U.S. Air Force General Glen VanHerck told reporters Monday that the suspected Chinese spy balloon that was shot down last weekend was hundreds of feet in diameter.
“The balloon assessment was up to 200 feet tall [and] it weighed a couple thousand pounds,” said VanHerck, the commander for North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and U.S. Northern Command, in a call with several reporters. He added that the balloon was potentially carrying explosives but had no evidence of it either, noting that there was a device hanging from the bottom that was about the size of a small jet.
That risk, however, was a factor in his planning to shoot down the balloon over open water, he said, according to Reuters. Possible explosives could have been on board “to detonate and destroy the balloon,” the general told reporters.
After the balloon was located over Montana last Wednesday, there were calls to shoot it down. It wasn’t until Saturday that the object was downed by the U.S. military.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) confirmed the balloon was of Chinese origin but claimed it was a “civilian airship” meant to monitor weather patterns. U.S. officials, however, say that it was a Chinese military spycraft.
“We took maximum precaution to prevent any intel collection,” he said. “It was my assessment that this balloon did not present a physical military threat to North America,” VanHerck said, according to reports. “This is under my NORAD hat, and therefore I could not take immediate action [against the balloon] because it was not demonstrating hostile act or hostile intent.”
VanHerck said debris had been collected from an area roughly 1,500 meters (4,920 feet) by 1,500 meters and a number of military vessels were helping gather it.
U.S. intelligence determined the previous flights after the fact based on “additional means of collection” of intelligence without offering further details on whether that might be cyber espionage, telephone intercepts, or human sources, the general said.
Earlier Monday, a White House adviser confirmed that officials recovered some of the balloon’s debris off the East Coast. The object was shot down by an F-22 Raptor on Saturday afternoon near the coasts of North and South Carolina, the Pentagon confirmed.
“They have recovered some remnants off the surface of the sea,” National Security Council coordinator John Kirby told reporters on Monday. “And weather conditions did not permit much undersea surveillance of the debris field yesterday. They think the debris field is about 15 football fields by 15 football fields square. And so it’s sizable, but they’ve identified that, and they think that in perhaps even today, but certainly in the coming days, they’ll be able to get down there and take a better look at what’s on the bottom of the ocean.”
The U.S. Coast Guard said Monday it was imposing a temporary security zone in the waters off Surfside Beach, South Carolina, in the area where the balloon was shot down.
The United States says it was a Chinese spy balloon without a doubt. Its presence prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a weekend trip to China that was aimed at dialing down tensions that were already high between the countries.
The Pentagon says the balloon, which it said was carrying sensors and surveillance equipment, was maneuverable and showed it could change course. It loitered over sensitive areas of Montana where nuclear warheads are siloed, leading the military to take actions to prevent it from collecting intelligence.
U.S. defense and military officials said Saturday that the balloon entered the U.S. air defense zone north of the Aleutian Islands on Jan. 28 and moved over land across Alaska and into Canadian airspace in the Northwest Territories on Jan. 30. The next day it crossed back into U.S. territory over northern Idaho. U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic.
The White House said Biden was first briefed on the balloon on Tuesday. The State Department said Blinken and Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman spoke with the Chinese regimes’ senior Washington-based official on Wednesday evening about the matter.
In the first public U.S. statement, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, said Thursday evening that the balloon was not a military or physical threat—an acknowledgment that it was not carrying weapons. He said that “once the balloon was detected, the U.S. government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.”
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.