US Navy releases photos of Chinese spy balloon recovery effort
By Haley Britzky, CNN
The US Navy released photos Tuesday of its recovery effort of a suspected Chinese spy balloon, which US fighter jets shot down over the Atlantic Ocean on Saturday.
The photos from Sunday show sailors from a Navy explosive disposal team pulling debris from the deflated balloon onto a boat. The debris recovered is being taken to an FBI laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, for analysis as the US looks to understand the capabilities of the balloon.
On Monday, Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of US Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), told reporters that the balloon was roughly 200 feet tall and carried a payload weighing more than a couple of thousand pounds.
US officials had been tracking the balloon for several days by the time it appeared in the skies over Montana. President Joe Biden said over the weekend that he’d directed the US military to shoot down the balloon as soon as it was safe to do so, but officials said it posed a risk to civilians and property on the ground.
“[F]rom 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,” VanHerck said on Monday. “So glass off of solar panels, potentially hazardous material, such as material that is required for a batteries to operate in such an environment as this and even the potential for explosives to detonate and destroy the balloon that could have been present.”
US officials also determined that the balloon did not pose a significant risk in its ability to gather intelligence.
A senior defense official said last week that the balloon had “limited additive value” from an intelligence collection perspective. Nevertheless, VanHerck said Monday that he and the commander of US Strategic Command took “maximum precaution” to prevent China’s ability to collect intelligence.
He added that because the balloon was detected early enough, the US was able to turn the tables and gather intelligence on the balloon itself.
“[T]his 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 that time frame was well worth its value to collect over,” VanHerck said.
The balloon was ultimately shot down on Saturday afternoon by a single missile from a F-22 fighter jet out of Langley Air Force Base, Virginia. The operation was carried out by active duty, Reserve, National Guard, and civilian personnel, according to the Navy’s photo captions.
China, which had maintained that the balloon was a weather balloon, immediately criticized the US’ actions
Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson Tan Kefei said on Sunday that the US had “used force to attack our civilian unmanned airship, which is an obvious overreaction.”
“The Chinese side has repeatedly informed the US side after verification that the airship is for civilian use and entered the US due to force majeure — it was completely an accident,” another statement from the Foreign Ministry said.
US officials, however, didn’t buy China’s explanation. One US military official said the concern over the balloon was not about intelligence collection but rather the “audacity” of the Chinese government.
The situation resulted in a postponed visit for Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing, which had been expected to happen within days of the balloon’s sighting.
“In my call today with Director Wang Yi, I made clear that the presence of this surveillance balloon in US airspace is a clear violation of US sovereignty and international law,” Blinken said, “that it’s an irresponsible act, and that the (People’s Republic of China) decision to take this action on the eve of my planned visit is detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have,”
The Pentagon was also tracking a second balloon found floating over Latin America, which Defense Department spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said was assessed to be “another Chinese balloon.”
China admitted ownership of the balloon on Monday, saying it was used for flight tests and had “seriously deviated” from its flight course “by mistake.”
“China is a responsible country,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said on Monday. “We have always strictly abided by international law. We have informed all relevant parties and appropriately handled the situation, which did not pose any threats to any countries.”
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