Since NORAD revealed that failed to notice previous incidents (rather than not publicizing them) shows a gap in America’s air defenses.
On Feb. 6, 2023 the commander in charge of protecting American skies revealed that Pentagon failed to detect Chinese surveillance balloons that have previously entered US airspace.
According to Air & Space Forces Magazine, the revelation comes as the Pentagon has sought to explain how a Chinese surveillance balloon was able to float over North America last week, getting far enough into U.S. airspace that the military said it was unsafe to shoot down without risking injuries to civilians on the ground.
The head of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and US Northern Command (NORTHCOM), Air Force Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, told reporters;
“As 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.”
On Feb. 4 Pentagon officials said surveillance balloons had entered US airspace at least four times in recent years, during both President Joe Biden’s and President Donald Trump’s administrations. VanHerck said that NORAD did not know about those cases in real-time, showing a deficiency in protecting American skies. The intelligence community eventually made “us aware of those balloons that were previously approaching North America or transited North America,” he added.
This most recent balloon sparked domestic and international uproar. It first entered the US Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) on Jan. 28, before traversing the Aleutian Islands, entering Canada, and reentering the United States over northern Idaho on Jan. 31, U.S. officials said. VanHerck said the balloon was “up to” 200 feet tall and had a “jet airline type” payload of a couple thousand pounds.
Since NORAD revealed that failed to notice previous incidents (rather than not publicizing them) shows a gap in America’s air defenses. Now, thanks to the information gathered from the debris of the balloon, scattered over about 1,500 square meters in 50 feet of water, as well as from information gleaned during its flight, the Defense Department hopes to plug with some of the information.
“We utilized multiple capabilities to ensure we collected and utilized the opportunity to close intel gaps.”
He also revealed that after the first balloon was being tracked, “speculation” of a second balloon over North America led NORAD to launch Canadian and American fighters to conduct a visual search.
National Security Council strategic communications coordinator John Kirby said that the Biden administration is willing to brief Trump administration officials about balloon incidents.
In the meantime, the Chinese government acknowledged that it has another balloon over Latin America. A senior defense official said Feb. 4 there were previous cases across five continents. It is unclear if any part of the US government tracked previous Chinese balloons in real time.
This most recent balloon sparked domestic and international uproar.
For days, the Department of Defense sought to explain how a surveillance asset from its main rival had managed to end up—and stay—in American airspace, even as the US acknowledged it was tracking the balloon that was trying to take a peek at sensitive national security sites.
The balloon first entered US air defense identification zone (ADIZ) near Alaska on Jan. 28, north of the Aleutian Islands and moved largely across land, a senior defense official said. But the balloon continued to fly even as the US tracked it, the official said, and entered Canadian airspace on Jan. 30., which is protected jointly by the US and Canada through North American Aerospace Command (NORAD), before reentering US airspace in northern Idaho Jan. 31.
Two F-22 Raptor stealth fighters were scrambled from Nellis Air Force Base (AFB), Nev. on Feb. 1, 2023 to observe the balloon over the continental US.
The Pentagon’s failure to acknowledge the incident until Feb. 2—after it had been spotted by civilians over Montana—prompted consternation on both sides of the aisle in Congress. Local media reported that residents in Montana noted an unusual object in the sky. The USAF has ballistic missile fields across a wide swath of Montana, as part of the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom AFB, Mont.—one of three American strategic nuclear ICBM bases.
President Biden was briefed on the balloon and asked for military options the senior defense official said.
The senior defense official said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley and VanHerck recommended “not to take kinetic action due to the risk to safety and security of people on the ground from the possible debris field,” which led to Biden deciding not to use force against the balloon. According to the Pentagon, the balloon is still at a “high altitude” over the continental US, though they declined to specify its protected flight path or current location.
China claimed the balloon was a weather balloon that had drifted off course.
“China regrets that the airship strayed into the United States due to force majeure,” China’s foreign ministry said in a statement Feb. 3., referring to a situation out of its control.
But a senior defense official said that “Clearly the intent of this balloon is for surveillance. And so, the current flight path does carry it over a number of sensitive sites.”
He added that the US was confident the balloon was from the People’s Republic of China.
On Feb. 4, 2023 at 2:39 pm Eastern time, a US Air Force (USAF) F-22 Raptor from the 1st Fighter Wing at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va. successfully shot down the spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina. The Raptor fired one AIM-9X Sidewinder into the approximately 90-foot wide balloon, causing it to fall towards the Atlantic Ocean.
F-15s from Barnes Air National Guard Base, Mass., as well as multiple tankers assisted in the effort. US defense and military officials said in a briefing to reporters that the F-22 fired the Sidewinder from 58,000 feet, hitting the balloon operating at around 60,000 to 65,000 feet. It is the first known air-to-air takedown for an F-22.
As the balloon finally drifted over the Atlantic, a Langley F-22, using the callsign FRANK01, finally brought it down. A NORTHCOM spokesperson said the callsign was a homage to Lt. Frank Luke Jr., a World War 1 ace and Medal of Honor recipient. Luke was nicknamed the “Arizona Balloon Buster” after destroying 14 German balloons in 17 days. Luke AFB, Ariz. is named in his honor.
The Raptor did not use the AIM-120 for “safety considerations” because the AMRAAM has a larger warhead, so the preferred option was the AIM-9X, VanHerck explained. VanHerck also said he was not aware of any air-to-air other engagements occurring at that altitude.
VanHerck said it was up to Langley’s 1st Fighter Wing to determine if the F-22 should receive a black balloon painted on the side, denoting a kill.
Photo credit: Russotp, Own work via Wikipedia