Pentagon cites caution over 'potential for explosives' as reason to delay shoot down of Chinese spy balloon

February 8, 2023
Ben Marquis

Serious questions have been raised about why President Joe Biden's administration waited so long before it finally shot down the Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina over the weekend -- after that surveillance craft had spent several days traversing over the center of the continental United States.

The administration has maintained that the delay was due to an abundance of caution and safety concerns with regard to the payload suspended beneath the balloon, which was assessed to possibly be rigged with explosives, the Conservative Brief reported.

That potential danger of explosives, paired with the massive size of the balloon and the estimated weight of its payload, among other possible hazards, is what led to the decision to wait until the spycraft was over water before it was shot down.

Balloon presented "potential for explosives" in suspended payload

The Defense Department held a briefing on Monday with U.S. Air Force Glen VanHerck, the commanding officer for both Northern Command and NORAD, to discuss the ongoing recovery efforts of the balloon's underwater debris field.

Asked about the size of the balloon and a description of what was rigged up underneath it, the general estimated that the balloon itself was likely around 200 feet tall while the suspended payload beneath it was roughly the size of a regional jetliner and probably weighed several thousand pounds.

He also referenced "potentially hazardous materials" within the various components of the payload, such as its batteries and solar panels, as well as "even the potential for explosives to detonate and destroy the balloon that -- that could have been present."

No confirmation on assumption of explosives

Later in the briefing, Gen. VanHerck was asked to clarify his earlier remarks about the potential for explosives on the balloon, and he replied, "Yeah, so I can't confirm whether it had explosives or not. Anytime you down something like this, we make an assumption that that potential exists."

"We did not associate the potential of having explosives with a threat to dropping weapons, those kinds of things, but out of a precaution, abundance of safety for not only our military people and the public, we have to make assumptions such as that," he continued.

Pressed on the matter one more time, the general added, "I did not have any corroboration or confirmation of explosives on this platform. That was an -- an assessment that we wanted just to make sure for safety purposes."

Opportunity presented for counterintelligence on balloon's capabilities

Prior to that Pentagon briefing on Monday, according to the Daily Mail, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby briefed reporters at the White House and defended the decision to wait for the balloon to finish traversing the continent before shooting it down not just for the aforementioned safety concerns, but also as a means to gather counterintelligence against the Chinese surveillance craft.

"Because the president decided they wouldn't shoot it down until he could do so safely -- and that meant over water -- that afforded us a terrific opportunity to gain a better understanding, to study the capabilities of this balloon," Kirby said. "The time that we had to study this balloon over the course of a few days last week, we believe was important and will give us a lot more clarity, not only on the capabilities that these balloons have, but what China is trying to do with them."

He added, "It hasn't gotten a lot of attention and I understand there's criticism over the fact that it traversed the United States, but again, we took steps to mitigate whatever collection capability that balloon would have over our sensitive military sites."

Explanations won't be accepted by all

Those two explanations -- the potential safety hazards of the balloon and payload as well as the opportunity for counterintelligence -- may satisfy some who have been critical of the Biden administration's delay in shooting down the Chinese surveillance craft until after it had crossed over virtually the entire country.

That said, there are plenty of Americans who are quite willing to forego that counterintelligence opportunity and believe that that balloon should have been shot down when it first violated U.S. airspace and sovereignty over Alaska's sparsely populated Aleutian Islands, long before it ever reached the continental United States.

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