- Lawmakers are scrutinizing the military’s response to the Chinese spy balloon that floated over the US this month.
- Officials say they waited to shoot it down to lower the risk to the public and increase their ability to recover it.
- US officials say balloons have crossed over the US before as part of a wider Chinese surveillance program.
When a US Air Force F-22 blasted a Chinese surveillance balloon out of the sky with an AIM-9X missile on Saturday — a first for the plane and the missile — it brought the balloon’s journey across the US to an end.
US officials say they first detected the balloon on January 28 as it approached Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. It then floated across the US, including over military facilities housing ICBMs and stealth bombers, before its demise roughly 6 miles off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
The eight-day wait and the sensitivity of those bases have alarmed lawmakers, who called defense officials to Capitol Hill on Thursday to explain their handling of the incident. In response to questions about why the military didn’t bring down the balloon sooner, the officials stressed that they believed there was a low threat of it gathering valuable intelligence and that shooting it down presented an outsized risk.
US Northern Command “assessed that there was no hostile act, hostile intent, or potential impact to critical intelligence capabilities,” Lt. Gen. Douglas Sims II, director for operations for the Joint Staff, told the Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee. Moreover, Sims said, the command “was continuing to characterize the system.”
Sims emphasized that the risks of downing the balloon over land, even while it was over sparsely populated areas of Alaska, were considered too high. “At that time, we didn’t understand through the modeling if we shot that what it would do on the ground,” Sims said.
“Ultimately, it came back to maybe a 20-mile by 20-mile piece of ground, and without being able to clear that, we wouldn’t do that in combat,” Sims said of a potential shoot-down. “I think in this case, we certainly didn’t want to take that chance with Alaska or any other Americans throughout the flight path.”
At the same hearing, Melissa Dalton, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense, said officials were focused on being able to retrieve the balloon.
“A key piece of this is the recovery, for us to be able to exploit and understand this balloon and its capabilities fully,” Dalton said.
Six miles off the of the Aleutians, a chain of islands stretching across the Bering Sea, water depth goes “very quickly from about 150 feet to over 18,000 feet,” Dalton said.
“The winter water temperatures in the Bering Sea hover consistently in the low 30s, which would make recovery and salvage operations very dangerous,” Dalton said. “Additionally, the northern portion of the Bering Sea has ice cover, which can be extremely dangerous.”
“Again, a key part of the calculus for this operation was the ability to salvage, understand, and exploit the capabilities of the high-altitude balloon, and we look forward to sharing that with you in a classified session and also openly as we learn more,” Dalton said.
The balloon, which was roughly 200 feet tall, carried a payload that officials said weighed several thousand pounds. Most of the debris landed in about 47 feet of water, which “will make it fairly easy” to recover, a senior military official said shortly after the shoot-down. Waters off of Myrtle Beach are 50 degrees on average in February.
US military personnel and law-enforcement agencies began collecting debris over the weekend. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III told CBS News on Wednesday that most of the balloon had been recovered and that officials were preparing to recover the cameras and antennas it had been carrying.
The balloon’s intelligence value has been a point of contention. Lawmakers have expressed concern about what it could reveal about US capabilities, while US officials have said repeatedly that steps were taken to obscure sensitive US hardware and that they believe the US will glean more from the balloon than China was able to gather with it.
US officials had mapped the balloon’s route and “took measures to protect those sites, per established protocols,” Dalton said Thursday. “That included sensitive communications and covering up certain facilities.”
US officials have also said that the balloon is also part of a worldwide surveillance program.
A State Department official said in a statement on Thursday that the US knows China has flown such balloons “over more than 40 countries across 5 continents” and that they are part of a “fleet of balloons developed to conduct surveillance operations.”
High-resolution images taken by U-2 spy planes showed that the balloon was capable of gathering electronic signals like those emitted by military hardware, the official said. The balloon also carried equipment with multiple antennas, including “an array likely capable of collecting and geo-locating communications,” as well as solar panels large enough “to produce the requisite power to operate multiple active intelligence collection sensors.”
At least four similar balloons have crossed over US territory in recent years, though for much shorter periods than the balloon shot down this month.
Those balloons weren’t identified due to what the head of US Northern Command called “a domain-awareness gap,” but Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, said Wednesday that “subsequent intelligence analysis” found them to be Chinese surveillance balloons and that US officials had “learned a lot” about how to track them.
“This last week provided the United States with a unique opportunity to learn a lot more about the Chinese surveillance balloon program — all information that will help us to continue to strengthen our ability to track these kinds of objects,” Ryder said.