Chinese balloon 'demanded a strong response' from Biden, expert says as administration unveils guidelines on shooting down objects
President Biden's remarks on Thursday were intended to dispel confusion — and to pull the nation out of what had at times seemed like a science fiction movie with an espionage twist.
WASHINGTON — In his first extensive public comments after ordering the U.S. military to shoot down a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon and three other unidentified aerial objects, President Biden said Thursday that he would make “no apologies” for authorizing the use of force, even as he pledged to institute new guidelines for future encounters.
“Make no mistake, if any object presents a threat to the safety and security of the American people, I will take it down,” Biden said, in what could only be interpreted as a warning to China, which has considerably expanded its aerial surveillance program in recent years.
"This is a very public example of Chinese interference in the United States, and it demanded a strong response from the Biden administration,” said one China expert, Isaac Stone Fish. Although much more significant surveillance is happening from technology firms like ByteDance (the parent company of the controversial social media site TikTok) he said, the balloon had become a “public symbol of Chinese overreach” that needed to be addressed.
He described the president’s remarks as sending a blunt message that Beijing would have little trouble interpreting: “This specific type of Chinese surveillance is not going to be OK."
More broadly, the president’s address was intended to dispel confusion — and to pull the nation out of what had at times seemed like a science fiction movie with an espionage twist.
“I want to be clear,” Biden said, “We don’t have any evidence that there has been a sudden increase in the number of objects in the sky. We’re now just seeing more of them.” This he attributed in part to enhanced radar capabilities.
“We have to keep adapting our approach to dealing with these challenges,” the president added. He laid out an approach that includes seeking a thorough inventory of unmanned objects flying through U.S. airspace, implementing more sophisticated means to accurately detect those objects and setting out new rules for how such objects can be launched.
“This new specter of aerial threats represents an opportunity — and a test case — for integrated deterrence,” Tom Karako, a missile defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Yahoo News, referring to a new Defense Department approach that seeks to use both military and nonmilitary means to confront threats from adversaries like China and Russia.
Biden had already appointed national security adviser Jake Sullivan to lead an “interagency team” on how to respond to aerial objects. On Thursday, he also announced a new effort by Secretary of State Antony Blinken “to establish common global norms in this largely unregulated space.”
The president’s remarks sought to cap a week of extraordinary — and extraterrestrial — speculation about unprecedented encounters in U.S. airspace.
Earlier this week, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre insisted that none of the objects appeared to belong to beings from other planets. Welcome as that revelation may have been, it and other statements by senior administration officials could not answer pressing questions about the extent of Chinese surveillance, or about how the U.S. military was distinguishing between foreign objects potentially used for spying and harmless research vehicles.
“We just don’t know,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on Monday, as salvage crews attempted to reach the remains of the three objects shot down over the weekend. As suspicions mounted that those objects were probably not part of China’s surveillance program, it became more pressing for Biden to weigh in.
Speaking from the White House after returning from Walter Reed hospital in Bethesda, Md., where he had undergone his annual physical, Biden struck a sometimes combative tone, giving no concessions to critics who said he had overreacted. Other critics had accused him of being too slow to order a takedown of the first balloon, the only one that has been definitively attributed to a foreign power: China.
His toughest remarks were accordingly reserved for Beijing. “We’re not looking for a new Cold War, but I make no apologies,” he said, adding that he was expecting to speak to the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, soon.
Biden’s remarks came amid mounting questions surrounding his decisions to shoot down the objects detected in U.S. airspace, and among calls for greater transparency from his administration on how it is responding to such incidents.
“I think this is a bit of a wakeup call for a lot of folks,” Karako of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said earlier this week.
For many Americans, the very notion that China was flying balloons over the United States was a revelation, and not an especially welcome one.
The spy balloon first appeared over the United States at about 60,000 feet near Alaska in late January, to float across the country before Biden ordered it shot down off the coast of Myrtle Beach, S.C., on Feb. 4. The recovered debris was taken to an FBI laboratory in Quantico, Va., for analysis.
China said the balloon was an "unmanned civilian airship" — not used for surveillance — that had floated off course.
But then more objects seemed to emerge over U.S. airspace.
On Friday, Biden ordered the downing of an unidentified object that was spotted flying off the remote northern coast of Alaska. Kirby said the president made the decision to shoot down the object — roughly the size of a small car — because it was flying at about 40,000 feet and posed a reasonable threat to the safety of civilian flights, not because of an understanding that it was engaged in surveillance. Biden later called the operation a “success.”
On Saturday, U.S. and Canadian officials said a U.S. fighter jet had shot down an unidentified object that was flying high over the Yukon territory. Biden ordered the object to be shot down after consulting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, the joint U.S.-Canada organization that provides shared defense of airspace over the two nations.
Then, on Sunday, Biden ordered the U.S. military to shoot down an unidentified object over Lake Huron — the third such event in three days and the fourth in little more than a week.
The Pentagon said the object, which was octagonal, with “strings hanging off” and no discernible payload, was flying low, at an altitude of about 20,000 feet, when it was shot down by an F-16 fighter jet with a Sidewinder missile near the U.S.-Canadian border. U.S. officials later said that the first missile fired at the object missed its intended target.
“First shot missed,” Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters on Tuesday. “The second shot hit.”
Kurt Anderson, a professor of mechanical, aeronautical and nuclear engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, said the three objects shot down between Friday and Sunday could have been launched by recreational balloon enthusiasts.
"If I were to guess, those were weekend warriors, people like you and I that were flying small balloons that they bought from third parties," he said. "It isn't that hard to do. And so it could be that literally these are people that, ‘Hey, I got this great weather balloon and I flew it,’ and they're particularly happy now that it's made it into the news."
Anderson, an expert in near-space technology, said such aerial launches are common but had not been widely publicized until the spy balloon episode.
"It's not that we have so many of them now," he said. "It's because they actually have been there and we've never paid attention to them, because our radar isn't really set up for looking for them."
Anderson said he agreed with Biden's decision to shoot them down, given the threat they posed to air travel.
"You can bring down an aircraft with a Canada goose," Anderson said. "These things definitely do pose a threat to civilian and commercial aircraft."
New rules could prevent takedowns of scientific objects with benign purposes. The more difficult question is how to curb China’s balloon program, which could have severe geopolitical implications.
In an interview with CBS News, John K. Culver, a China expert and former CIA analyst, wondered if "we're too focused on what this balloon may or may not have collected" for intelligence purposes. He speculated that last week's incident could hint instead at "the wartime potential of China's ability to conduct high-altitude balloon operations, particularly at scale."