Pentagon Reveals Why It Waited Days To Shoot Down Chinese Surveillance Balloon

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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The U.S. was able to collect valuable information on China’s surveillance capabilities while observing the spy balloon as it traversed the continental U.S. for several days, a senior military official and senior defense official claimed Saturday.

President Joe Biden asked for possible military options for removing the threat of the suspected Chinese spy balloon Tuesday, but the Department of Defense (DOD) opted against doing so Wednesday over concerns falling debris could endanger civilians, officials said at a briefing Saturday. However, they did not clarify whether a military option was considered when the craft transgressed U.S. airspace over Alaska’s Aleutian Islands on Jan. 28, before crossing into Canada and reentering U.S. territory on Jan. 31 in northern Idaho.

Waiting to down the balloon “actually provided us a number of days to analyze this balloon, and through a number of means,” the defense official said. “We don’t know exactly all the benefits that will derive, but we have learned technical things about this balloon and its surveillance capabilities.”

The U.S. was able to “study” and “scrutinize” the balloon and its spying capabilities, which the official described as “broad.” (RELATED: US Bans Chinese Tech That Allegedly Lets China Spy On Military Sites)

Additional information about Chinese surveillance methods could be gathered once U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels recover debris that splashed down in the water, officials said. While recovery efforts had already begun, the officials could not provide an exact timeline.

An F-22 fighter jet from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia took a single shot with an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile from an altitude of 58,000 feet, sending the balloon and its payload plummeting into waters off South Carolina, the officials explained.

In addition, the military had determined it did not pose an immediate threat to Americans and would not provide China with a significant surveillance advantage. They also took “precautions” to minimize the balloon’s collection value.

“At the point we felt it posed a potential threat to us in the continental United States we started developing options, and at that point we decided that the risk-reward was not worth taking it down overland,” the senior defense official said.

The U.S. downed the balloon at 2:39 p.m. Eastern time, when it was roughly six nautical miles off the coast, but still within U.S. sovereign territory, the senior defense official said.

“This was the first available opportunity to successfully bring down this surveillance balloon in a way that would not pose a threat to the safety of Americans,” the defense official said.

The debris field would cover at least seven miles, the senior military official said.

China deployed similar balloons in the continental U.S. at least three times during the Trump administration and once at the beginning of the Biden administration, but never for as long as the latest incident, the defense official said.

The Pentagon has identified at least one other surveillance balloon currently transiting Latin America, the officials said.

“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 official said, adding that balloons have been spotted in countries spanning five continents in recent years.

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