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Here’s why Biden didn’t shoot down the Chinese spy balloon immediately

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on gun violence prevention in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on April 8, 2021. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)
February 06, 2023

The Chinese spy balloon that was shot down over the weekend after making a nearly week-long voyage across the U.S. was allowed to keep flying as officials feared damage from its falling debris.

But the balloon’s time in the sky was still a valuable opportunity to learn more about it simply by observing it, officials say. The U.S. hopes to learn even more as divers recover its pieces from the Atlantic Ocean.

In the days before it was finally shot down, officials considered bringing the balloon down with either a giant net or a hook, according to the New York Times. But the balloon was so big that the only viable option was firing a missile at it, a senior administration official said. 

The Pentagon said there had been an opportunity to shoot it down over a sparsely populated area of Montana, but fears of injury or property damage from falling debris still kept action from being taken.

Officials said the payload of surveillance tech being carried by the spy balloon was the size of three school buses, and that it was flying at about 60,000 feet, the Associated Press reported

A senior defense official said the U.S. had still been able to glean information about the balloon while it was visible in the air.

“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.”

By Wednesday, the spy balloon was over Montana, home to some of the U.S.’ nuclear missile silos. NASA had been enlisted to analyze the debris field that could result from shooting it down, CNN reported. Presented with military options, Biden on Wednesday ordered for the balloon to be shot down as soon as it was safe.

After the balloon was shot down Saturday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the resulting debris field in the Atlantic Ocean was “about seven miles long.”

“Any time the military’s considering an operation like that, they have to consider the safety of the American people,” Buttigieg said. “The president called for this to be dealt with in a way that balanced all of the different risks. That’s exactly what happened.”

Republicans hammered Biden last week for not immediately shooting down the spy balloon, calling it a “mistake” and saying he let China “off the hook.” Biden himself was publicly silent on the balloon until hours before it was shot down, saying, “We’re gonna take care of it.”