Defense

The Chinese Spy Balloon May Have Accidentally Flown Over The US Mainland. GOP Lawmakers Say It Doesn’t Matter

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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  • The U.S. began tracking the Chinese spy balloon immediately after it launched from a Chinese island as Beijing offered conflicting explanations about their ability to control the craft, according to recent reports.
  • Republican lawmakers say the new revelations only deepen questions about when the Biden administration determined the spy balloon posed a threat to the U.S.
  • “Speed is life, and the [Department of Defense] should have acted sooner,” Republican Florida Rep. Mike Garcia said.

As new details emerge about an apparent series of mistakes that led to the U.S. shooting down a Chinese surveillance balloon after it had crossed much of the North American continent, Republican lawmakers say none of it changes their assertion that the administration should have taken action to protect U.S. airspace long before the balloon entered Alaska.

U.S. officials revealed Wednesday that the Chinese spy balloon shot down off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4 may have inadvertently veered off course over the Pacific and was never intended to reach the U.S. heartland, according to reports from The Washington Post and The New York Times. However, China’s muddled response and the Biden administration’s decision to let the craft attempt to surveil U.S. military sites leaves more questions than answers, lawmakers say.

“We’ve continued to see the narrative shift from the Biden administration, especially as it relates to defending our airspace,” Mike Republican Rep. Mike Waltz of Florida, Chairman of the Readiness Subcommittee on the House Armed Services Committee, told the DCNF. (RELATED: ‘We Learned Nothing’: Senators Still In The Dark On Aerial Object Takedowns After Classified Intel Briefing)

American intelligence agencies tracked the balloon as soon as it launched from the island of Hainan in late January, a Chinese military outpost near China’s southeastern coast, modeling a flight path that should have carried the craft over Guam and Hawaii, the NYT reported. Both entities house military installations seen as important for countering Chinese aggression in the Pacific.

Strong winds associated with a cold front that swept northeastern Asia may have blown the balloon off its intended course, the Post reported.

“Recent accounts suggest that the [Department of Defense] was late in identifying the threat of the CCP spy balloon, and did so long after the balloon unexpectedly changed course over the continental United States. This is unacceptable,” Republican Rep. Mike Garcia of Florida, a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told the DCNF.

However, it is not clear from comments made by the Pentagon and White House officials or recent reporting exactly where, or how many times, the balloon veered in an unexpected direction.

Senior U.S diplomats confronted their Chinese counterparts without success apparently as it passed over the U.S., including over U.S. missile silos in Montana, according to the NYT. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his deputy secretary, Wendy Sherman, confronted Zhu Haiquan, a senior PRC diplomat, at 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 1 and demanded the PRC take action, officials said.

However, the balloon continued its course for days and Chinese officials did nothing, the NYT reported.

China’s foreign ministry first acknowledged ownership of the craft on Feb. 2 in private conversations with U.S. diplomats, saying it was a wayward civilian balloon. They repeated that message publicly the following day.

Nearly three days after residents of Billings, Montana, first spotted the balloon floating over the town, Chinese officials communicated to the U.S. that the balloon’s operators were working to maneuver it out of American airspace, the NYT reported.

On Friday, Feb. 3, the balloon appeared to accelerate, officials told the NYT. Some officials remarked that the balloon’s propeller mechanism would provide some mobility but not enough for significant changes in speed or direction.

Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder noted that the airship changed course at some point on its journey in a Feb. 3 press conference, distinguishing it from past sightings of China’s balloon surveillance missions.

“What makes this different — different is the duration and the length of which it has been over U.S. territory. But beyond that, I’m not going to be able to go into any more specifics,” he said.

As the craft neared the east coast early Saturday, Chinese officials communicated that the balloon’s operators, which could include employees of a Chinese military contractor, tried to usher the craft out of American airspace, the NYT reported.

That could contradict the Pentagon’s report that the balloon deliberately flew over sensitive U.S. sites as it tracked across America’s heartland.

“This surveillance balloon purposefully traversed the United States and Canada, and we are confident it was seeking to monitor sensitive military sites,” a senior defense official told reporters after the balloon crashed into the Atlantic.

Senior defense and military officials maintain that the balloon did not pose a physical or military threat while it was over Alaska and therefore had no justification for shooting it down.

“We’ve been tracking this high-altitude balloon for some time,” a senior defense official said. The official confirmed it entered Alaska’s air defense identification zone on Jan. 28, crossed into Canadian airspace on Jan. 30 and reentered the U.S. over Idaho on Jan. 31.

President Joe Biden requested response options, including military action, that same day, officials said.

“We were constantly updating both of those assessments and prepared to take it out if that threat profile changed,” the defense official said.

The suspected Chinese spy balloon drifts to the ocean after being shot down off the coast in Surfside Beach, South Carolina, U.S. February 4, 2023.

The suspected Chinese spy balloon drifts to the ocean after being shot down off the coast in Surfside Beach, South Carolina, U.S. February 4, 2023. REUTERS/Randall Hill

It is not clear what prompted the change leading to its takedown days later.

“Any Chinese spy balloon that crosses our airspace should be seen as a threat and I have doubt its course was a coincidence given its path over key military installations in the U.S.,” Waltz said. “We need clear answers on what constitutes a threat to our homeland and the shoot down criteria from President Biden.”

A U.S. F-22 shot down a Chinese military asset over American territorial waters on Feb. 4. Immediately, authorities began recovering the debris, U.S. officials having expressed interest in analyzing the equipment to understand more about China’s surveillance capabilities.

“Speed is life, and the DOD should have acted sooner,” Garcia said.

It was determined that the balloon carried a self-destruct mechanism that never activated, according to the NYT.

Previous spy balloons did overpass U.S. military assets in the Pacific, including at least twice over or near Hawaii, officials told the NYT, but those missions lasted a relatively short period of time.

U.S. officials did not understand China’s actions at the time of reporting, according to the NYT.

In the eight days after downing the spy balloon, the U.S. took out three much smaller unidentified aerial objects that U.S. intelligence agencies say were likely civilian research machines, according to the White House as of Thursday.

“We need to identify UAPs sooner and act swiftly to remove any UAP that threatens our airspace and sovereignty before it flies over U.S. soil, not after,” Republican Rep. Mark Alford of Missouri told the DCNF. The balloon flew over his district, including Whitefield Air Force Base where nuclear-capable B-2 bombers are stationed.

The DOD declined to comment further. The White House did not respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.

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