Pentagon Says Chinese Balloons Have Traveled Over the US Before

The Pentagon says similar balloons transited the US during the Trump administration, but Trump says it didn't happen

When the Pentagon first announced a Chinese balloon was transiting US airspace, the official said that similar “instances” have happened in the past, including at times before the Biden administration.

On Saturday, a senior Pentagon official briefing reporters was more specific, saying it happened three times under the Trump administration and at least once under Biden.

The official said that Chinese balloons “transited the continental United States briefly at least three times during the prior administration and once that we know of at the beginning of this administration, but never for this duration of time.”

Fox News reported that at least one Chinese balloon flew over Florida and Texas during the Trump administration, but President Trump and former top officials in his administration strongly denied the claim.

Later, an unnamed senior Biden administration official claimed to Fox that the balloons that transited over the US during the Trump administration were only “discovered” after he left office. “They went undetected,” the administration official said.

The Pentagon claims the balloon that was discovered over the US last week was designed for surveillance, while China insists it was a weather balloon that accidentally drifted into the US and was only used for civilian purposes. A US F-22 fighter jet shot down the balloon on Saturday after it was out over the ocean off the coast of South Carolina, a move China criticized as “an obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice.”

Alleged foreign surveillance aircraft operating in the US might not have raised any alarms before the Trump administration withdrew from the Open Skies treaty in 2020. The treaty was signed in 1992 and allowed the US and Russia to fly unarmed surveillance flights over each other’s territories as part of a trust-building arrangement to ease tensions, although China was a party to the treaty.

Russia tried to salvage Open Skies and hoped President Biden would return to the treaty, but Moscow’s offer was rejected by Biden’s State Department. As a candidate, Biden slammed Trump for withdrawing from Open Skies, saying the move would “exacerbate growing tensions between the West and Russia, and increase the risks of miscalculation and conflict.”

While it’s not clear what the balloon was intended for or if it purposely flew over the US, there is a history of balloons being used for surveillance. In the 1950s, the US launched hundreds of surveillance balloons over the Soviet Union and China in an operation known as Project Genetrix.

Today’s satellite technology makes deploying such balloons unnecessary to collect military intelligence. However, POLITICO reported in 2022 that the US was working on a new plan involving balloons to track hypersonic missiles. The report also said that in 2019, the Pentagon launched 25 balloons in a demonstration when considering using them to track drug traffickers.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled his upcoming trip to China after the presence of the balloon was announced, adding to the tensions between Washington and Beijing.

Author: Dave DeCamp

Dave DeCamp is the news editor of, follow him on Twitter @decampdave.