- The Washington Times - Friday, February 3, 2023

The Biden administration on Friday said China’s dispatch of a high-altitude surveillance balloon over American airspace violated U.S. sovereignty and was “unacceptable,” brushing aside a Chinese offer of regret and Beijing‘s claim that the high-altitude aerostat was an errant weather balloon.

The Pentagon rejected that claim and confirmed that the balloon was positively identified as a Chinese stratospheric air vehicle configured as an electronic and optical spy system. The news spurred bipartisan anger on Capitol Hill and caused Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a long-planned fence-mending trip to Beijing that was scheduled to start Sunday.

Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, said the balloon is currently flying at about 60,000 feet and heading east. He declined to specify its location and said only that it was now flying over the central United States.

Sen. Roger Marshall, Kansas Republican, however, said it is over the northeast part of his state.

“I condemn any attempts the Chinese make to spy on Americans,” Mr. Marshall said in a Twitter post. “President Biden must protect the sovereignty of the U.S. whether it’s our airspace or the southern border.”

China said the meteorological craft had been blown off its intended course by “westerly winds,” but Gen. Ryder told reporters that the balloon is capable of maneuvering, an indication it is remotely piloted, and is currently flying at “well over” the normal altitude range of civilian aircraft.The Pentagon said Thursday the craft did not pose a threat to lower-flying commercial air traffic and that it was not the first balloon detected by U.S. military monitors.

SEE ALSO: China held Taiwan war council in October, general’s memo reveals

“The balloon has violated U.S. airspace and international law, which is unacceptable,” he said. “This is something that [the North American Aerospace Defense Command] is monitoring.”

Chinese ‘regrets’

At the Chinese Foreign Ministry, spokeswoman Mao Ning on Friday said of the balloon that China “always acts in accordance with international law,” and denied the balloon was being used for spying.

“We have no intention to violate the territory or airspace of any sovereign country,” she said. “As I said, we are gathering and verifying the facts. We hope both sides can handle the matter together in a cool-headed and prudent manner.”

The ministry said in a statement the balloon was collecting meteorological data. It was blown off course by “westerly winds,” according to a statement. Canadian officials said they also had tracked the balloon through Canadian airspace and had summoned the Chinese ambassador in Ottawa for an explanation.

“The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace due to force majeure,” the statement said, citing a legal term used to refer to events beyond one’s control.

But China‘s nationalist, state-controlled press took a sharper tone, saying anti-China voices in Washington were hyping the balloon incident as a “stunt” to gain leverage in the growing competition between the two powers.

The state-controlled Global Times Friday cited Chinese “analysts” who told the news website “it is neither strange nor rare to see the U.S. playing this old trick of exerting extreme pressure on China before significant and high-level potential interactions in an attempt to gain more bargaining chips.”

But the Pentagon insisted Friday it was confident in its assessment the balloon was on a surveillance mission, while declining to comment on what the balloon’s target might have been.

At a briefing for reporters, Gen. Ryder declined to say whether there were any new discussions about shooting down the balloon.

“I’m not going to get into internal discussions with the White House,” he said.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said President Biden was briefed on the balloon Tuesday and has continued to receive regular briefings and updates from his national security officials.

“We are tracking it closely and keeping all options on the table,” she said. “It does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.”

Ms. Jean-Pierre said the president asked the Pentagon to present options for how to respond once the balloon was spotted. But he decided against shooting it down based on the recommendation of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, who cited a risk to people on the ground.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Michael McCaul, Texas Republican, urged the administration to take action against the spy balloon.

“This balloon should have never been allowed to enter U.S. airspace,” Mr. McCaul said. “Instead, the Biden administration allowed it to continue so that it now poses a direct and ongoing national security threat to the U.S. homeland, while at the same time threatening the privacy of every American. I am calling on the Biden administration to quickly take steps to remove the Chinese spy balloon from U.S. airspace.”

The balloon is the latest sign that Beijing’s aggression is “no longer confined to China’s borders,” Mr. McCaul said.

Scrubbing the Beijing trip

At the State Department, a senior official defended the decision by Mr. Blinken to postpone the planned visit to Beijing that was set for this weekend. The meeting would be rescheduled when the atmosphere is more “conducive,” the department said.

