Navy vessels were off the coast of South Carolina on Monday to recover pieces of the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon shot down this past weekend, though rough waters initially complicated the effort, according to the head of U.S. Northern Command.
A Navy dock landing ship, the USS Carter Hall, is in the vicinity of where the balloon splashed down after President Biden on Saturday ordered the U.S. military to shoot down the aerial object that had spent days floating over the country, Gen. Glen VanHerck told reporters.
The ship is currently collecting and categorizing debris while an oceanographic survey ship, USNS Pathfinder, is mapping out the balloon’s debris field, predicted at about 1,500 meters by 1,500 meters, or “more than 15 football fields by 15 football fields,” he said.
As the military is worried that material on the balloon could contain explosives or be hazardous, an explosive ordnance disposal team was on-site Monday morning. The forces deployed unmanned underwater vehicles with side-scan sonar to further locate sunken debris, VanHerck noted.
FBI and Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents are also working with U.S. forces on the salvage operations, though VanHerck couldn’t say where the debris is going to go for a final analysis.
He added that rough seas on Sunday curtailed some recovery operations such as underwater surveillance and said some debris may float to shore due to ocean currents. Should that happen, he asked the public to avoid contact with any debris and to contact local law enforcement if they find it.
Earlier on Monday, national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters that recovering the balloon will take time but that “we can then exploit what we recover and learn even more than we have learned.”
The salvage operation concludes a bizarre series of days in which the suspected Chinese balloon floated through U.S. airspace. At some points, it was visible to those on the ground, and it was first spotted over Montana. Defense officials said it was a clear effort to spy on sensitive sites, though officials held off on shooting it down until it was over water due to fears falling debris could harm civilians.
President Biden has since faced intense criticism from Republicans, who said he acted too slowly to shoot down the balloon. News has also emerged of previous cases of Chinese surveillance balloons crossing over the U.S. at least three times during the Trump administration.
VanHerck acknowledged that a “domain awareness gap” led to U.S. officials being unaware of the several previous surveillance balloons that flew over the country at that time.
In this case, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which VanHerck also oversees, first detected the balloon north of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska.
The U.S. military did not shoot it down then, as “it wasn’t time.”
“It was my assessment that this balloon did not present a physical military threat to North America … and therefore, I could not take immediate action because it was not demonstrating hostile act or hostile intent,” he said.
NORAD kept U.S. and Canadian officials in the loop on the balloon’s location as it floated farther south and inland, with the militaries collecting information on the object before shooting it down.
He described the balloon as up to 200 feet tall and carrying a device that was roughly the size of a regional jet that likely weighed about 1,000 pounds. That payload made shooting down the balloon complicated, he said.
“From a safety standpoint, picture yourself with large debris weighing hundreds if not thousands of pounds falling out of the sky,” he explained.
Before downing the balloon, the Pentagon worked with NASA to assess what a debris field might look like, with the agency predicting six or seven miles of wreckage. Officials also ensured that there was no air traffic nearby at the time of the operation.