U.S. military leaders on Thursday defended decisions made last week about when and where to shoot down a Chinese spy balloon in response to skeptical questions raised during a congressional hearing, including by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
The balloon was shot down by a U.S. fighter jet off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday after flying over Alaska, Canada and parts of the continental United States.
“It defies belief that there was not a single opportunity to safely shoot down this spy balloon prior to the coast of South Carolina,” Collins said. “By the (Biden) administration’s logic, we would allow the Chinese to fly surveillance balloons over the Pentagon or other sensitive sites near populated areas.”
Collins said the balloon could have been shot down over remote areas of Alaska, preventing intelligence gathering by the balloon as it crossed the United States.
But military officials pushed back, explaining that the precise nature of the spy balloon was not known until it had left Alaskan airspace, and there were concerns that shooting down the balloon over land could result in harm to people or private property from falling debris. The balloon was 200 feet tall with thousands of pounds of payload — including metal — that would have been dangerous falling out of the sky, officials said.
“We think before we shoot,” said Lt. Gen. Douglas Sims II, answering a question from Collins. Sims said as the balloon was going over Alaska, the military was learning more about what it was, and determined that it didn’t pose a military threat. “Once you shoot, you can’t take it back.”
Sims said that debris could have fallen in a 20-mile radius over land, jeopardizing the safety of people.
“While Alaska is not as inhabited as other places, it is inhabited,” Sims said.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she was “angry” about the delay in shooting down the balloon.
“It seems to me the clear message to China is we’ve got a free range in Alaska,” Murkowski said. She said the Biden administration’s stance seems to be to treat Alaska like it is not a part of the rest of the United States.
Collins agreed with Murkowski and said Alaska is so sparsely populated that surely there could have been a safe area to shoot down the balloon.
“I think you are hearing (from committee members) a great deal of frustration and a great deal of concern about the message that this sends to China,” Collins said.
But Melissa Dalton, assistant secretary of defense, said there were other reasons to wait to shoot down the balloon until it had flown over the Atlantic Ocean. If it had been shot down over open water off the Alaskan coastline, for instance, the frigid waters would have posed a threat to military personnel recovering the debris.
If it had been destroyed over remote land areas, Dalton said, recovery of the balloon to learn more about its capabilities would have been more difficult compared to the easier job of recovering debris off the coast of South Carolina.
Dalton said once the nature of the balloon was better known, the U.S. military took steps — she didn’t detail exactly how — to cover up any potential information from sensitive U.S. military sites, potentially thwarting the balloon’s intelligence gathering.
“We took action when it was safe to do so,” Dalton said.
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