U.S. Navy, Coast Guard Deploy to Recover Chinese Spy Balloon's Debris

Carter Hall
The amphib USNS Carter Hall (USN file image)

Published Feb 5, 2023 6:03 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard have deployed assets to an area off the coast of South Carolina to recover debris from the Chinese surveillance balloon that the U.S. Air Force shot down Saturday. 

Before the shootdown, the spy craft made a full transit of the United States from the Intermountain West to the Southeast, flying at a height of about 60,000 feet. It arrived first over the Aleutian Islands and crossed into Canada's Northwest Territories before drifting back into U.S. airspace. According to officials, it crossed over Montana and passed near to Malmstrom Air Force Base, a strategic launch site for nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles. 

While a balloon might sound like a small craft, AP reports that the object was about the size of three city buses. The White House said that it opted to wait to destroy the device over water because of safety concerns, despite calls for an immediate show of force. An F-22 Raptor downed the balloon with a short-range air-to-air missile at about 1440 hours Saturday, just off Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. 

Safety may not have been the sole reason for waiting. In conversation with USNI, American defense officials added that they were interested in gathering intelligence from any components that might survive the plunge into shallow waters. To carry out the task quickly, three Navy warships - destroyer USS Oscar Austin, cruiser USS Philippine Sea and amphib USS Carter Hall - have deployed to the area with Coast Guard cutters and support craft. Some of these assets are carrying ROVs, dive teams and FBI counterintelligence officers, who will work to recover an analyze the wreckage. 

China's government maintains that the balloon was simply designed for meteorology and had drifted off course. On Sunday, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs criticized the decision to shoot the balloon down, calling it an "obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice."

The incident occurred just as Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was preparing to fly to Beijing for talks on U.S.-China economic ties, and political analysts questioned the timing, especially since China's spy satellites can likely pick up the same information without causing a diplomatic upset. Blinken ultimately canceled the trip.