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WASHINGTON – A top military commander said Monday the US had not detected previous incursions by Chinese spy balloons as they took place during the Trump administration – raising troubling questions about the security of US airspace.
“Every day as a NORAD commander, it’s my responsible responsibility to detect threats to North America,” Air Force Gen. Glen D. VanHerck of the North American Aerospace Defense Command told reporters. “I will tell you that we did not detect those [previous] threats. And that’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out.
VanHerck spoke after a massive Chinese surveillance craft was allowed to cruise across the country for days — taking in sensitive military sites along the way — before it was shot down by an Air Force F-22 jet off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday.
Soon after the shootdown, an anonymous senior defense official told reporters that similar Chinese balloons “transited the continental United States briefly at least three times during the prior administration and once that we know of at the beginning of this administration.”
That disclosure enraged veterans of the Trump White House, who lined up to insist they had heard of no such incidents during their time in government.
John Ullyot, who worked at the National Security Council during the final two years the 45th president was in office, scoffed at the claims Monday morning.
“Given their lack of specifics, this is just more hot air from the White House,” Ullyot told The Post.
Later, VanHerck and NSC spokesman John Kirby were forced to clarify the initial statement, saying US intelligence agencies had used “forensics” to identify the Chinese spy craft incursions only after President Biden took office in January 2021.
“The intel community after the fact … assessed those threats from additional means of collection and made us aware of those balloons that were previously approaching North America or transit in North America,” said VanHerck, who declined to describe the kinds of information he said intelligence officials received to confirm the prior Chinese balloon trespassing.
Meanwhile, Kirby said the Biden administration would offer classified briefings to some senior Trump officials about the three balloons and how the intelligence community determined their existence so late.
But Ric Grenell, who served as Trump’s acting national intelligence director in 2020, told The Post he wouldn’t accept any such briefing and cast doubt on the administration’s explanation.
“They are scrambling to justify their lack of action,” Grenell told The Post. “If they believe a bureaucrat failed to notify politicals about a national security threat, then they should demand that the DOJ prosecute the individuals for treason — if the persons even exist.”
Former Secretary of State and CIA Director Mike Pompeo told Fox News he had not been offered any sort of briefing and that he doubted such an offer would be made.
“I’d really like to know if, if somehow we got it wrong, if somehow the military didn’t share with us what they needed to,” Pompeo told “The Story” host Martha MacCallum. “The American people are owed an explanation of this.”
VanHerck’s admission Monday may explain the confusion – but for national security experts, it doesn’t offer relief. By the general’s own admission, the US lacks sufficient capabilities to detect balloons as China leans into using the seemingly rudimentary crafts, according to RAND Corporation senior international defense analyst Timothy Heath.
“It’s worth underscoring how hard it is to detect these balloons,” he told The Post. “They don’t have a lot of metal, so traditional radars … are unlikely to pick up on these balloons.”
The radars NORAD and the military rely upon are designed to detect more threatening airborne objects such as missiles, which are impenetrable and reflect radar waves, Heath said.
“One reason why the Chinese use the balloon is because they’re well aware that most air defense technologies are not really looking for balloons; that’s not what they’re designed for,” he said. “They’re designed for real threats of missiles and aircraft, drones – those are much more menacing and dangerous and that’s why we spend money developing technologies to detect that.”
For NORAD to have detected the Trump-era balloons in real time, Heath said, Congress would have had to agree “years ago” that “NORAD needed some expensive technologies to pick up balloons prior to this incident, and I’m not convinced that’d be an easy sell.”
In the future, Congress could direct the Pentagon could develop ways to improve balloon detection, but it would take an investment of taxpayer dollars that may be better spent on other defense priorities, Heath said.
“The balloon, frankly speaking, there is an intelligence danger, but beyond that, they are nowhere near on the level of threat as missile for example, or aircraft, a bomber or even an armed drone,” he said.
Still, the China expert said Beijing’s interest in balloon technology may warrant investment in developing technology or techniques to counter it.
“It takes advantage of real gaps in air defense systems around the world, and the US is grappling with the aftermath,” Heath said. “Clearly we need some methods to deal with this issue, otherwise the Chinese will think it is OK to keep sending these collecting platforms right over our country.”