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By John Helmer, Moscow

If the US Government, including the President and the Pentagon, have been telling the truth, the Chinese balloon incursion over US territory for a week has proved to be one of the most effective spy missions ever attempted against US air and missile defences in recent memory.

 If the Chinese Government has been telling the truth, and the balloon was nothing more than a “civilian unmanned airship” out of control due to force majeure, the outcome is exactly the same. It is also the same outcome if the Chinese have been lying, and the balloon was a military intelligence operation.

And if US officials have been lying, concealing what they knew and when they knew what they have publicly announced about the balloon’s mission, the conclusion remains the same: the balloon has exposed fundamental warfighting weaknesses of the US against both Russia and China to its enemies;  and equally to the US allies on the Ukrainian battlefield, in Japan, Korea, Canada and Australia to see for themselves.

The public record is slow to materialize of what exactly happened when the giant balloon  entered the airspace between the Russian Kurile Islands and the American Aleutian Islands; then entered US territorial waters making landfall  over Alaska, then Canada, then the US again. The published maps available in the US media have all been distorted by projections and estimates based on meteorological data and sightings reported to the press by people on the ground.

The precise data of the flight path, speed, electronic signals to and from the airship,  and evidence of control (or lack of control) over its operations are military secrets – US, Chinese, Russian. Opening them up is not necessary, however, to reach several conclusions. For the time being, and failing more evidence and more proof, what follows is a handful of certainties joined by the balance of probabilities.  

That is the test for US juries to convict in cases of fraud.

The first certainty is that the balloon was detected by US military and civilian trackers well before it reached US territorial waters off the Aleutian Islands (Alaska).

The civilian evidence can be found in the Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs) issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for airfields on the Aleutians and related locations, including military bases on the Alaskan mainland.  

The NOTAM evidence can be searched here.  These records reveal detection on January 26 and warning to pilots of a volcanic eruption on the Russian Kurile Islands almost 3,000 kilometres to the west across the Bering and Okhotsk Seas.  Applying this decoder of the NOTAM acronyms,    it can be seen that the balloon warnings available to civilian air controllers in Alaska and pilots flying in the region did not start until January 29. On that day this NOTAM was published:   

It was followed by another NOTAM on January 31:  

Aviation and air control experts should be able to clarify whether these NOTAMs refer to the movement of the balloon. If they don’t, then the questions arise for the Federal Aaviation Administration (FAA) and its regional staff in Alaska – was the balloon detected at 60,000 feet from January 28? Were NOTAM warnings issued to airmen? If not, why not?

The maps published to date reveal why it is improbable for the FAA not to have detected the balloon and issued warnings.

Source: https://www.statista.com/

The Washington Post reporting  suggests the balloon was over water, US territorial water, for least 24 hours and up to 48 hours, from the first sighting on January 28. From this it can be concluded that it was well within range of detection, as well as interdiction, from Fort Greely, a strategic US missile interception base.   Its mission has been publicly declared to be the detection of hostile attacks from North Korea, China or Russia. To safeguard Fort Greely and serve as tactical air support against an attacker moving as slowly as the Chinese balloon, the Elmendorf Air Force Base is close by.  

The first shoot-down opportunity over water which presented itself to the Pentagon, its Northern Command,   and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), was not on February 4, off the South Carolina coast, but much earlier, between January 28 and 31, in the Bering Sea north of the Aleutian island chain. If there were NOTAMs warning civilian aircraft operators at the time around Adak Airport, on Adak Island, had the US military trackers already confirmed the balloon and its payload were not hostile? If there was no detection, did both civilian and military tracking fail? If there was military detection, but no civilian detection, why was this information withheld? If both military and civilian detection systems confirmed the balloon and its Chinese origin, when exactly were the Chinese authorities informed? Did the Chinese Government officially reply to the US aviation notices with  a force majeure  declaration at that time – and was its receipt at NORAD, transferred to the Pentagon, and relayed to the White House and State Department enough to convince US officials in Washington that there was no hostile intent; no Chinese spy operation;, no military threat? Are the answers to these questions concealed from public disclosure because of the political infighting which developed in Washington as the balloon flight continued?

Source: https://www.washingtonpost.com/

This Washington Post map and text confirms  there was concealment by US officials at the start.

Time reported differently. The magazine quoted the NORAD commander as making a statement which implied the balloon had not been detected by the military trackers, and that it was far from the first balloon to be missed. “General Glen VanHerck, commander of U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), confirmed Monday [January 30]  the Chinese government previously sent surveillance balloons above the U.S. that went undetected. ‘Every day as a NORAD commander, it’s my responsibility to detect threats to North America,’ he said at a briefing. ‘I will tell you that we did not detect those threats. And that’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out.’” The general was not saying the Chinese balloons had gone undetected, but that the military threat went undetected. That may be because NORAD had already gathered the evidence that there had been no espionage or other threat from the balloons.    

Source: https://time.com/

General VanHerck became more precise in his public statements on February 4, when he claimed credit for shooting down the balloon off the South Carolina coast – at the opposite end of the continental US which it’s vanHerck’s mission to guard. “’At the direction of the President of the United States and with the full support of the Government of Canada, “, the general announced,   “United States fighter aircraft under U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) authority successfully brought down the PRC’s high altitude surveillance balloon at 2:39 p.m. EST, Feb. 4, 2023. In accordance with the President’s direction, the military brought down the balloon within sovereign U.S. airspace and over U.S. territorial waters to protect civilians while maximizing our ability to recover the payload… I am proud of the exceptional professionalism the NORAD and USNORTHCOM team displayed throughout this operation, and the dedication they bring every day to defending our homelands.”

