The first part of the saga of the Chinese spy balloon that had traversed airspace over the continental United States during last week came to an end on Saturday when F-22s were scrambled to down the airship. However, later that day a new chapter began when defense officials informed reporters of previous incursions by similar Chinese reconnaissance balloons.
Republican lawmakers have been criticizing the Biden administration’s response to the intrusion of the Chinese spy balloon but at least three of those previously unknown occasions when “PRC government surveillance balloons transited the continental United States briefly” were during the Trump administration. Another prior brief transit of US airspace occurred at the beginning of the Biden’s term in office according to the senior defense official.
Chinese spy balloons spotted over the US during Trump administration
The Defense Department also gave further details on the Chinese surveillance balloon program to Congress on Saturday. Lawmakers were informed that there had been previous sightings of such aircraft near Texas, Florida, Hawaii and Guam. Fox News was the first to report that at least one balloon flew over portions of Texas and Florida when Trump was president. The only current GOP candidate for the 2024 race denied the reports on his social media site saying that “China had too much respect for” him to allow such a thing to happen.
Four months ago, one of the airships crashed off the coast of Hawaii. However, the reporting did not indicate whether any wreckage was recovered.
Where else have Chinese surveillance balloons been spotted?
At a briefing with the press on Saturday, defense officials explained that “over the past several years, Chinese balloons have previously been spotted over countries across five continents.” These include parts of East Asia, South Asia, and Europe and currently, there is another balloon traversing Central and South America.
“These balloons are all part of a PRC fleet of balloons developed to conduct surveillance operations, which have also violated the sovereignty of other countries,” the senior defense official said. The illegal activities, the defense official said, “are often undertaken at the direction of the People’s Liberation Army.”
Defense Department advised against downing balloon for safety
Many have been critical of the decision not to shoot down the Chinese surveillance balloon sooner and allowing it to fly over sensitive sites in the US. However, the defense officials countered that “the surveillance balloon’s overflight of US territory was of intelligence value to us.” Although the primary reason was to avoid “undue risk of debris causing harm to civilians while the balloon was over land”
That is why the order to take down the airship wasn’t carried out until it was off the coast of South Carolina. Defense officials had determined early on that the balloon traversing the US and Canada “never posed a military or physical threat to the American people.”
The extended amount of time that was available to observe allowed them to “learn a lot about what this balloon was doing, how it was doing it, why the PRC might be using balloons like this.” That included technical things about it such as its surveillance capabilities which measures were taken to protect against while overflying the nation. As debris from the downed balloon is recovered officials expect to “learn even more.”