U.S. was worried Chinese spy balloon might be carrying explosives

The possibility factored into the decision to delay shooting it down, the Pentagon says.

A spy balloon is seen in the sky, with a fighter jet below it.
The Chinese spy balloon is seen on Saturday above the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of South Carolina, with a fighter jet below it. (Chad Fish via AP)

U.S. national security officials said Monday that the Chinese surveillance balloon that floated across the United States was potentially carrying explosives and hazardous material, which factored into the decision by the White House to delay shooting it down.

In a telephone briefing with reporters, Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of the U.S. Northern Command and NORAD, said officials were worried that the balloon — which was up to 200 feet tall, with a payload the size of a jetliner — was potentially carrying explosives to “detonate and destroy” itself, complicating the U.S. response plan.

The balloon was ultimately shot down about 6 miles off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday afternoon.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby stands at a podium as he answers questions at a press briefing.
John Kirby at a White House press briefing on Jan. 25. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council in the White House, told reporters that the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard have already recovered “some remnants” of the balloon off the surface of the sea.

But weather conditions have prevented undersea collection within the debris field, which is estimated to be roughly 15 football fields long by 15 football fields wide.

Kirby said that the delay in shooting the balloon down also gave U.S. defense officials time to “study” it to “give us a lot more clarity not only on the capabilities that these balloons have, but with what China is trying to do with them.”

The United States has “no intention” of returning any of the debris to China, Kirby added.

A map shows the path of the spy balloon as it traveled over the United States.
The path of the surveillance balloon. (AP)

According to defense officials, President Biden gave his authorization on Wednesday to take down the surveillance balloon “as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to American lives under the balloon’s path.”

The Pentagon first announced it was tracking the balloon over Montana on Thursday evening. The following morning, China claimed responsibility for the balloon but said it was a civilian airship mainly used for aeronautical research. U.S. officials disagreed with this assessment, calling it a surveillance balloon.

While Republicans criticized Biden for not ordering the balloon to be shot down sooner, the Pentagon said the object posed no physical or military threat to Americans on the ground and was flying above commercial airliner traffic.

“Does it pose a threat to civilian aviation? Our assessment is it does not,” a senior defense official said Thursday during a briefing.

“Does it pose a significantly enhanced threat on the intelligence side? Our best assessment right now is that it does not. And so given that risk, that profile, we assess that the risk of downing it, even if the probability was low in a sparsely populated area of the debris falling and hurting somebody or damaging property, that it wasn’t worth it. And that was the recommendation of our military commanders.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to reporters.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the State Department in Washington, D.C., on Friday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Due to the presence of the balloon, the administration delayed Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s scheduled trip to Beijing this week. Blinken would have been the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit China under Biden.

The State Department announced on Friday that Blinken was postponing the visit, saying the agency had noted China’s “statement of regret but conveyed that this is an irresponsible act and a clear violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law that undermined the purpose of the trip.”

“The secretary explained that in light of this ongoing issue, it would not be appropriate to visit Beijing at this time,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said. “He underscored that the United States is committed to diplomatic engagement and maintaining open lines of communication, and that he would be prepared to visit Beijing as soon as conditions allow.”

It’s not the first time a Chinese surveillance balloon has crossed into U.S. airspace. At least three such incidents occurred during the Trump administration, Pentagon officials said Monday, but the balloons were not detected in real time.

“We did not detect those threats,” VanHerck said. “And that’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out.”

Two people on the beach watch after the spy balloon was shot down.
People in Holden Beach, N.C., watch after the spy balloon was shot down Saturday. (Allison Joyce/Reuters)

Following the downing of the balloon, the Chinese government said it reserves the right to do the same thing to any U.S. surveillance balloons it detects over its territory.

“Under such circumstances, the U.S. insists on using force, obviously overreacting and seriously violating international practice,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement. “China will resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of relevant companies, while reserving the right to make further necessary reactions.”

The Pentagon responded by saying that the United States conducts no such operations.

“Let’s be clear: The [People’s Republic of China] surveillance balloon was in U.S. territorial airspace, a violation of our sovereignty,” Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a statement Monday. “We do not conduct such operations in Chinese airspace. So, there is no ‘similar’ situation.”