Defense & National Security — Questions remain after Chinese balloon downed

As the U.S. government gathers the debris from a suspected Chinese spy balloon shot down off the South Carolina Coast, questions remain as to what intel the aerial object gathered and how often Beijing has sent similar balloons over U.S. airspace.  

We’ll share details of the clean-up efforts and what we know so far about previous instances of spy balloons over North America, plus lawmakers look to probe the Biden administration about the balloon and a warning from the United Nations secretary-general about the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

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

US works to recover suspected China spy balloon

Navy vessels were off the coast of South Carolina on Monday to recover pieces of the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon shot down this past weekend, though rough waters initially complicated the effort, according to the head of U.S. Northern Command.    

A Navy dock landing ship, the USS Carter Hall, is in the vicinity of where the balloon splashed down after President Biden on Saturday ordered the U.S. military to shoot down the aerial object that had spent days floating over the country, Gen. Glen VanHerck told reporters.   

Search area: The ship is currently collecting and categorizing debris while an oceanographic survey ship, USNS Pathfinder, is mapping out the balloon’s debris field, predicted at about 1,500 meters by 1,500 meters, or “more than 15 football fields by 15 football fields,” he said.   

Taking precautions: As the military is worried that material on the balloon could contain explosives or be hazardous, an explosive ordnance disposal team was on-site Monday morning. The forces deployed unmanned underwater vehicles with side-scan sonar to further locate sunken debris, VanHerck noted.   

He added that rough seas on Sunday curtailed some recovery operations such as underwater surveillance and said some debris may float to shore due to ocean currents. Should that happen, he asked the public to avoid contact with any debris and to contact local law enforcement if they find it.   

The lead up: The salvage operation concludes a bizarre series of days in which the suspected Chinese balloon floated through U.S. airspace. At some points, it was visible to those on the ground, and it was first spotted over Montana. Defense officials said it was a clear effort to spy on sensitive sites, though officials held off on shooting it down until it was over water due to fears falling debris could harm civilians. 

Awareness gap: VanHerck acknowledged that a “domain awareness gap” led to U.S. officials being unaware of the several previous surveillance balloons that flew over the country at that time.   

In this case, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which VanHerck also oversees, first detected the balloon north of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska.   

It’s complicated: He described the balloon as up to 200 feet tall and carrying a device that was roughly the size of a regional jet that likely weighed about 1,000 pounds. That payload made shooting down the balloon complicated, he said.  

“From a safety standpoint, picture yourself with large debris weighing hundreds if not thousands of pounds falling out of the sky,” he explained.    

Before downing the balloon, the Pentagon worked with NASA to assess what a debris field might look like, with the agency predicting six or seven miles of wreckage. Officials also ensured that there was no air traffic nearby at the time of the operation.

Read more details here  

PENTAGON ‘DID NOT DETECT’ PREVIOUS SPY BALLOONS

A top U.S. general said that the Pentagon did not detect previous Chinese spy balloons as they were in the air, after former President Trump and members of his administration vehemently denied a claim from defense officials that such balloons had flown over the U.S. at least three times during his presidency. 

Gen. Glen VanHerck, the head of U.S. Northern Command, said Monday that the Defense Department “did not detect” the previous balloons, adding the intelligence community was made aware of them through other means of information collection. 

“We did not detect those threats,” VanHerck told reporters. “The intel community after the fact — I believe as has been briefed already — assessed those threats from additional means of collection and made us aware of those balloons that were previously approaching North America or transited North America.” 

Prior knowledge: After a senior defense official said  over the weekend that the U.S. was aware of at least three different times such balloons flew over the U.S. during the Trump administration, the former president and his intelligence officials came out to deny the claim

The clash between the Biden administration and Trump and his former officials prompted Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) to call for a probe into why Trump was not made aware of the balloons during his presidency, if they were detected. 

Read more here  

GOP gears up to grill Biden officials over balloon

Lawmakers are planning to probe the Biden administration for what they are calling a failure to protect national security as a Chinese spy balloon flew over the U.S. for several days before it was shot down Saturday.  

