Amid growing bipartisan uproar over Beijing’s violation of U.S. sovereignty, a Chinese spokesperson issued a veiled threat vowing that Beijing would “resolutely safeguard its legitimate rights and interests” over the Pentagon’s shooting down of a suspected Chinese spy balloon.
The spy balloon was first located on Feb. 1 floating over Montana, where it loitered over sensitive areas where nuclear warheads are kept in silos.
Discovery of the balloon prompted a flurry of calls by lawmakers and others to shoot it down, with the U.S. military finally downing it on Feb. 4 off the coast of South Carolina using a single AIM-9X supersonic, heat-seeking, air-to-air missile.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) criticized the military strike on the object, claiming it was a “civilian airship” used for meteorological and other scientific purposes and that it had strayed into U.S. airspace “completely accidentally.”
U.S. officials have flatly dismissed such claims, describing the balloon as a military spycraft with a device hanging from the bottom about the size of a small jet.
‘Unique Opportunities’ for Counterintelligence
Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, who serves as commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), said that the U.S. military and intelligence agencies exercised “maximum precaution” to prevent the craft from collecting intelligence.
VanHerck added that waiting for some time before downing the balloon provided “unique opportunities” to conduct counterintelligence and that the vessel “did not present a physical military threat.”
China’s attitude toward the spycraft has hardened considerably following a mild initial response on Feb. 3, in which Beijing described the balloon’s presence as an accident and expressed “regret” for the fact that the airship entered U.S. airspace.
But that tone changed after the U.S. military shot it down around six nautical miles off the coast of the Atlantic Ocean over relatively shallow water that could help efforts to recover parts of the Chinese surveillance equipment.
By Tom Ozimek