The Pentagon did not shoot down the Chinese balloon as it approached Alaska in late January because it did not pose a military threat to the United States or Canada, the top commander for defending the United States said Monday.
The balloon, which Pentagon officials said was built to spy on sensitive military sites, was shot down Saturday off the coast of South Carolina after entering the country in Alaska. Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, briefed reporters on the decision to allow the balloon to track across the United States, recovery efforts and previous balloon incursions.
The balloon captivated Americans’ attention, fueled rage on Capitol Hill and created a diplomatic rupture with China. Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a planned trip to China as the balloon floated over the United States.
Debris stretches the length of 15 football fields
The balloon measured 200 feet, and the intelligence payload was about the size of a regional jetliner and weighed thousands of pounds, VanHerck said. Debris from shooting it down earlier could have killed civilians on the ground, Pentagon officials have said.
The debris field in the ocean off the coast of South Carolina stretches 15 football fields by 15 football fields, VanHerck said. It is being treated as potential hazardous waste because explosives might have been aboard to destroy sensitive equipment. However, there has been no indication that the balloon carried explosives, he said.
By the time it crossed into the United States at the Aleutian Islands Jan. 28, the balloon had been assessed as a surveillance device. It did not pose a military threat, VanHerck said, so it could not be shot down.
“I could not take immediate action because it was not demonstrating hostile act or hostile intent,” VanHerck said.
Military officials took action to shield sensitive sites along the balloon’s path to limit its effectiveness, VanHerck said. Intelligence was also gained by studying its capabilities. He refused to say if electronic jamming devices were used to prevent it from transmitting information to China.
On Saturday, Pentagon officials revealed that suspected Chinese spy balloons had entered U.S. airspace three times during the Trump administration and once earlier in the Biden administration. Those incursions were not known at the time they occurred, VanHerck said. The U.S. intelligence community determined they occurred after the fact, he said.
NASA provided models that showed the debris from shooting it down could stretch over six miles, VanHerck said. That is why commanders waited until it was six miles offshore before an F-22 fired an AIM-9 sidewinder missile with an explosive warhead into the balloon at 2:39 p.m. ET on Saturday, he said.
Navy and Coast Guard ships are patrolling the area where it splashed down, VanHerck said. Strong currents prevented recovery efforts on Sunday, he said. Navy explosive ordnance disposal teams were on the site Monday assessing the debris, which is in about 50 feet of water.
They will look for explosives that may have been aboard the balloon to destroy it, although there are no initial signs of such devices, he said. They will also look for potentially hazardous waste such as batteries and broken glass from solar panels.
FBI counterintelligence officials are embedded with the Navy to examine and exploit potential sensitive material that is recovered, VanHerck said.
Story Credit: usatoday.com