Mystery Over Why Chinese Spy Balloon Wasn't Shot Down Over Alaska Solved

Defense officials have revealed the reason why a suspected Chinese spy balloon was not shot down over water off the coast of Alaska or sparsely populated areas of the state before it traveled into Canadian airspace and over the continental U.S.

At a senate subcommittee hearing, homeland security and military chiefs repeatedly faced questions as to why the balloon—which was first detected entering U.S. airspace over the Aleutian Islands on January 28—was allowed to cross over a vast swath of America before it was eventually shot down off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday.

The Biden administration has faced criticism from lawmakers about the decision to hold off downing the suspected surveillance balloon. Defense officials have stressed the desire to avoid a risk to civilians on the ground from falling debris.

At the hearing of the Defense Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Appropriations on Thursday, Lieutenant General Doug Sims, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the risk to people on the ground was assessed by the military to be greater than the threat of potential Chinese intelligence-gathering.

Dalton Homeland Defense Chinese Spy Balloon
Melissa Dalton, assistant defense secretary of Homeland Defense, speaks to members of the Defense Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Appropriations on February 9, 2023, and, inset, the moment the balloon was shot down off the coast of South Carolina on February 4, 2023. Senate Appropriations Committee/MYRTLE BEACH CITY GOVERNMENT

"A key element of the administration's calculus was to postpone shooting down the Chinese spy balloon, resting upon the goal of avoiding undue risk to civilians on the ground," Susan Collins, a Republican senator for Maine, told the panel.

"However, it defies belief that there was not a single opportunity to safely shoot this spy balloon prior to the coast of South Carolina," she added. "By the administration's logic we would allow the Chinese to fly surveillance balloons over the Pentagon or other sensitive sites and populated areas."

Melissa Dalton, assistant defense secretary for homeland defense, noted that "the balloon itself was 200 feet tall with a jetliner-sized payload," adding that the decision to hold off gave more time to observe the balloon and refine plans to shoot it down, giving an improved prospect of recovery.

"We thought before we shot," said Sims.

In response to questions from members of the subcommittee about why the balloon had not been shot down over Alaska, Sims said that it could have had a crash site 20 miles across, and that while Alaska was more sparsely populated than other parts of the U.S., the military could not guarantee no one would be harmed by debris.

While the balloon was over Alaska, it was being closely monitored, he said, and was found not to be passing over sensitive military sites in the state.

Defense officials, not wanting to harm civilians, therefore believed the best option was to shoot it down over water. However, lawmakers queried why this could not have been done before it was over Alaska.

Sen Collins Chinese Spy balloon
Senator Susan Collins addresses the panel of defense officials during the senate subcommittee hearing on February 9, 2022. She said it "defies belief" that there was not a safe opportunity to shoot the balloon down before it reached South Carolina Senate Appropriations Committee

"As the senator for Alaska would tell us all, Alaskan airspace is American airspace," Collins said. Lisa Murkowski, the senior Republican senator from Alaska, told the panel with regards to Russia and China: "To get to the United States you've got to come through Alaska."

Dalton explained that shooting it down over Alaska was deemed to be unviable as it would make recovering the high-altitude aircraft far harder and far less likely to yield strong intelligence.

"A key piece of this is the recovery," she said. "For us to be able to exploit and understand the balloon and its capabilities fully, if we had taken it down over the state of Alaska—which is part of the United States—it would have been a very different recovery operation."

Dalton noted that the water depths 6 nautical miles off the Alaskan and Aleutian coast fall quickly from 150 feet to 18,000 feet, and the freezing cold waters made a salvage operation "very dangerous". There was also ice cover in the waters, which would have complicated efforts to recover the balloon.

Lieutenant General Doug Sims
Lieutenant General Doug Sims, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, addresses the senate subcommittee on February 9, 2023. He said: “We thought before we shot.” Senate Appropriations Committee

By comparison, the waters 6 nautical miles off the coast of Myrtle Beach—where the balloon was eventually shot down—range from 35-45 feet, according to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, and have a mean water temperature of 66.4 Fahrenheit, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data shows.

The defense officials also said that the White House had been briefed soon after the balloon was detected; President Joe Biden, however, was only briefed on Wednesday, February 1. Newsweek has contacted the White House for comment.

Dalton said that Biden was briefed with a plan to shoot the balloon down off the coast of South Carolina on Friday, February 3, and approved the proposal. Preparations commenced through Friday night and the balloon was taken out on Saturday afternoon.

China has continued to claim that the stratospheric aircraft was a wayward weather balloon, and has expressed outrage that the U.S. opted to shoot it out of the sky.