Defense & National Security — Blinken pauses trip after Chinese balloon detected

FILE – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, attends a meeting in Nusa Dua on the Indonesian resort island of Bali Saturday, July 9, 2022. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has postponed  a planned high-stakes weekend diplomatic trip to China as the Biden administration weighs a broader response to the discovery of a high-altitude Chinese balloon flying over sensitive sites in the western United States, a U.S. official said Friday.(Stefani Reynolds/Pool Photo via AP, File)

A Chinese balloon is still flying over the U.S. after it shocked the nation and postponed Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Beijing. 

We’re breaking that down for you, along with stories on the latest advanced weapons for Kyiv and a new report showing roughly 200,000 Russian soldiers have been wounded or killed in Ukraine.

This is Defense & National Security, your guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. For The Hill, I’m Brad Dress.

Chinese balloon halts Blinken’s Beijing trip

The State Department said Secretary of State Antony Blinken will not travel to Beijing this weekend as originally intended while a massive surveillance balloon was flying above the U.S. mainland.

“The presence of this balloon in our airspace is a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law, and it is unacceptable that this has occurred,” a senior administration official said.

Espionage: The balloon was seen flying in Montana, where there is a major Air Force base housing nuclear missiles, and is now hovering over the central part of the country.

  • The Pentagon said officials have been tracking it for days and are continuing to monitor the balloon. 
  • They decided not to shoot it down, at least not yet, because falling debris could pose a threat to the area below.

But what is it? The Pentagon remains firm that this is a high-altitude surveillance balloon — even as China claimed it as a civilian research ship studying weather and expressed regret it blew off course.

  • The Pentagon said such surveillance aircrafts are not new, and that it has spotted similar Chinese balloons in the Pacific before. 
  • But this Chinese balloon stands out because of how long it has lingered over the U.S. and its sheer size.

Pop the balloon: The Chinese balloon sparked anger in the Republican party as members seized on the chance to criticize the Biden administration as soft on China.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) called for a full briefing from Congress and said “President Biden cannot remain silent” on the issue, while Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) pushed for a Senate hearing into Biden’s “baffling” response.

Other Republican lawmakers slammed the Pentagon for not shooting the balloon down and accused the administration of failing to protect national security.

Read more here and a bigger story on what this means here.

More US assistance announced for Ukraine 

The latest advanced weapons for Ukraine include the Boeing-made Ground-Launched Small Diameter Bomb.

This marks the first time the U.S. has sent over to Ukraine a long-range missile, something Kyiv has long requested.

Package deal: The U.S. on Friday announced a $1.75 billion security assistance package to be purchased through the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative package.

  • That means the weapons will be produced by defense contractors and then shipped to Kyiv.
  • Another $425 million in new weapons will come from U.S. stocks. 
  • Washington has provided $29.3 billion to Ukraine since Russia first invaded last February.

Boeing bomb: By far the biggest news from the new package is the Boeing Small Diameter Bomb. 

The Boeing missile, consisting of a 250-pound precision-guided bomb, has a range of 90 miles and is fired from a ground launcher.

Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said this gives Kyiv the capability to “conduct operations in defense of their country and to take back their sovereign territory in Russian occupied areas.”

What it doesn’t have: Ukraine has requested an Army Tactical Missile System, a surface-to-surface missile with a range of up to 200 miles, but this was not included in the latest package.

The U.S. has resisted sending those systems over, largely due to fears of Ukrainian forces striking into Russian territory.

Ukraine is also pushing for F-16 fighter jets, which the Biden administration has also resisted sending over.

Read more here.

Russian casualties in Ukraine approaching 200K

American officials say nearly 200,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded in Ukraine, according to a New York Times report.

That’s much higher than the previous U.S. estimate of about 100,000 casualties.

Tremendous cost: The uptick in casualties is driven by brutal fighting in eastern Ukraine, where forces are locked in combat around the towns of Soledar and Bakhmut.

Western officials say: Russia is sending poorly trained recruits and prisoners to the front lines, where they have been used as cannon fodder by Russian mercenary outfit Wagner Group.

Word of caution: U.S. officials who spoke to The Times stress the numbers are imprecise and difficult to estimate.

The estimates are based on satellite imagery, intercepted communications, social media data, on-the-ground reporting and official government numbers.

Russia is preparing for a massive new offensive, potentially to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the war on Feb. 24. 

Ukraine estimates that up to 500,000 Russian soldiers could be mobilized for the assault.

Read that story here.




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That’s it for today! Check out The Hill’s Defense and National Security pages for the latest coverage. See you next week!

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