The Chinese high-altitude spy balloon the U.S. shot down over the weekend and several similar incursions in recent years are part of a larger surveillance program run by Beijing, a Pentagon spokesman said Wednesday.
Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, acknowledged that, along with last week’s balloon, there were three such incidents during the Trump presidency and another incursion into U.S. airspace earlier in the Biden administration, which he said has provided key intelligence on China’s efforts and spying capabilities.
“I’m not able to go into the intelligence. As you highlight, we are aware that there have been four previous balloons that have gone over U.S. territory. This is what we assess as part of a larger Chinese surveillance balloon program. You’ve heard us talk in the past about the fact that this is a program that’s been operated for several years. What we do know is that, in some cases, when some of these balloons had previously not been identified, subsequent intelligence analysis did enable us to indicate that these were Chinese balloons,” Ryder said during a press briefing. “This last week provided the United States with a unique opportunity to learn a lot more about the Chinese surveillance balloon program, all information that will help us to continue to strengthen our ability to track these kinds of objects.”
Ryder said the Pentagon does not view the recent airspace incursion as an “intelligence failure,” and noted the insights gathered from tracking the balloon and the ongoing debris recovery operation.
“This last week provided the United States with a unique opportunity to learn a lot more about the Chinese surveillance balloon program, all information that will help us to continue to strengthen our ability to track these kinds of objects,” Ryder said. “We’re confident that what we’ve learned about this program enables us to be able to monitor and be on the lookout for these kinds of capabilities.”
Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, told reporters on Monday the Chinese surveillance balloon incidents have highlighted a “domain awareness gap” (Defense Daily, Feb. 7).
“Really what Gen. VanHerck was referring to was previously having a domain awareness gap,” Ryder said on Wednesday when asked about VanHerck’s comments.
Ryder said the Chinese surveillance program is believed to have used balloons across five continents, to include traversing areas from Latin America, South America, Southeast Asia, East Asia and Europe utilizing balloons with different sizes and capabilities.
For last week’s incident, Ryder said he couldn’t offer specifics on when the balloon was first noticed, only offering that NORAD and NORTHCOM saw it entering U.S. airspace and tracked it for its duration. He declined to provide specifics on sites the platform may have focused on surveilling.
“I’m not going to go over specifically what they tracked, other than what we’ve acknowledged publicly. We know that they were looking to surveil strategic sites, to include some of our strategic bases in the continental United States,” Ryder said. “They were over sites that would be of interest to the Chinese.”
Ryder reiterated that the intelligence gathered on previous incursions and information from last week’s incident and the debris recovery operation will continue to provide insight on how China is operating its balloon surveillance program.
“We are very confident that we’ll be able to detect these kinds of capabilities, as evidenced by the continuing body of knowledge that we’ve been able to build up on this. But obviously that is something that our intelligence community will continue to work very closely on for this or any other potential threats,” Ryder told reporters. “I would not be surprised if the PRC starts to reevaluate its dirigible collection program.”