Why we are still talking about that Chinese spy balloon

Some people might be ready to move on from the Chinese spy balloon, but what we’re learning day by day should leave us unnerved. President Biden’s decision to shoot down the balloon off the coast of South Carolina is almost the least important aspect of last week’s events. This is an extensive, ongoing, and troubling Chinese military effort to learn secrets that we don’t want China to know, and it sounds like it took the Pentagon quite a while to even detect these balloons. Don’t look for the partisan scandal, look for the military-effectiveness scandal.

What is the Pentagon not telling us?

Reuters, June 17, 2020:

The appearance of a mysterious white object in the sky over northern Japan on Wednesday set social media ablaze, with speculation ranging from UFOs to coronavirus and North Korean propaganda.

Television footage taken in the northeastern city of Sendai showed a balloon-like object above a cross, on which propellers seemed to be turning. Officials in the Sendai Weather Bureau said it had appeared near dawn and hung in the sky for hours, largely unmoving, until obscured by clouds. 

Sendai and its surrounding area are home to four bases of the Japanese Self-Defense Force: Camp Sendai, Camp Kasuminome, Camp Tagajo, and Matsushima Air Base.

There’s a photo of that “mysterious white object” at the Reuters link above. That, my friends, looks a heck of a lot like the Chinese spy balloon that crossed the U.S. last week.

Yesterday, the U.S. laid out more of what it knew about China’s spy-balloon programs. The Pentagon press secretary, Air Force brigadier general Pat Ryder, confirmed that, “We are aware that there have been four previous balloons that have gone over U.S. territory. . . . What we do know is that in some cases whereas some of these balloons previously had not been identified, subsequent analysis, subsequent intelligence analysis did enable us to indicate that these were Chinese balloons.”

This means the “Why didn’t Trump shoot the balloons down?” questions from this past weekend look even sillier, as the Pentagon now says that it and the intelligence community did not determine those previous balloons were part of a Chinese espionage effort until much later — years, in some cases.

In fact, a senior administration official told CNN that, “The transiting of three suspected Chinese spy balloons over the continental US during the Trump administration was only discovered after President Joe Biden took office.” That verifies the statements from Trump administration national-security advisers H. R. McMaster, John Bolton, and Robert O’Brien and former Trump administration Defense secretary Mark Esper that they were never briefed or informed about any Chinese spy balloons.

In fact, as General Glen VanHerck, the commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, said Monday, the U.S. didn’t even detect those balloons at the time. That’s what should really keep us up at night.

VanHerck said, “So those balloons, so every day as a NORAD commander it’s my responsibility to detect threats to North America. I will tell you that we did not detect those threats. And that’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out. But I don’t want to go in further detail.”

I’ll bet he doesn’t!

We now can piece together some details about the incursion that occurred earlier in the Biden administration. In February 2022, Major General Kenneth Hara, adjutant general for the state of Hawaii, issued a statement that “Indo-Pacific Command detected a high-altitude object floating in air in the vicinity of the Hawaiian Islands. In accordance with homeland defense procedures, Pacific Air Forces launched tactical aircraft to intercept and identify the object, visually confirming an unmanned balloon without observable identification markings. As part of our normal daily operations, we closely track all vessels and aircraft in the Indo-Pacific area of operations through a combination of joint capabilities.”

Kauai is home of the Kauai Test Facility, a rocket-launch range in Hawaii operated by Sandia National Laboratories for the Department of Energy as part of the U.S. Navy Pacific Missile Range Facility.

To sum up, the U.S. didn’t detect those first three balloons at the time, didn’t determine that they were part of a Chinese espionage effort until much later, and apparently in late January, the detection of this most recent Chinese spy balloon wasn’t treated as an urgent warning:

A day before the suspected Chinese spy balloon entered US airspace over Alaska, the Defense Intelligence Agency quietly sent an internal report that a foreign object was headed towards US territory, military and intelligence officials familiar with the matter told CNN.

The report — also known as a “tipper” — was disseminated through classified channels accessible across the US government. But it wasn’t flagged as an urgent warning and top defense and intelligence officials who saw it weren’t immediately alarmed by it, according to sources.