While there has been no official announcement of an investigation yet, House Republicans are itching to grill the Biden administration for allowing a foreign adversary’s surveillance device to breach U.S. airspace, and letting it stay there for days. 

Tensions high: The incident has inflamed already fraught tensions with China, and GOP lawmakers have said it’s another sign of U.S. weakness in the face of rising threats from Beijing.  

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), said he was “deeply concerned by the Biden administration’s decision to allow the spy balloon to traverse the United States.” 

“The White House must provide answers about why they decided to allow a [Chinese Communist Party] spy balloon to cross the United States and what damage to our national security occurred from this decision,” he said in a Saturday statement . “The United States must project strength to deter China — this failure is another example of weakness by the Biden administration.” 

On the books: The HASC has already scheduled a hearing on Tuesday  morning to hear from non-governmental witnesses on the “pressing threat of the Chinese Communist Party to U.S. national defense.” 

Criticisms: Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also expressed concerns the Biden administration did not “take care” of the balloon before it became a “national security threat.” 

“I will be demanding answers and will hold the admin accountable for this embarrassing display of weakness,” McCaul said in a statement.  

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), a member of the HASC, took the issue a step further, calling on Biden and Vice President Harris to resign. 

“When the domestic attack occurs, Biden and Harris will not be able to adequately respond,” Wilson tweeted .

‘Demanding answers’: While Democrats have largely defended the Pentagon’s response, Montana’s Democratic Sen. Jon Tester said he was “demanding answers” from the Biden administration and announced he would hold a hearing as chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. 

Read that story here  

UN chief warns of ‘wider war’ one year after invasion

United Nations (U.N.) Secretary-General António Guterres warned on Monday that the Russia-Ukraine conflict could eventually lead the world toward a “wider war.”   

Speaking to the U.N. General Assembly , Guterres noted several of his priorities for this year, including focusing on climate change, poverty, rising nuclear threats and ongoing conflicts around the world. 

“We have started 2023 staring down the barrel of a confluence of challenges unlike any other in our lifetimes,” Guterres said in his speech. “We need a course correction. The good news is that we know how to turn things around — on climate, on finance, on conflict resolution, on and on. And we know that the costs of inaction far exceed the costs of action.” 

A major worry: Guterres cited the Russia-Ukraine conflict as one of his major worries, saying that the “prospects for peace” between the two countries amid the nearly one-year conflict continue to diminish.  

“The Russian invasion of Ukraine is inflicting untold suffering on the Ukrainian people, with profound global implications. The prospects for peace keep diminishing. The chances of further escalation and bloodshed keep growing,” Guterres added. “I fear the world is not sleepwalking into a wider war. I fear it is doing so with its eyes wide open.” 

Timing: Guterres’s remarks come as Russia’s conflict against neighboring Ukraine is closing in on a full year, resulting in thousands of deaths on both sides and the displacement of some 8 million Ukrainian citizens. 

Read the full story here  

ON TAP TOMORROW

  • Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) will speak to media as part of the George Washington University Project for Media and National Security Defense Writers Group, at 8 a.m.  
  • The Wilson Center will host a virtual discussion on “Water and Conflict: Updates from the Russia-Ukraine War,” at 9:30 a.m.  
  • The House Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on “The Pressing Threat of the Chinese Communist Party to U.S. National Defense,” with former national security advisor Robert O’Brien and former U.S. Pacific Command head retired Adm. Harry Harris, at 10 a.m.
  • The Hudson Institute will host a discussion on “Impressions from the Lublin Triangle on the Ukraine War,” at 10 a.m.
  • Brookings Institution will hold a conversation on “The Russia-Ukraine war: Year two and strategic consequences,” at 2 p.m.
  • President Biden will delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at 9 p.m.
  • Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) will deliver the Republican response to the president’s State of the Union address at 10:15 p.m. 

WHAT WE’RE READING

OP-EDS IN THE HILL

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

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