As Navy divers work to recover debris from the downed Chinese spy balloon, a top general said Monday that the U.S. is investigating whether it was carrying explosives, describing it as 200-feet tall, weighing thousands of pounds and with a payload the size of a jetliner.
‘So, I can’t confirm whether it had explosives or not. Anytime you down something like this, we make an assumption that that potential exists,’ said Air Force Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, commander of U.S. Northern Command, on a briefing call with reporters. ‘We did not associate the potential of having explosives with a threat to dropping weapons, those kinds of things, but out of a precaution, abundance of safety for not only our military people and the public, we have to make assumptions such as that.’
VanHerck had floated to reporters that a capability could exist for the balloon to have explosives to destroy itself.
His description followed a briefing by National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, who defended President Joe Biden’s decision to wait and shoot down the Chinese craft until it was over South Carolina’s coastline on Saturday.
‘Because the president decided they wouldn’t shoot it down until he could do so safely – and that meant over water – that afforded us a terrific opportunity to gain a better understanding, to study the capabilities of this balloon,’ he told reporters on a call.
The Chinese spy balloon was 200 feet tall, weighed thousands of pounds and its payload was the size of a jetliner, a top Pentagon official said Monday
The Chinese spy balloon after it was shot down by an F-22 on Saturday over South Carolina’s coastline
Biden ordered the balloon shot down Wednesday, but under the advice of the U.S. military it was held off until Saturday, with the Air Force sending an F-22 fighter jet armed with an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile to do the job.
The delay opened Biden up to political attacks from Republicans, many of whom demanded it shot down above land shortly after it was first reported to be flying above Montana.
‘The time that we had to study this balloon over the course of a few days last week, we believe was important and will give us a lot more clarity, not only on the capabilities that these balloons have, but what China is trying to do with them,’ Kirby said.
‘It hasn’t gotten a lot of attention and I understand there’s criticism over the fact that it traversed the United States, but again, we took steps to mitigate whatever collection capability that balloon would have over our sensitive military sites,’ he added.
Kirby wouldn’t specify what precautions were taken during the balloon’s multi-day flyover.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre echoed the point during her Monday briefing.
‘Shooting the balloon down over water wasn’t just the safest option, it might maximize the chance of recovering the payload,’ she said.
Video of balloon debris was shared by South Carolina news outlets, coming in on a boat near North Myrtle Beach on Sunday.
Parts of the downed balloon were seen on a boat pulling into North Myrtle Beach
The debris field is the size of ‘more than 15 football fields by 15 football fields,’ VanHerck said.
VanHerck said the majority of the debris had been collected, but there was a possibility some could come ashore, and warned people to call the authorities and stay away from it.
Weather conditions had yet to allow undersea recovery efforts to fully begin, Kirby said.
But Kirby argued that the remains of the balloon would be helpful to the U.S.
‘Our efforts to surveil this balloon and what we will learn from the recovery will prove to be valuable,’ he said.
Kirby declined to answer a question about whether Chinese President Xi Jinping had ordered the balloon mission or was even aware of it.
‘I would like to refrain from getting into any discussions about our intelligence assessments of this,’ he said.
Kirby noted the balloon incident ‘has done nothing to help improve the U.S.-China bilateral relationship.’
The remains of the Chinese spy balloon are seen on a boat near North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Secretary of State Antony Blinken delayed a planned trip to China over the balloon debacle.
Chinese balloons flew over the U.S. three times during former President Donald Trump’s administration, with Biden administration officials saying that those flights weren’t known about until after the current president was sworn-in.
Biden officials have said they would brief Trump-era officials on the balloon flights, but neither Kirby nor Jean-Pierre would say which officials would receive the briefings and whether that would include the ex-president himself.
‘I will say that from every indication that we have that was for brief periods of time, nothing at all like what we saw last week, in terms of duration,’ Kirby said of the previous balloon incursions.
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