Instead of treating it as an immediate threat, the US moved to investigate the object, seeing it as an opportunity to observe and collect intelligence.

It wasn’t until the balloon entered Alaskan airspace, on January 28, and then took a sharp turn south that officials came to believe it was on a course to cross over the continental US —  and that its mission might be to spy on the US mainland.

Much of the mainstream media is ready to move on from the news cycle about the Chinese spy balloon, except when it can be used as a partisan cudgel. The Hill helpfully offers the vital information that Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene’s “viral SOTU outfit was meant to echo Chinese spy balloon.”

As much as people would like to turn the Chinese balloon story into another exercise in “Trump stinks” or “Biden stinks,” there’s a more much troubling, less partisan problem or scandal here. It’s not clear that our current NORAD systems are sufficiently effective at detecting these balloons. You keep seeing people pointing out that the balloon’s view of U.S. military facilities isn’t all that different from what the People’s Liberation Army can see through spy satellites. But those balloons are likely also attempting to intercept signals. The point isn’t to just take pictures of a nuclear-missile silo; it’s also to intercept and decode communications.

And in that CNN article above, a Senate Republican aide said that, “There are still a lot of questions to be asked about Alaska. Alaska is still part of the United States – why is that okay to transit Alaska without telling anyone, but [the continental US] is different?”

What’s in the Aleutian Islands? Oh, only one of the most strategically located U.S. air bases on the planet:

What would arguably be among target number one on American soil during an all-out conflict with a peer state such as China or Russia, Shemya Island sits in the Aleutian Island chain as America’s closest stronghold to Russia’s eastern flank. It is home to the powerful and now upgraded AN/FPS-108 Cobra Dane early warning and tracking radar used to spot incoming ballistic missile strikes. This, along with a number of other ancillary capabilities it provides, including a 10,000-foot runway and associated airfield infrastructure with plenty of ramp space and an emergency arresting gear system, makes Shemya an extremely important locale that is worth protecting. . . .

Shemya was a major player when it came to strategic surveillance during the Cold War. Beyond the Cobra Dane radar installation, detachments of RC-135 surveillance aircraft flew missions from the island throughout the Cold War, with Cobra Ball rocket and missile tracking aircraft standing alert from the unforgiving airfield all the way into the mid-1990s. . . .

In the intervening post-Cold War years, beyond Cobra Dane radar, listening post, and weather station operations, Shemya was probably best known as an emergency landing strip for stricken airliners and military aircraft flying the northern routes than as a strategic fastness. That is all rapidly changing in the new era of so-called ‘great power competition.’ The cold truth is that Shemya would likely play a major role during any conflict in the Pacific, even beyond its strategic monitoring duties.

In 2021, special operators, including the U.S. Army’s Green Berets, conducted a training operation, simulating defending the island from an attempt to capture it. Oh, and last September, guess whom the U.S. spotted sailing in the neighborhood?

A U.S. Coast Guard vessel on a routine patrol in the Bering Sea waters off Alaska earlier this month unexpectedly encountered Chinese and Russian warships operating together in formation. . . . The crew later spotted six additional vessels — two more ships from China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy and four Russian Navy ships, including a destroyer — sailing together with the missile cruiser within the U.S. exclusive economic zone.

Say, do you think the Chinese military would like to listen in on communications to and from that base?

You know what else is in Alaska? The Missile Defense Complex housed at Fort Greely, one of the two most important missile-defense bases in the U.S., described as “the only protection America has against an incoming North Korean ICBM.” Or, say, an intercontinental ballistic missile from some other Asian country.

Add it all up, and there are nine U.S. military bases in Alaska, conducting missions from air defense and missile-launch detection, weapons testing, air patrols, and training. As Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin put it in July 2021, “We are an Indo-Pacific nation, and we are an Arctic nation. And here in Alaska, those two critical regions intersect.”

Chinese spycraft flying over Alaska — or any other U.S. state, territory, or military base — are not something that can be hand-waved away. And apparently, President Biden wasn’t notified about this balloon until January 31, when it crossed over from Canada into Montana.

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