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It's a story that reads more like the latest Bond movie than a current headline, but it is true that a 2,000-pound, 200-foot-tall Chinese high-altitude spy balloon drifted across much of the continental U.S. before being shot down by a single Sidewinder missile fired from an Air Force F-22 a full 6 days after first being detected in U.S. airspace. Now that the balloon has been downed, questions are arising about why it wasn't shot down sooner, what its purpose was, what may have been onboard, and what will happen to the debris being recovered off the coast of Myrtle Beach.
The balloon, which was first detected on January 28 when it drifted into U.S. airspace over the Aleutian Islands, was determined not to pose a physical or military threat but did violate U.S. sovereignty. However, the Pentagon had concerns that falling debris from the balloon, which was floating at 60,000 feet could cause harm to civilians on the ground if it were immediately shot down.
At a press briefing on Monday, a senior defense official confirmed that President Biden gave the order to have the balloon shot down on Wednesday, but that no action was taken until Saturday when the balloon floated over open water. According to the official, "President Biden asked the military to present options and on Wednesday President Biden gave his authorization to take down the Chinese surveillance balloon as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to us civilians under the balloon's path."
"Military commanders determined that there was undue risk of debris causing harm to civilians while the balloon was overhead," the official added.
With respect as to why the balloon was floating in U.S. airspace, the senior defense official said during Monday's press conference, "The PRC has claimed publicly that the high-altitude balloon operating above the United States is a weather balloon that was blown off course. This is false."
"This was a PRC surveillance balloon. This surveillance balloon purposely traversed the United States and Canada, and we are confident it was seeking to monitor sensitive military sites," the official concluded.
In response to the U.S. destroying the balloon, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement Sunday saying, "China will resolutely uphold the relevant company's legitimate rights and interests, and at the same time reserving the right to take further actions in response." The Chinese government has also criticized the U.S. for having "an obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice."
While Chinese officials react to the downed balloon in Beijing, some members of Congress in Washington have begun blasting the Biden administration over its lack of action in response to a clear violation of U.S. sovereignty. Roger Wicker (R-MS) who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee said, "Allowing a spy balloon from the Communist Party of China to travel across the entire continental United States before contesting its presence is a disastrous projection of weakness by the White House."
Meanwhile, Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) tweeted, "Now that this embarrassing episode is over, we need answers from the Biden Administration on the decision-making process. Communist China was allowed to violate American sovereignty unimpeded for days. We mus the better prepared for future provocations and incursions by the CCP."
Now that the balloon has been shot down, the U.S. military is undergoing recovery efforts to collect the debris and reverse engineer as much of the balloon as possible in order to further understand what its purpose was.
Debris from the balloon fell roughly 6 miles after it was shot down and has come to rest in 47 feet of water off the coast of South Carolina. The Navy and Coast Guard have both deployed vessels to the debris field to begin setting up a perimeter.
In order to recover the debris, the Navy has deployed the destroyer USS Oscar Austin, the cruiser USS Philippine Sea, and the USS Carter Hall, which is an amphibious landing ship to assist with the recovery efforts.
Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and Northern Command (NORTHCOM) confirmed on Monday that an explosive ordnance disposal team is on site and has been combing through the debris field. According to VanHerck, the explosive ordnance team is searching for, "glass off solar panels, potentially hazardous material, such as material that is required for batteries to operate in such an environment as this, and even the potential for explosives to detonate and destroy the balloon that - that could have been present."
Despite the surveillance balloon floating over nuclear missile silos and other sensitive sites, the senior defense official on Monday suggested that the military was able to gather sensitive information about the Chinese balloon while it attempted to gather sensitive information about the U.S. Military.
"I would also note that while we took all necessary steps to protect against the PRC surveillance balloon's collection of sensitive information, the surveillance balloon's overflight of U.S. territory was of intelligence value to us," the official said.
"I can't go into more detail, but we were able to study and scrutinize the balloon and its equipment, which has been valuable," the official added.
"We don't know exactly all the benefits that will derive, but we have learned technical things about this balloon and its surveillance capabilities. And I suspect if we are successful in recovering aspects of the debris, we will learn even more," the official concluded.
Any debris from the downed balloon that is collected will be sent to an FBI processing lab in Quantico, Virginia for further analysis.
The Pentagon has also acknowledged reports of a second Chinese surveillance balloon that has been detected flying over Latin America. Both the balloon that transversed the U.S. and the second balloon are part of a fleet of Chinese surveillance balloons that have been released to gather sensitive information and they can be maneuvered remotely using small motors and propellers.
While the military works to recover any remains of the balloon, VanHerck has been working to explain why NORAD reportedly did not detect other Chinese spy balloons that entered U.S. airspace under former President Trump's administration. When questioned about the glaring ineptitude, VanHerck answered vaguely saying, "So those balloons, so every day as a NORAD commander it's my responsibility to detect threats to North America. I will tell you that we did not detect those threats. And that's a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out. But I don't want to go into further detail."
While the spy balloon saga is sure to continue inching us closer to a potential cold war with China, it's a story of many shortcomings and disappointments. As they pile up, it's difficult to determine which is worse, NORAD's utter inability to do its job, President Biden's complete apathy and ineffectual leadership regarding the situation, or the fact that the PRC can seemingly infiltrate a sovereign nation's airspace with no repercussions.