VanHerck (right) had been silent on January 28-29. On January 30, however, he announced, also with operational pride, that his forces had completed Operation NOBLE DEFENDER in which coordinated US and Canadian forces had practised surveillance, detection, interception, and interdiction of hostile air attacks from the Arctic. The exercise also included this interception: “To conclude the period of operations, NORAD fighters exercised an intercept of a U.S. Strategic Command B-52 representing a threat platform to demonstrate the command’s ability to conduct globally integrated layered defense. NORAD CF-18s escorted the U.S. bomber as it was transiting through northern Canada and the central United States.”  

If US officials, including VanHerck, have been telling the truth, they managed to detect and intercept a hostile nuclear bomber, but at the same time they missed a foreign drone, a “surveillance balloon” reported to be 200 feet (91 metres) tall with a payload weighing at least one tonne.    

The New York Times has confirmed that the NORAD trackers had detected the balloon over the Bering Sea as it approached the Aleutians. The newspaper’s Pentagon sources were reported as confirming the trackers knew, or thought they knew, that the balloon was under control.  “Saturday, Jan. 28. The spy balloon starts a controlled drift into American territory, entering Alaskan airspace near the Aleutian Islands. At first it appears to trackers at United States Northern Command to be just another one of China’s light probes around the edges of America’s defensive borders. Monday, Jan. 30. By the end of the day, it has exited American territory and is over Canada, officials say, carrying its solar panels that power its propulsion and its cameras and surveillance equipment.”  

The newspaper omitted to say what the US trackers knew for the two days between January 28 and 30. The Times then reported  that on Tuesday, January 31, “the balloon re-enters the United States over Idaho, to the surprise of officials at Northern Command as well as at the Pentagon…Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, alerts President Biden. The president asks for military options, including the immediate destruction of the aircraft. Mr. Biden also orders that no activities or sensitive unencrypted communications would be conducted in the path of the balloon.”

If these US officials were telling the truth to the newspaper, they were admitting the Chinese had succeeded in a three to four-day hostile incursion, taking the US early-warning systems and anti-ballistic missile protection forces entirely by surprise. This length of time – 72 hours to 96 hours – represents an interval long enough, hypothetically,  for the new generation of Russian hypersonic missiles to destroy all the western-based and midwestern land-based nuclear missile bases, roughly half the urban area of the US, and possibly the eastern half as well. Is this conceivable?

If not, then the alternative probability is that there was no US surprise – the balloon had been verified as posing no military threat;  and that the generals and the White House have been concealing the evidence and lying from beginning to end.

Were VanHerck, Milley, and President Joseph Biden lying or  telling the truth when they claimed they did not shoot down the balloon sooner, while it was crossing the US landmass, because they wanted  “to protect civilians while maximizing our ability to recover the payload”?

CNN recorded Biden as claiming after the shoot-down that he had ordered it on February 1, but Pentagon officials “told me – let’s wait to the safest place to do it.”  

The maps and media reports of the flight path of the balloon reveal that it crossed areas which the US military routinely use to test missile interceptors, and where the risk of falling missile debris on people is negligible; this is because the population densities – in Alaska, for example, or Canada’s Yukon – range from 1.3 people per square kilometre to 0.1. Was the risk of a shoot-down in those areas that a civilian might come across the balloon debris and reveal it publicly to the press? Was the Bering Sea seabed off the Aleutians significantly deeper and colder (frozen) than the Atlantic off South Carolina, and so more problematic for recovery in secret? Or was the reason for delay because Generals VanHerck and Milley, NORAD, and the assembled technical intelligence officers of the National Security Agency and others briefing the president in the National Security Council had concluded the balloon was not operating spyware, and not a threat to the US?

If this was the reason for delay – and even if it wasn’t the reason — the delay itself has presented the two enemy powers against which it is US policy to go to war – China and Russia – with an exceptional display of collapse between the military and intelligence operations of the US Government and the political staffs of the White House and State Department, and then their loss of nerve.

US media reporting confirms the timing of Biden’s shoot-down decision was calculated to neutralize the Republicans in Congress, and turn the episode around in order to damage the re-election threat from ex-President Donald Trump. According to the Republican Party version of the truth, the Democrats are now lying that similar balloon incidents had occurred during the Trump administration. According to Trump’s last Defense Secretary Mark Esper , he was “surprised…I don’t ever recall somebody coming into my office or reading anything that the Chinese had a surveillance balloon above the United States.”  By “surveillance, Esper meant espionage, not meteorology.

Source: https://edition.cnn.com/

John Bolton (pictured above), the former national security adviser under Trump, implied the Democrats are now lying. “Did the Biden administration invent a time machine? What is the basis of this new detection?… The very fact, if it is a fact, that the Chinese tried this before, should have alerted us and should have caused us to take action before the balloon crossed into American sovereign territory.”  Bolton meant the obvious – if it had been the truth that NORAD had detected a hostile threat from the balloon, the order to shoot it down should have been executed between January 28 and 30, over the Bering Sea.

Bolton is a candidate for the 2024 presidential election himself.  In his announcement last month, he claimed he would be running “primarily on the basis that we need a much stronger foreign policy.”

If Bolton and Trump’s generals had been ignoring stray meteorological balloons from China, without discovering their spyware and China’s hostile intent, then the interception and destruction of the “civilian unmanned airship” is turning out to be nothing more than a domestic dogfight. Biden unmanned.

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