was more than 200 feet tall. He said the “payload” that the balloon was carrying was the size of a regional jet liner and probably weighed in excess of a couple thousand pounds.

It was easily spotted by residents in Montana as it loitered overhead and by other states’ residents as it traversed across the continental U.S. and exited near the South Carolina coast, where the U.S. military finally shot it down.

It is not clear how large the previous spy balloons were, and why the U.S. military or Canada’s military missed them.

VanHerck suggested that the size of the most recent balloon was a factor in deciding not to shoot it down earlier.

“From a safety standpoint, picture yourself with large debris weighing hundreds if not thousands of pounds falling out of the sky. That’s really what we’re kind of talking about. So, glass off of solar panels, potentially hazardous material, such as material that is required for batteries to operate in such an environment as this and even the potential for explosives to detonate and destroy the balloon that could have been present,” he said.

“So I think that would give you an idea of the perspective of the balloon and the decision-making process along the way,” he added.

He later clarified that he had no reason to believe the balloon carried explosives and just had to assume it did out of an abundance of caution.

VanHerck said that the military did have time to shoot it down over the Aleutian Islands, but that since the balloon did not present a “physical military threat” to North America, “I could not take immediate action because it was not demonstrating hostile act or hostile intent.”

He said NORAD had “good indication” from the beginning it was a spy balloon and not a weather balloon, as China claims.

The general said the U.S. military “took every precaution” to ensure that sensitive military sites under the balloon’s path were “covered” and that it “minimized any collection.”

When asked when he would brief Congress on the Chinese spy balloon, VanHerck said details of a briefing to Congress were being “worked,” but that he wanted to preserve the Biden administration’s “decision space.”

“All of that’s being worked, and I’m — I’m going to preserve their decision space, the department’s decision space, the president’s decision space,” he said,

He said during his confirmation testimony, he said he would provide any testimony whenever asked. “Whenever they ask, I’ll be ready with the support of the department,” he said.

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