Navy admiral expresses ‘concern’ with Pentagon’s ability to detect Chinese spy balloons

In this photo provided by Chad Fish, the remnants of a large balloon drift above the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of South Carolina, with a fighter jet and its contrail seen below it, Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023. The downing of the suspected Chinese spy balloon by a missile from an F-22 fighter jet created a spectacle over one of the state’s tourism hubs and drew crowds reacting with a mixture of bewildered gazing, distress and cheering. (Chad Fish via AP)

A Navy admiral and former head of U.S. Pacific Command on Tuesday said it was concerning that the Defense Department was unable to detect at least four previous Chinese spy balloons that flew over the U.S. in recent years.

Speaking at a House Armed Services Committee hearing, retired Adm. Harry Harris Jr. told congressional lawmakers there is a “disconnect in our ability to understand these balloons.”

“That ought to concern all of us,” Harris said, adding it was imperative the U.S. take steps to understand the technologies and capabilities of the surveillance devices.

Harris on Tuesday joined Melanie Sisson, a foreign policy fellow at the Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy and Technology, to discuss the rising threat of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on U.S. national security.

The hearing comes after a Chinese spy balloon flew over the continental U.S. for several days, capturing the public’s attention on its path from Montana to South Carolina, where a fighter jet shot it down over the Atlantic Ocean on Saturday.

On Monday, Gen. Glen VanHerck, the head of U.S. Northern Command, told reporters the Pentagon failed to detect three previous Chinese surveillance balloons during the Trump administration.

At least one other Chinese balloon surveillance device also flew over U.S. skies during the Biden administration, VanHerck added, raising more questions about the incursions.

Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), a member of the Armed Services panel, told The Hill that congressional lawmakers should “absolutely” look into the previous Chinese spy balloon flyovers.

“The committee has a responsibility to look at all areas of national security,” Horsford said. “We should review actions from the current and previous administrations.”

The high-profile balloon incident last week canceled a trip Secretary of State Antony Blinken was planning to make to Beijing over the weekend, which Sisson said was “a shame.”

“We need those high-level contacts,” Sisson said at the Armed Services hearing. “It would have been an opportunity to discuss crisis management.”

China has said the balloon was a civilian weather research airship, a claim the Pentagon has denied.

Similar Chinese surveillance balloons have been spotted in other countries, including one last week in Latin America.

U.S. officials, who first detected the balloon over the Aleutian Islands in Alaska on Jan. 28, are currently working to recover the equipment of the balloon to better understand the device.

Republican lawmakers have slammed the Biden administration for allowing the Chinese spy balloon to float over the U.S. mainland for several days before it was shot down because it could have collected sensitive information.

The Pentagon said it took steps to ensure the balloon was not collecting any compromising information, although it did fly over Montana, home to one of the nation’s three nuclear missile fields.

Republican lawmakers have argued there were chances to take the balloon out over the waters of the Aleutian Islands or sparsely populated areas in America’s heartland.

Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), a member of the Armed Services panel, did not have an immediate comment on the previous balloon incursions but said she was concerned about how the Pentagon responded to the balloon over the weekend.

“I would pay attention to the kinds of military sites the balloon flew over,” Mace told The Hill. “Why did we wait four days to do it?”

Rep. Cory Mills (R-Fla.) said at the hearing on Tuesday that he viewed the balloon incursion as a “vulnerability assessment” from the PRC.

“Allowing it to come across the United States was a huge mistake and a failure,” Mills said. “If the idea was to shoot it down in a safe area, then we could have done that over the Pacific.”

Harris, the Navy admiral, told lawmakers he believed the Pentagon responded appropriately to the Chinese balloon.

“I do think shooting it down over the Atlantic was the appropriate response,” he said. “If it was a threat to the United States, if it was collecting information that could not be blocked … then that’s a different issue.”

The U.S. and China are sparring on nearly every front, from trade and economics to the self-governing island nation of Taiwan, where there remains a threat of a Chinese invasion.

Harris said this decade would be the “decisive” one between the two superpowers, although he did not explicitly agree with the recent warnings from an Air Force general of a war between the U.S. and China in 2025.

The retired Navy admiral stressed it was vital to enact a clear policy for how the U.S. would respond to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and ensure American troops are prepared for a conflict.

“Last week’s spy balloon drama playing out on the doorstep of the secretary of State’s visit to Beijing typifies PRC bad behavior and disregard for international norms,” Harris told lawmakers in opening remarks. “That Beijing would claim the incursion over American airspace was innocuous and unintended beggars the imagination.”

Tags Armed Services Committee China Cory Mills Harry Harris Matt Gaetz Nancy Mace Nancy Mace Steven Horsford Steven Horsfurd Taiwan US Washington DC

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