China expressed outrage Sunday over the U.S. military‘s shooting down a day earlier of a Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina, as the Navy began retrieving wreckage from the Atlantic Ocean and the political rhetoric ramped up in Washington.
Fallout from the balloon incident, which some describe as a dangerous turning point in an evolving cold war between the U.S. and China, rocked the national security community through the weekend. The Pentagon confirmed the discovery of a second balloon floating over Latin America.
Beijing did not acknowledge a second, giant white orb spotted roughly 60,000 feet over Costa Rica, but Chinese officials accused Washington of acting irrationally by dispatching U.S. fighter jets to shoot down the first spy craft discovered at a similar altitude over the U.S. last week.
“The U.S. use of force is a clear overreaction and a serious violation of international practice,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement, and Beijing “reserves the right to make further responses if necessary.”
With uncertainty about the next move, domestic politics were biting. Democrats accused Republicans of hypocrisy for criticizing President Biden’s handling of the situation just days before he delivers his State of the Union address on Tuesday.
Mr. Biden waited several days before ordering the Saturday shoot-down of the balloon, which analysts said was outfitted with some 700 pounds of high-technology surveillance equipment. The craft was allowed to fly across a large swath of the United States while soaking up imagery and other intelligence before it was punctured about 6 miles off South Carolina’s coast by what some reports described as a heat-seeking missile from an F-22 fighter.
SEE ALSO: Defense officials report previous balloon sightings to Congress
Sen. Cory A. Booker, a New Jersey Democrat and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, cited claims by the Biden administration that other Chinese spy balloons had been spotted over U.S. territory in recent years, including during the Trump administration, which apparently decided not to shoot the surveillance vehicles out of the sky.
“It’s problematic for a Democrat or Republican to have one standard for one president, another standard for another president,” Mr. Booker told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “This is now known to have happened under the Trump administration multiple times.”
House Republicans were reported to be preparing a resolution to criticize Mr. Biden’s response, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, upped the condemnation of the president’s decision to allow the spy craft to travel over several sensitive national security sites, including Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, home to one of the military‘s three nuclear missile silo fields.
“As usual when it comes to national defense and foreign policy, the Biden administration reacted at first too indecisively and then too late,” Mr. McConnell said in a statement. “We should not have let the People’s Republic of China make a mockery of our airspace.”
Mr. McConnell blasted Mr. Biden’s assertion that he directed the Pentagon to shoot the balloon down as quickly as possible but with safety precautions to property and lives.
“It defies belief to suggest there was nowhere between the Aleutian Islands of Alaska and the coast of Carolina where this balloon could have been shot down right away without endangering Americans or Canadians,” Mr. McConnell said. “This was a reminder of [China‘s] brazenness, and President Biden missed the opportunity to defend our sovereignty, send a message of strength and bolster deterrence.”
SEE ALSO: Marco Rubio: Biden needs to address Americans on Chinese spy balloon
Rep. Michael Turner, Ohio Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told “Meet the Press,” “The president taking it down over the Atlantic is sort of like tackling the quarterback after the game is over.”
“The satellite had completed its mission,” Mr. Turner said. “It should never have been allowed to enter the United States.”
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, shot back by calling the Republican criticisms premature and driven purely by politics. Mr. Schumer said the Biden administration acted in a “calm, calculating [and] effective” manner by taking down the balloon over water where it posed a minimal risk.
A spokesperson for Mr. Schumer said all senators will be briefed about the Chinese on Feb. 15, according to NBC News, which noted that a classified briefing on China had been scheduled for that date before news of the balloon broke.
The debris landed across an area roughly 7 miles wide, sources say. Navy divers are likely to retrieve valuable elements of the balloon that fell into Atlantic waters less than 50 feet deep.
‘Top Gun’ moment
Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday abruptly canceled a visit to Beijing that the administration hoped would ease tensions over several issues, including China‘s threats to Taiwan and its tacit support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.
China said the balloon was merely a weather research “airship” that blew off course. The Pentagon rejected that explanation and Beijing’s claim that the spying craft was not being used for surveillance and had only limited navigational ability.
U.S. officials said Beijing has been using a fleet of balloons in recent years to conduct surveillance around the globe and that the vehicles are maneuvered through small motors and propellers.
The Pentagon confirmed reports over the weekend of another balloon flying over Latin America. “We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement.
The balloon over Latin America was discovered after Americans spent days wondering whether the mysterious balloon had floated over them.
On Saturday, Ashlyn Preaux, 33, went out to get her mail in Forestbrook, South Carolina, and noticed her neighbors looking up. There it was: the balloon in the cloudless blue sky.
She then saw fighter jets circling and the balloon get hit. “I did not anticipate waking up to be in a ‘Top Gun’ movie today,” she told The Associated Press.
U.S. officials said the balloon entered the U.S. air defense zone north of the Aleutian Islands on Jan. 28 and moved largely over land across Alaska and then into Canadian airspace in the Northwest Territories on Monday. It crossed back into U.S. territory over northern Idaho on Tuesday, the day the White House said Mr. Biden was first briefed on it.
The balloon was then spotted Wednesday over Montana, where Malmstrom Air Force Base hosts 150 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles.
A ‘near-space’ system
Officials were able to collect intelligence on the balloon as it flew over the U.S., learning how it moved and what it was capable of surveilling, said two senior defense officials who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity. They said the U.S. military concluded that the technology on the balloon didn’t give the Chinese significant intelligence beyond what it could obtain from satellites.
Other military analysts suspect the balloon, which can take high-resolution images and measure temperatures and atmospheric and weather conditions, was a “near-space” system capable of gathering information that the Chines military could use for ICBM targeting.
China is engaged in a large-scale buildup of long-range nuclear missiles. Three large missile fields were recently identified in western China that will house up to 320 multiwarhead ICBMs.
Data from the balloon also could be used for hypersonic missiles, which fly along the edge of space at high speeds and can maneuver on the way to targets.
Some military analysts suspect that the balloon has enough capacity to carry a small nuclear warhead that could be used to create an electronics-killing electromagnetic pulse over wide areas.
Former Air Force officer David Stuckenberg has said such a balloon could be used for an electromagnetic pulse attack with the capability to damage all electronics over a 500-mile area.
“Using a balloon as a [weapon of mass destruction] platform could provide adversaries with a pallet of altitudes and payload options with which to maximize offensive effects against the U.S.,” Mr. Stuckenberg stated in a recent report by the American Leadership & Policy Foundation.
Separately, a 2020 report by four officials at the Chinese Academy of Sciences stated that China‘s high-altitude, balloon-based sensor systems “are kind of a large-scale unmanned aerial vehicle.”
“A high-altitude balloon can carry a large load up to tens of kilometers in the near space for a long time, which brings a new way for the stratosphere atmospheric detection,” the report said.
The report identified three tests of the balloon, which was outfitted with 700 pounds of equipment, including six cameras that monitor all directions. The balloon tests mentioned in the report involved altitudes of 13 miles, or about 63,000 feet.
• Ramsey Touchberry, Joseph Clark and Mike Glenn contributed to this story, which is based in part on wire service reports.