Several U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels established a security perimeter where the balloon hit the water, about six nautical miles off the coast of South Carolina, and were searching for debris, a senior defense official and a senior military official said on Feb. 4.
“The nature of the debris is still being assessed. But recovery options will seek to recover all debris and any material of intelligence value,” the defense official said. “And we’ll make sure that we’re working closely with the FBI on the chain of custody as we do so.”
The two officials didn’t give an estimate of how long the recovery will last but noted that the mission should be “fairly easy,” since the balloon came down in a shallow area.
The recovery of the balloon will allow analysts to examine any sensitive Chinese equipment, according to the defense official.
“I would also note that while we took all necessary steps to protect against the PRC surveillance balloon’s collection of sensitive information, the surveillance balloon’s overflight of U.S. territory was of intelligence value to us,” the defense official said, using the acronym for the People’s Republic of China.
“I can’t go into more detail, but we were able to study and scrutinize the balloon and its equipment, which has been valuable.”
Navy divers and a salvage vessel under U.S. Northern Command will join the recovery effort, the military official noted.
“We have learned technical things about this balloon and its surveillance capabilities. And I suspect if we are successful in recovering aspects of the debris, we will learn even more,” the military official said.
President Joe Biden arrives to board Air Force One at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base in Syracuse, N.Y., on Feb. 4, 2023. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)
President Joe Biden gave the order to shoot down the balloon, the defense official said, and an F-22 Raptor fighter from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia fired an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile at the balloon at 2:39 p.m. local time, causing the balloon to crash.
The fighter jet fired from an altitude of 58,000 feet, while the balloon at the time was between 60,000 and 65,000 feet, according to the defense official.
The defense official also provided a timeline of when the Pentagon began tracking the balloon. The balloon entered the U.S. air defense zone north of the Aleutian Islands of Alaska on Jan. 28, then entered Canadian airspace on Jan. 30, before reentering U.S. airspace over Idaho on Jan. 31.
The balloon was spotted above Montana—home to one of the U.S. nuclear silos—on Feb. 2, the day that Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder revealed the existence of the balloon.
The balloon then flew over several Midwest states before passing over South Carolina.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, in a statement after the balloon was shot down, said the Pentagon ruled out downing the balloon over land “due to the size and altitude of the balloon and its surveillance payload,” which would pose an “undue risk to people across a wide area.”
Austin noted that the decision to shoot down the balloon “was taken in coordination, and with the full support, of the Canadian government.”
Anita Anand, Canada’s minister of national defense, said in a statement that Canada “unequivocally supports” the U.S. action.
Canada’s Minister of National Defence Anita Anand attends the 15th Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas (CDMA) in Brasília, on July 26, 2022. (Evaristo Sa/AFP via Getty Images)
The defense official also noted that it wasn’t the first Chinese surveillance balloon that had flown over the United States.
“PRC government surveillance 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,” the defense official said.
However, former President Donald Trump and some top national security and defense officials from his administration dismissed that claim and criticized the Biden administration for spreading disinformation.
The defense official also rejected China’s claim that the balloon was a weather balloon that had been blown off-course.
“This surveillance balloon purposefully traversed the United States and Canada. And we are confident it was seeking to monitor sensitive military sites. Its route over the United States, near many potential sensitive sites, contradicts the PRC government’s explanation that it was a weather balloon,” the defense official said.
Another Chinese spy balloon has been spotted transiting Latin America.
“These balloons are all part of a PRC fleet of balloons developed to conduct surveillance operations, which have also violated the sovereignty of other countries,” the defense official said.
“These kinds of activities are often undertaken at the direction of the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA. Over the past several years, Chinese balloons have previously been spotted over countries across five continents, including in East Asia, South Asia, and Europe. PRC intrusions violating our sovereignty and the sovereignty of other countries are unacceptable.”
In response to its balloon being shot down, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement threatening what it calls “further responses.”
“The U.S. use of force is a clear overreaction,” the ministry stated, before noting that China “reserves the right to make further responses if necessary.”
South Carolina’s North Myrtle Beach Police Department, in a post on Facebook on Feb. 4, warned local residents that some “pieces” of the balloon “may wash ashore.”
“If a piece is located, please contact your local law enforcement agency for collection,” the police department stated.
Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) speaks at a campaign rally she held in East Lansing, Mich., on Oct. 16, 2022. (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) wrote on Twitter on Feb. 4 that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) must face consequences for its incursion into U.S. airspace.
“I’m glad we shot it down now that there’s no risk of civilian casualties, but there need to be consequences for the CCP beyond the postponement of [Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s] trip to Beijing,” Slotkin wrote.
She noted that the United States needs to take steps to demonstrate to the Chinese regime “the seriousness of their actions.”
“Whether through new sanctions or tighter restrictions on U.S. exports to China, the message needs to be loud and clear,” Slotkin wrote.
Blinken was originally scheduled to arrive in China on Feb. 5 for a two-day visit. He postponed the trip, telling China that its action was “irresponsible” and a “clear violation of U.S. sovereignty.”
“I look forward to receiving a briefing from the Admin on the balloon’s capabilities, what if any assets have been surveilled, and our plan to stop this from happening in the future,” Slotkin said.
Rep. Marc Molinaro (R-N.Y.) also called for a briefing from the administration.
“We need to know how this balloon was able to penetrate our airspace, what sensitive material it was able to capture, and how we will prevent future breaches,” he wrote in a statement. “I call on the Biden Administration to hold a classified briefing for Members of Congress to answer these questions and propose a path forward.
“We must work together to hold China accountable and better protect our national security.”