Ex-NATO Chief Says U.S. Needs to Prepare for Chinese Balloons of the Future

Admiral James Stavridis says the United States government is not prepared for taking on a hypothetical fleet of Chinese spy balloons.

The retired admiral and former NATO supreme allied commander of Europe wrote in a Bloomberg op-ed that the U.S. military has shown success in shooting down a flying object, but he questioned the response to airborne objects that may appear in the future.

Multiple airborne objects, including one verified Chinese spy balloon, have been shot down recently over various regions across North America. The most recent object was taken down over Lake Huron, near Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Stavridis said the Chinese may have sent the balloon to express displeasure over multiple U.S. policy issues connected to the Indo-Pacific region, including a potential trip to Taiwan by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

In his op-ed, he compared a tour of Cheyenne Mountain, a command-and-control center for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), a decade ago to the bells and whistles on the bridge of a Navy warship.

"Over the past two weeks, that beating heart has probably been running at a very high rate," Stavridis wrote. "After four shootdowns of aerial objects, at least one likely a Chinese surveillance balloon, those watch officers must be getting a bit frazzled."

He added: "As we learn more about aerial intrusions into American and Canadian airspace—NORAD is a joint U.S.-Canada operation—we need to think anew about technology, tactics, operations and strategy. Each has a role in understanding a complex ecosystem that has been flying under the radar, so to speak."

While military-based balloons have been in existence for centuries, the technology has of course improved dramatically. Due to advanced materials composing newer balloons, in addition to streamlined connectivity and sensors, he said readiness with such rapid improvements is integral.

James Stavridis Chinese spy balloons Navy UFOs
James Stavridis, a retired U.S. Navy admiral, speaks to reporters at Trump Tower on December 8, 2016, in New York City. In a new op-ed, Stavridis considered the U.S. military's possible response to multiple airborne objects coming from China simultaneously. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

He also said cost should play a role, with more inexpensive options than using $400,000-a-pop Sidewinder missiles launched from fighter jets.

"Tactically, the U.S. military needs to think about how to deploy anti-balloon systems, with a particular emphasis on being able to recover them aerially as opposed to destroying them, so the technology can be reverse-engineered," Stavridis wrote. "This will be a complex feat of airmanship, but not entirely unknown as a concept. During the Cold War, the U.S. Air Force routinely recovered film capsules after they had been ejected from satellites at altitudes as high as 60 kilometers."

Center for Strategic and International Studies senior adviser Mark Cancian told Newsweek that he views the military's handling as satisfactory given that the first airborne object was not detected until it was over U.S. territory—while the others, whatever they were, were shot down under an abundance of caution given strong political and public response and demands.

"Most disturbing was the realization that objects like these could get through the U.S. air defense system, not just now but, apparently, repeatedly in the past," Cancian said. "There are holes that we were not aware of and that need to be patched immediately."

He added that Stavridis "is absolutely right about the need for better detection."

That includes separating "the benign from the threatening" and using more appropriate weapons "so we are not shooting down errant civilian balloons with expensive missiles designed for World War III," Cancian said.

Newsweek reached out to Stavridis for comment.