(CNSNews.com) - Gen. Glen VanHerck, the commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and the U.S. Northern Command, told reporters on Monday the United States military failed to detect four earlier balloons sent either toward U.S. air space or into it.
"So those balloons, so every day as a NORAD commander it's my responsible to -- responsibility to detect threats to North America. I will tell you that we did not detect those threats.
"And that's a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out. But I don't want to go in further detail," VanHerck said at an off-camera briefing.
"The intel community, after the fact, I believe has been briefed already, assess those threats to additional means of collection from additional means and made us aware of those balloons that were previously approaching North America or transited North America. I hope that answers your question."
VanHerck said the U.S. did have "domain awareness" of the most recent Chinese balloon as it approached Alaska:
"It was my assessment that this balloon did not present a physical military threat to North America -- this is under my NORAD hat. And therefore, I could not take immediate action because it was not demonstrating hostile act or hostile intent," he said.
VanHerck said concerns about the balloon's size and its undetermined payload made a shoot-down inadvisable:
"So the balloon assessment was up to 200 feet tall for the actual balloon. The payload itself, I would categorize that as a jet airliner type of size, maybe a regional jet such as a ERJ or something like that. Probably weighed in access of a couple thousand pounds.
"So I would -- from a safety standpoint, picture yourself with large debris weighing hundreds if not thousands of pounds falling out of the sky. That's really what we're kind of talking about.
"So glass off of solar panels, potentially hazardous material, such as material that is required for batteries to operate in such an environment as this and even the potential for explosives to detonate and destroy the balloon that -- that could have been present.
"So I think that would give you an idea of the perspective of the balloon and the decision-making process along the way."
In response to a later question, VanHerck said he "can't confirm" whether the balloon carried explosives or not.
"Anytime you down something like this, we make an assumption that that potential exists. We did not associate the potential of having explosives with a threat to dropping weapons, those kinds of things, but out of a precaution, abundance of safety for not only our military people and the public, we have to make assumptions such as that."
As for the balloon's spy capabilities, VanHerck said, "We did not assess that it presented a significant collection hazard beyond what already exists in actionable, technical means from the Chinese.
"And with that said, you always have to balance that with the intel gain opportunity.
"And so there was a potential opportunity for us to collect intel where we had gaps on prior balloons, and so I would defer to the intel community, but this gave us the opportunity to assess what they were actually doing, what kind of capabilities existed on the balloon, what kind of transmission capabilities existed, and I think you'll see in the future that the -- that time frame was well worth its value to collect."