Defense

‘Clear Message To China’: GOP Senator Hammers Pentagon For Letting Spy Balloon Fly Over Alaska

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter & Pentagon Correspondent
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Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska hammered the Department of Defense (DOD) for allegedly failing to treat Alaskan airspace as they would the contiguous United States at a subcommittee hearing Thursday.

The Pentagon moved to take action against the Chinese spy balloon once it appeared to change course and transgress into the lower 48 states, witnesses testified to the Senate Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee. Senators, including Murkowski and Republican Maine Sen. Susan Collins, questioned whether DOD should have considered its threat level differently as soon as it entered Alaska, which hosts missile defense and F-35 fighters as a first line of defense against attacks from Pacific adversaries.

“I am so angry. I want to use other words but I am not going to,” Murkowski said before the witnesses, which included Melissa Dalton, the assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and hemispheric affairs, and Jedidiah Royal, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs.

“The clear message to China is: we got free range in Alaska because they’re going to let us cruise over that until it gets to more sensitive areas,” she said. (RELATED: China Has Completed ‘Dozens’ Of Missions In Massive Spy Balloon Campaign: REPORT)

North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) commander Gen. Glen VanHerck, who oversees aerospace advance warning and defense for the U.S. and Canada, said on Feb. 6 that the U.S. had custody of the balloon as soon as it crossed Alaska’s Air Defense Identification Zone.

“It was my assessment that this balloon did not present a physical military threat to North America,” the general said in answer to a question on why the U.S. did not down the balloon over Alaska. “Therefore I could not take immediate action because it was not demonstrating hostile acts or hostile intent.”

At the briefing, witnesses reiterated previous DOD positions that shooting down the balloon over land could endanger civilians caught in the path of the falling payload, which was estimated to be the size of multiple school buses.

In addition, attempting to salvage debris in frigid, deep Alaskan waters would have posed a danger to those involved in recovery, Dalton told Congress.

Senators appeared dissatisfied with the explanation.

“Alaskan airspace is American airspace,” Collins said in her opening statement.

The public hearing took place ahead of a classified briefing, where witnesses said they would be able to provide more detail on what the surveillance balloon might have collected and, in turn, what the U.S. has learned about PRC surveillance capabilities.

“We have some very good guesses” about what information China intended to collect, Royal said. “We are learning more as we exploit the contents of the balloon.”

The balloon likely operated antennas and solar panels enabling it to collect intelligence on electronic signatures, State department officials revealed earlier on Thursday, The Associated Press reported.

Witnesses did not give a definite answer when Democratic Montana Sen. Jon Tester asked what plans DOD had to deal with future balloon incursions.

“It is incredibly serious and we are…. learning more about it,” Dalton said.

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