Questions flew Thursday as the Chinese spy balloon that floated last week above the U.S. was the subject of a hearing by a Senate subcommittee.
U.S. officials revealed Feb. 2 that China’s surveillance balloon was flying over the country. Two days later, on Feb. 4, an American fighter jet fired one missile to shoot down the spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina.
The public hearing by the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on defense occurred the same day that the House voted unanimously to condemn China’s infiltration of U.S. airspace. The Senate subcommittee later met behind closed doors with military brass to talk about more sensitive details.
Here are five questions from the panel’s senators, and what Pentagon officials said in response.
1. Why Not Shoot It Down Earlier?
“If you had the opportunity to shoot the Chinese spy balloon down either over the remote mountains of Alaska or over water near Alaska, why didn’t you?” Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., asked Army Lt. Gen. Douglas A. Sims II, operations director for the Pentagon’s Joint Staff. “Why is it OK to have the Chinese fly some type of aircraft over Alaskan airspace?”
As far as shooting down the balloon over water off Alaska, Sims replied that in the assessment of Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command, “there was no hostile act, hostile intent, or potential impact to critical intelligence capabilities.”
“For us now, looking back,” Sims said, “there is an assertion that we were absolutely certain that it was in fact conducting surveillance or intended to go in a certain space … [but] those were thoughtful actions.”
As for shooting down the spy balloon over Alaska itself, the Army general continued, the military was unable to “work our way to a near zero probability of collateral damage when we take that shot.”
Although Alaska is in places not as inhabited as other places, it is inhabited. And at that time, we didn’t understand through the [computer] modeling if we shot that what it would do on the ground. Ultimately, it came back to maybe a 20-mile-by-20-mile piece of ground, and without being able to clear that, we wouldn’t do that in combat, Sir. And I think in this case, we certainly didn’t want to take that chance with Alaskans or any other Americans throughout the flight path.
2. Why Not Capture It Intact?
“Could that balloon not be forced down some way other than shooting it down?” Hoeven asked Sims.
“Obviously, we have aircraft that can exceed that altitude,” the North Dakota Republican said. “Answer that—just the final question: Couldn’t that have been forced down some way rather than shooting it down, which would have, in a lot of ways, been better? You avoid the risk to people on the ground, and you get it intact.”
We didn’t have the ability to capture the balloon or bring the balloon down with a particular munition that we thought would make it less dangerous. And, quite frankly, we didn’t know where it would go if we were to somehow impact its flight path at that point in terms of our ability to control it, what it would do if it hit the ground. But that’s a great question, sure, and … we’ll address that greater in the next [closed-door] session.
3. When Was Balloon Threat Determined?
When did the military “determine the threat” posed by the balloon, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., asked, “and did you have constant surveillance for the entire time it was in the U.S. and Canadian airspace?”
Melissa Dalton, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and hemispheric affairs, answered Murray.
“On Saturday, Jan. 28, we tracked through NORAD [North American Aerospace Defense Command] that the balloon was entering [the] U.S. Air Defense Identification Zone in U.S. airspace in Alaska, and from there, NORAD had custody and we were tracking it across the—,” Dalton began, before Murray interrupted to ask again whether the military had “constant surveillance the entire time of the balloon.”
“Yes, Senator,” Dalton responded.
The Chinese balloon first was detected Jan. 31 flying over the continental U.S. in northern Idaho, Politico reported.
4. Did China Plan This, or Was It an Error?
Sen. Jon Tester, R-Mont., asked whether the balloon was “an error by the Chinese government, or was this planned?”
Jedidiah Royal, principal deputy assistant defense secretary for Indo-Pacific security affairs, replied.
“Senator, we’re continuing to make assessments on the Chinese intent for this specific operation, and we’ll have further to share in a classified setting along with specific intent,” Royal said. “I think it would be false to try to characterize this operation as purely a mistake.”
“My understanding, Sir, is that this is consistent with a broader set of actions China’s undertaking to intrude our sovereign territory and those of our allies and partners,” Royal added.
Tester had a follow-up question.
“So, generally speaking, as this balloon went over Alaska, Canada, and the United States, who got the most information out of this: the Chinese or us?” Tester asked Royal.
“Sir, I don’t have a judgment or evaluation to pass along those lines for you right now. I do believe that the United States’ collection on this particular balloon and on the brother program is ongoing and is significant,” Royal said.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken had planned to visit Beijing last weekend, but the Biden administration postponed the trip in response to the Chinese spy balloon.
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