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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Anuj Pant

New details reveal how China ‘spy’ balloons floated over Hawaii and Florida under Trump’s watch


A US military document that is not in the public domain has revealed how China has allegedly been operating large balloons to traverse several parts of the world.

The report, dated April 2022 and partially accessed by CNN, stated damning accounts of how Chinese balloons “circumnavigated the globe” in 2019.

In a further embarrassing claim for Donald Trump, who was president at the time, the US Air Force document said such craft had “drifted past Hawaii” and “across Florida” as well.

Mr Trump had earlier scoffed at the Pentagon’s claims that there were three separate incidents of balloons flying over the US during his presidency, by saying the US rival had “too much respect” for him to have carried out such an activity.

The Pentagon’s claims had not detailed specifics of the areas where the balloons had traversed.

The latest balloon incident has led to an escalation of a war of words between the US and China and prompted secretary of state Antony Blinken to call off his trip to Beijing.

The US has claimed the massive balloon, that was spotted over Montana and Canada, was used for surveillance while China insisted it was for civilian purposes and had blown off course.

In this image provided by the US Navy, a US Coast Guard helicopter flies over a debris field during recovery efforts of a high-altitude surveillance balloon on 4 February (AP)

The US unhesitatingly shot down the balloon using a fighter jet as soon as it was clear it was above water and not land, where officials said undertaking such an operation could have posed a threat to people.

Angered over the US move, China said the shooting down was an “obvious overreaction” even as yet another balloon found floating above Latin America and the Caribbean was claimed by the country to be another one of its unmanned civilian airships.

The Air Force report, titled “People’s Republic of China High-Altitude Balloon”, stated that China has had the ability to fly such craft in several parts of the globe for years now.

The assessment revealed that such balloons, that it calls “high altitude balloons” or HABs, can be flown thousands of feet above the surface.

China has “deployed multiple HABs that can operate at 65,000ft -- 328,000 ft and for months at a time”, the assessment pointed out, as per CNN.

Biden administration officials are seizing to take control of the narrative as Joe Biden came under attack from Republicans over his handling of the incursion of the balloon into US airspace (AFP via Getty Images)

US officials have also acknowledged that a balloon had floated above the continental US in a previous instance in the early days since Joe Biden took over as president.

Biden administration officials have scrambled to seize control of the narrative as Republicans attacked the president’s handling of the incident and commentators mocked the US on social media and accused it of fretting over a balloon.

Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer’s office said a classified briefing would take place for senators over the matter on Thursday.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said at an event on Monday that the US has “enhanced our surveillance of our territorial airspace, we enhanced our capacity to be able to detect things that the Trump administration was unable to detect”.

He added that “historical patterns” were being looked at to upgrade surveillance improvements, even as Trump-era officials like Mark Esper and Robert O’Brien expressed “surprise” and unawareness respectively of any incursions having taken place at their watch.

That such craft belonged to China was determined only after they had left US airspace in the previous purported times, according to General Glen VanHerck, the head of US Northern Command.

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 on 4 February (AP)

“I will tell you that we did not detect those threats,” he said. The general pointed to “a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out” and said the US intelligence community had pointed to such alleged incursions only “after the fact”.

The US has also alleged China has flown such balloons over five continents in the past.

After the shooting down of the balloon, Mr VanHerck described the debris on waters off the Carolina coast as over “15 football fields by 15 football fields square”.

“The payload itself, I would categorize that as a jet airliner type of size, maybe a regional jet… Probably weighed in excess of a couple thousand pounds,” he said.

Mr Sullivan, on the other hand, did not elaborate on what enabled the US to detect and track the balloon this time.

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