US military releases photos of mission to salvage debris from downed Chinese ‘spy’ balloon
The US Navy has released photos of the operation to collect fallen debris from a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon shot down off the South Carolina coast.
The mission to collect the debris started at around 10am local time on Monday after rough waters meant it was deemed unsafe to begin on Sunday, the Department of Defense said in a statement.
An F-22 jet had fired an AIM-9X missile deflating the helium balloon and sending the payload toward the Atlantic Ocean. It was shot down after military officials determined that bringing down the balloon over land from an altitude of 60,000ft would pose an undue risk to the population.
China maintains that the balloon was a weather monitoring device that went astray and made its way into American airspace.
The balloon fell about six miles off the coast of South Carolina into about 50ft of water, the US Navy said, adding that no one was hurt in the process.
“Precautions are being taken during the salvage operation in case explosives or toxic substances are present,” said Gen Glen VanHerck, head of US Northern Command. “Due to changing ocean currents, it’s possible that some debris could escape notice and wash ashore.”
The USS Carter Hall, an amphibious landing ship, has been pressed into collecting the fallen debris, while survey ship USNS Pathfinder maps the ocean floor using sonar for the search.
Explosive ordnance members and at least one unmanned underwater vehicle are also participating, Gen VanHerck pointed out.
He added that members of the public could help the authorities by informing local law enforcement personnel if they spot remnants of the balloon. However, they should not collect it themselves.
Gen VanHerck described the debris spreading on the waters over “15 football fields by 15 football fields square”.
“The payload itself, I would categorize that as a jet airliner type of size, maybe a regional jet... Probably weighed in excess of a couple thousand pounds,” he said.
Washington said it had no intentions of sending the remnants of the object back to China. “I know of no such intention or plans to return it,” said national security council spokesman John Kirby, according to AFP.
Measures were taken to ensure the balloon’s instruments were “mitigated” in their ability to spy, he said. “We’re still analyzing the information that we were able to collect off of the balloon before we shot it out of the sky and now we’re going to recover it and I suspect we may learn even more.”
Mr Kirby said the balloon had the ability to maneuver itself and speed up and slow down or turn. “So it had propellers, it had a rudder, if you will, to allow it to change direction,” he said.
“But the most important navigational vector was the jet stream itself, the winds at such a high altitude.”
President Joe Biden said shooting down the balloon was the “right thing” to do even as China registered a strong protest against the use of force.
“We’ve made it clear to China what we’re going to do,” the president told reporters outside the White House on Monday. “They understand our position. We’re not going to back off, we did the right thing.”
A US Air Force report not in the public domain, but partially accessed by CNN, revealed China has had the ability to operate such craft for years now. It said such balloons had “drifted past Hawaii” and “across Florida” when Donald Trump was president.