A Chinese balloon flies above Billings, Montana on Feb. 1, 2023. (Chase Doak for States Newsroom)
WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of U.S. senators grilled Pentagon officials Thursday on why a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon was permitted to fly over Alaska and across the lower 48 states before being shot down off the coast of South Carolina.
The Senate Committee on Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, led by Montana Democrat Jon Tester, featured questions from lawmakers who represent the Western and northernmost regions of the country — areas, they emphasized, that contain sensitive military sites and are geographically more vulnerable to a Chinese incursion.
“As an Alaskan, I am so angry. I want to use other words, but I’m not going to,” said the state’s Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
“The fact of the matter is Alaska is the first line of defense for America, right? If you’re going to have Russia coming at you, if you’re going to have China coming at you, we know exactly how they come. They come up and they go over Alaska.”
The hearing coincided with bipartisan approval 419-0 Thursday morning in the U.S. House of a resolution condemning the Chinese Communist Party’s use of the surveillance balloon as a “brazen violation of United States sovereignty.”
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Friday denied that the balloon was conducting surveillance, and said it instead was collecting weather data.
The Pentagon countered that statement the same day, saying that the balloon was carrying surveillance equipment.
In its first public acknowledgement of the balloon on Feb. 2, the Pentagon said it “acted immediately” to protect against collection of sensitive material as soon as the aircraft was detected.
The high-altitude balloon entered U.S. airspace on Jan. 28, approaching Alaska and then remaining “for a short period of time” over the state before moving over Canada, said Melissa Dalton, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and hemispheric affairs, in her testimony to the panel.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, determined the balloon was not a significant threat to U.S. citizens or aviation traffic, nor did it pose significant intelligence gathering capability at the time it was over Alaska, and so leaders made the decision to monitor it, Pentagon officials told the committee.
The balloon entered airspace over the continental U.S. on Jan. 31. That same day, President Joe Biden was briefed, and he ordered the military to assess the best option for shooting down the balloon, officials said.
“In determining potential options, the risk of Chinese intelligence collection was deemed to be low to moderate, while the risk to U.S. personnel on the ground was assessed at moderate to significant,” Lt. Gen. Douglas Sims II, director of operations for Joint Staff (J3), told the panel in his opening statement.
Because the risk for debris and injury on the ground outweighed the intelligence loss, the military recommended waiting to shoot down the balloon until it was over water, he said.
Initial modeling showed risks of a wide debris field, and officials estimated the balloon was 200 feet tall “with a jetliner-sized payload” hanging beneath it, Dalton said.
Murkowski sounds off
“Seems to me the clear message to China is, ‘We got free range in Alaska because they’re going to let us cruise over that until we get to more sensitive areas,’” Murkowski said during her questioning, throwing up her arms to emphasize her point and highlighting military sites and equipment in her home state.
“At what point do we say a surveillance balloon, a spy balloon, coming from China is a threat to our sovereignty? It should be the minute it crosses the line, and that line is Alaska,” she continued.
Dalton told the panel that in addition to concerns about debris, recovery of the balloon factored into the Pentagon’s decision.
“It would’ve been a very different recovery operation,” Dalton said. “As Sen. Murkowski knows, the water depths offshore the Aleutian (Islands) at 6-plus nautical miles go very quickly from about 150 feet to over 18,000 feet. The winter water temperatures in the Bering Sea hover consistently in the low 30s, which would make recovery and salvage operations very dangerous.”
Recovery remains ongoing 6 miles off the coast of South Carolina, where the balloon splashed down Saturday after a U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor shot it with a single missile, officials said.
The panel also pressed military officials on why this balloon was shot down while previous Chinese surveillance balloons that the Pentagon said entered U.S. airspace during the Trump administration were left afloat.
Another Chinese surveillance balloon ended up in waters near Hawaii last year, but a Pentagon spokesman Wednesday declined to give specifics about the incident.
The U.S. intelligence community has connected last week’s balloon encroachment to a vast surveillance balloon program operated by the Chinese military, the Washington Post reported Tuesday.
Dalton said last week’s balloon flight “was different than all the rest,” specifically because of its duration.
The balloon’s existence became public late last week as it hovered over Montana, causing Tester to issue a statement Friday calling the development a “completely unacceptable provocation.”
Montana is home to Malmstrom Air Force Base, one of the U.S. nuclear missile sites.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a pre-planned trip to Beijing Friday as the balloon continued to move eastward across the U.S.
“Do we have a plan for the next time it happens and how we’re going to deal with it?” Tester asked the military officials during Thursday’s hearing. “Because quite frankly I’ll just tell you, I don’t want a damn balloon going across the United States when we could have potentially taken it down over the Aleutian Islands, no offense to Alaska or Alaskans.”
Dalton said as the recovery in the Atlantic continues, the military is “building our understanding of what capabilities they (China) have and what we need to do going forward.”
When Tester asked what the Chinese were trying to collect during the flight, Principal Deputy Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Jedidiah Royal said a classified setting would be more appropriate for sharing specifics, but “we have some very good guesses about that and we are learning more as we exploit the contents of the balloon and the payload itself.”
Senators immediately went into a classified briefing with the officials following the open hearing.
The U.S.S. Carter Hall continues to collect debris off the coast of South Carolina as a Navy sonar vessel maps the ocean floor for debris.
Officials are urging the public to call law enforcement if they see any debris wash ashore, a Pentagon spokesman said Wednesday.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.