Balloon recovery begins as U.S. probes what China knew
WASHINGTON — The U.S. has started to recover some parts from the Chinese balloon that an American F-22 fighter jet shot down off the coast of South Carolina, as Biden administration officials said the U.S. was still trying to figure out how much senior leaders in Beijing knew about the alleged spy mission.
The debris field where the balloon and its payload came down is about 15 American football fields long and the same distance wide, and the U.S. is doing a survey of the site and retrieving wreckage, Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, told a briefing Monday. He said one concern was whether the equipment carries explosives or other hazardous materials.
Those were among new details that the administration disclosed about the balloon two days after it was shot down. VanHerck said the balloon was a “maneuverable platform” and the administration gained a better sense of what it could do during the time it moved across the U.S.
“They utilized their maneuverability to strategically position themselves to utilize the winds to traverse portions of countries that they want to see,” VanHerck said of China. “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.”
The latest information only deepened the administration’s conviction that the balloon wasn’t simply a weather-monitoring device as Chinese officials have claimed. In a briefing Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning repeated China’s assertion that the balloon that passed over U.S. territory last week was an “isolated incident.”
In a sign of more tension to come, the Chinese Foreign Ministry sharpened its tone Sunday after the American F-22 popped the balloon with a Sidewinder missile and sent its payload crashing into the Atlantic Ocean. Beijing called the decision a “clear overreaction” and said it reserved the right to respond.
“China will resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of the company concerned, and reserves the right to make further responses if necessary,” Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng said, according to a Foreign Ministry statement released Monday. Xie lodged a formal diplomatic protest with the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, the ministry said.
Now that the balloon is down and recovery efforts are underway, the administration also focused on determining whether Chinese leaders were aware of the spying program and whether it represented a more aggressive intelligence push in the U.S. National security adviser Jake Sullivan said the administration was still trying to understand Chinese officials’ thinking on the matter.
“Sitting here today, I’m not going to characterize Chinese government’s either knowledge, intention, strategy, lack of strategy,” Sullivan told a forum in Washington. “Conclusions about kind of who knew what when, in Beijing, that’s something we’re still piecing through.”
John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council, told reporters that “it strains credulity, as we have been saying for many days, that this was some sort of innocent weather balloon that was just floating upon the winds.”
The U.S. assessed that the balloon didn’t present an urgent intelligence-gathering threat and took “maximum protective measures” while it was transiting across the U.S. to neutralize its intelligence-gathering capabilities and glean as much as was possible about its use by the Chinese, VanHerck said in his briefing.
“There was a potential opportunity for us to collect intel where we had gaps on prior balloons,” he said. “You’ll see in the future that that time frame was well worth its value to collect.”
Analysis of the 200-foot-tall balloon’s payload, which he said was similar in size to a Embraer ERJ regional jet and probably weighed thousands of pounds, allowed NASA to calculate the rough size of the potential debris field, and led to the U.S. decision to shoot it down six miles off the coast of South Carolina, VanHerck said.
The recovery efforts, which include a Navy ship mapping the debris field, were well underway but had been complicated by the need for precautionary efforts to ensure the debris field was free of any explosives or hazardous materials from batteries, he added. Those efforts began on Monday after choppy seas on Sunday had prevented those teams from operating, he added.