“There is a Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon currently over the United States,” the senior official said, rejecting a reporter’s suggestions the incident is unconfirmed.

The senior official said the Chinese balloon prompted issuing multiple diplomatic protests to the Chinese in Washington and Beijing. The protests were issued by Mr. Blinken, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and other officials.

Mr. Blinken informed Wang Yi, China‘s highest-ranking diplomat, on Friday morning that his visit to Beijing was off. While acknowledging the official statement of regret by Beijing, the dispatch of the balloon was “an irresponsible act and a clear violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law that undermined the purpose of the trip,” Mr. Blinken reportedly told his Chinese counterpart.

The official said it was the first time the spy balloon was dispatched and was discovered on the eve of the secretary’s planned visit.

Other officials have said Chinese surveillance balloons in the past were detected over Hawaii, the location of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command headquarters, and over Guam, the western Pacific U.S. island and key military hub.

The balloon spying incident would have narrowed the agenda for high-level talks “in a way that would have been unhelpful and unconstructive,” the senior official said.

But Mr. Blinken also signaled to Mr. Wang that he was postponing but not canceling the trip. The secretary, the department said, said the Biden administration remains “committed to diplomatic engagement and maintaining open lines of communication, and that he would be prepared to visit Beijing as soon as conditions allow”

Dispatching F-22s

Earlier this week, the Pentagon dispatched F-22 jets to monitor the balloon that was floating some 60,000 feet in altitude.

The balloon was first spotted over Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, near missile defenses and tracking gear that are known to be a target of foreign intelligence services. From the Pacific, the balloon floated over Canada and into Montana.

Defense, military, and national security leaders discussed shooting down the balloon. But that option was rejected over concerns the balloon’s payload, estimated to weigh more than 900 pounds, could cause damage on the ground, defense officials said.

Mr. Austin, who has been on a tour of Asian capitals this week, and Gen. Milley met virtually with senior military and defense leaders on Wednesday, including Northern Command head Gen. Glen VanHerck and other commanders to discuss options.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, which oversees defending against intruding aircraft, is closely monitoring the balloon. Montana, where the balloon was detected Wednesday, is host to 150 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) at Malmstrom Air Force Base.

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who also headed the CIA for a time during the Trump administration, criticized the White House’s handling of the balloon incident.

“The Biden administration‘s weakness is provocative. [Chinese President] Xi Jinping and the [Chinese Communist Party] are growing bolder because of it,” Mr. Pompeo said. “Shoot down the CCP’s balloon safely and demand answers from Xi.”

Military analysts suspect the balloon, which can take high-resolution images and measure temperatures, atmospheric and weather conditions, is considered a “near-space” system. As such, the information gathered from the balloon could be used by the Chinese military to help direct ICBMs.

China is engaged in a large-scale buildup of long-range nuclear missiles. Three large missile fields were recently identified in western China that will house up to 320 multi-warhead ICBMs.

Data from the balloon could also be used for hypersonic missiles, which fly along the edge of space at very high speeds and can maneuver on the way to targets. Both China and Russia have active hypersonic weapons programs in place and the Defense Department has been scrambling to catch up in recent months.

Some military analysts also suspect the balloon has enough capacity to carry a small nuclear warhead that could be used to create an electronics-killing electromagnetic pulse over wide areas.

Former Air Force officer David Stuckenberg stated in a recent think tank report that high-altitude aerostats could be used for an electromagnetic pulse attack that could damage all electronics over a 500-mile area.

“Using a balloon as a [weapon of mass destruction] platform could provide adversaries with a pallet of altitudes and payload options with which to maximize offensive effects against the U.S.” he stated in a report by the American Leadership & Policy Foundation.

A 2020 report by four officials at the Chinese Academy of Sciences described China‘s high-altitude, balloon-based sensor systems as a “kind of a large-scale unmanned aerial vehicle.”

“A high-altitude balloon can carry a large load up to tens of kilometers in the near [outer] space for a long time, which brings a new way for stratospheric atmospheric detection,” the report said.

The report identified three tests of the balloon that is outfitted with 700 pounds of equipment, including six cameras that monitor all directions. The balloon tests mentioned in the report involved altitudes of 13 miles.

Staff writers Joseph Clark and Mike Glenn contributed to this story.

• Bill Gertz can be reached at bgertz@washingtontimes.com.

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide