U.S. Navy sailors assigned to Assault Craft Unit 4 prepare materials recovered in the Atlantic Ocean from a high-altitude Chinese balloon shot down by the U.S. Air Force off the coast of South Carolina for transport from a ship docked in Virginia Beach, Virginia to federal agents at the Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek on February 10, 2023 in this image released by the US Navy in Washington on February 13, 2023.
Petty Officer 1st Class Kris Lindström | US Navy | Handout via Reuters
The United States said on Friday it had successfully completed recovery efforts off South Carolina to collect sensors and other debris from a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon shot down by a US warplane on February 4, and investigators are now analyzing its “guts”.
But US and Canadian authorities also announced they had called off searches for three unidentified objects shot down last weekend, without finding any debris.
President Joe Biden said this week that U.S. intelligence believed the other three objects were likely balloons tied to private companies, recreational or research institutions — not China’s spy program.
The last of the debris from the Chinese balloon, which was downed by a Sidewinder missile, is on its way to an FBI laboratory in Virginia for analysis, the US military’s Northern Command said.
Reuters first reported the conclusion of recovery efforts for the suspected Chinese spy balloon, which was grounded on Thursday.
“It’s a significant amount (of recycled material), including the payload structure as well as some of the electronics and optics, and everything that is now at the FBI lab in Quantico,” said National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.
Kirby said the United States had already learned a lot about the balloon by observing it as it flew over the United States.
“We’re going to learn even more, we think, by taking a look at the stomach inside it and seeing how it worked and what it was capable of,” he told a White House news briefing.
The US military said Navy and Coast Guard vessels that had been scouring the sea for nearly two weeks have left the area.
“Air and naval security perimeters have been lifted,” Northern Command said in a statement.
The US military has said it believes it has collected all of the Chinese balloon’s priority sensors and electronics as well as large parts of its structure, elements that could help counterintelligence officials determine how Beijing may have collected and transmitted surveillance information.
The Chinese balloon, which Beijing denies was a government spy ship, spent a week flying over the United States and Canada before it was shot down off the Atlantic coast on the orders of President Joe Biden.
The episode caused an uproar in Washington and led the US military to search the skies for other objects that were not caught on radar. The military’s Northern Command carried out three unprecedented shootings of unidentified “objects” between Friday and Sunday.
Late on Friday, it said search operations for two of those items had ended, after they “did not discover any debris”.
“The US military, federal authorities and Canadian partners conducted systematic searches of each area using a variety of capabilities, including airborne imagery and sensors, surface sensors and inspections, and underground scans, and found no debris,” it said.
The Chinese balloon incident prompted US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone a planned visit to Beijing earlier this month and has further strained already frayed ties between Washington and Beijing.
That Blinken trip would have been the first by a US secretary of state to China in five years and was seen by both sides as an opportunity to stabilize increasingly uneasy ties.
U.S. officials have since been eyeing the possibility of a meeting between Blinken and China’s top diplomat Wang Yi on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference that began Friday.
US Vice President Kamala Harris, who is also in Munich for the conference, has defended the administration’s handling of the balloon incident and the downing of the three other objects.
The Chinese balloon “had to be shot down because we were convinced it was being used by China to spy on the American people,” Harris told MSNBC.
“We will maintain the perspective that we have in terms of what should be the relationship between China and the United States,” she said. “It won’t change, but sure and sure that balloon wasn’t helpful.”