The US military observed a number of alleged Chinese surveillance balloons over the Middle East in recent years, Air Forces Central Command chief Lt. Gen Alexus Grynkewich said on Monday. Washington and Beijing have thrown accusations of espionage at each other since the US shot down several high-altitude objects in recent days.
“Even though we have seen high altitude balloons in the region before, they have not been a threat, they have not been something of concern for us.” Grynkewich said at an event hosted by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a think tank funded by the US military and the weapons industry.
Across the US military’s Central Command, which encompasses the Middle East and parts of Central Asia, one “main incident” involving a balloon took place last fall, while “one or two others” took place in previous years, the general continued. These balloons, which Grynkewich identified as Chinese, “have not hung out over American bases or been any threat to our forces whatsoever,” he added.
“The level of concern that I have about them is extremely low,” he said. “It’s not something I lose sleep over.”
US warplanes shot down a “Chinese surveillance balloon” off the coast of South Carolina over a week ago, after the aircraft had crossed much of the country. The Pentagon said that the balloon carried equipment used to survey “strategic sites,”while Beijing insisted that it was a “civilian airship” that strayed from its course.
Three similar objects have since been shot down by American fighters over the US and Canada, although none of these craft have been labeled as Chinese by US officials. Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of US Northern Command, told reporters that the military is refusing to “categorize them as balloons,” and isn’t sure “how they stay aloft.”
Speaking at a press conference on Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said that “it is also common for US balloons to illegally enter the airspace of other countries.” Wang claimed that in the past year, “US high-altitude balloons have illegally flown over China’s airspace more than ten times.”
The White House denied Wang’s accusations, but Grynkewich said on Monday that balloon surveillance allows the user “to maintain your eye on a particular area of the planet for a while,” and that the US Air Force is “definitely interested in those technologies.”