05 February 2023

Senior Defense Official and Senior Military Official Hold an Off-Camera, On-Background Press Briefing Update on the High-Altitude Surveillance Balloon

  • Key point: “We spoke directly with Chinese officials through multiple channels, but rather than address their intrusion into our airspace, the PRC put out an explanation that lacked any credibility.”
  • Also: The U.S. government continues to learn about this latest spy balloon and its collection efforts and capabilities—more to come!


Senior Defense Official and Senior Military Official Hold an Off-Camera, On-Background Press Briefing Update on the High-Altitude Surveillance Balloon 

Feb. 4, 2023

STAFF:  So good afternoon, everyone.  Thank you for joining us for today’s background briefing regarding the U.S. military takedown of the high-altitude surveillance balloon launched and belonging to the People’s Republic of China over U.S. territorial waters.

As you may be aware, Secretary of Defense Austin issued a statement a short while ago, which is available on defense.gov.  Today’s background briefing is intended to provide the public and the media with additional details regarding the operation to take down the Chinese balloon to include the prudent planning and measures taken to ensure public safety before, during, and after today’s successful engagement.

Our briefers today are (inaudible) who you may attribute to — as a “senior defense official,” and (inaudible) whose comments you may attribute to a “senior military official.”  I’ll turn it over to our senior defense official who will make some opening remarks.  And then we’ll get right to your questions.

Let me go to our senior defense official.  Over to you, sir.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Thank you, (inaudible).

Thanks, everybody, for hopping on the call.  As you know, the United States government detected and was tracking closely a high-altitude surveillance balloon.  President Biden asked the military to present options.  On Wednesday, President Biden gave his authorization to take down the Chinese surveillance balloon as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to U.S. civilians under the balloon’s path.

Military commanders determined that there was undue risk of debris causing harm to civilians while the balloon was over land.  As a result, they developed a plan to down the balloon once it was over water in U.S. territorial airspace.  That mission has now been successfully completed.  At the direction of the president, the U.S. military, at 2:39 p.m. this afternoon, shot down the high-altitude surveillance balloon off the coast of South Carolina and within U.S. territorial airspace.

Fighter aircraft from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia fired a single missile into the balloon, causing it to crash into the ocean.  In terms of some of the specific detail, this was the first available opportunity to successfully bring down this surveillance balloon in a way that would not pose a threat to the safety of Americans, which our military assessed to be the case when it was approximately six nautical miles off our cost.

There are no indications that any people, including U.S. military personnel, civilian aircraft, or maritime vessels were harmed in any way.  While we work to execute this plan to bring down successfully over U.S. territorial waters, we also took immediate steps to protect against the balloon’s collection of sensitive information, mitigating its intelligence value to the PRC.

Shooting the balloon down addressed the surveillance threat posed to military installations and further neutralized any intelligence value it could have produced, preventing it from returning to the PRC.  In addition, shooting the balloon down could enable the U.S. to recover sensitive PRC equipment.

I would also note that while we took all necessary steps to protect against the PRC surveillance balloon’s collection of sensitive information, the surveillance balloon’s overflight of U.S. territory was of intelligence value to us.  I can’t go into more detail, but we were able to study and scrutinize the balloon and its equipment, which has been valuable.

As Chinese officials have themselves acknowledged, this high-altitude surveillance balloon belonged to the People’s Republic of China.  The balloon never posed a military or physical threat to the American people.  However, its intrusion of our airspace for multiple days was an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty.

PRC government surveillance balloons transited the continental United States briefly at least three times during the prior administration and once that we know of at the beginning of this administration, but never for this duration of timeWe spoke directly with Chinese officials through multiple channels, but rather than address their intrusion into our airspace, the PRC put out an explanation that lacked any credibility.

The PRC has claimed publicly that the high-altitude balloon operating above the United States is a weather balloon that was blown off-course.  This is false.  This was a PRC surveillance balloon.  This surveillance balloon purposefully traversed the United States and Canada.  And we are confident it was seeking to monitor sensitive military sites.  Its route over the United States, near many potential sensitive sites, contradicts the PRC government’s explanation that it was a weather balloon.

This is not the only PRC surveillance balloon operating in the Western Hemisphere.  We assess that a balloon was observed transiting Central and South America, and that that is another PRC surveillance balloonThese balloons are all part of a PRC fleet of balloons developed to conduct surveillance operations, which have also violated the sovereignty of other countries.

These kinds of activities are often undertaken at the direction of the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA.  Over the past several years, Chinese balloons have previously been spotted over countries across five continents, including in East Asia, South Asia, and Europe.  PRC intrusions violating our sovereignty and the sovereignty of other countries are unacceptable.  We have notified the PRC about our actions and we are briefing allies and partners.

And what that, (inaudible), I’ll hand it over to you.

STAFF:  Great, thank you very much, (inaudible).

For our first question, we’ll go to Lita Baldor, AP.

Q:  Hi, thanks (inaudible).  I was wondering if you could give us just a bit more sort of information on this intelligence collection and the recovery effort.  Can you tell us how long the recovery effort will be?  Can you say what the Navy is doing currently and what you expect to be able to get?  Was there enough intact that fell that the U.S. will be able to recover?  Can you just give us a bigger picture of that?  Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Sure, I’ll start.  And then we’ll kick it over to our senior military official.  So obviously after having downed the balloon, our mission now transitions from air engagement to a Naval recovery mission.  The duration of that is unknown.  And the nature of the debris is still being assessed.  But recovery options will seek to recover all debris and any material of intelligence value.  And we’ll make sure that we’re working closely with the FBI on the chain of custody as we do so.

And with that, I’ll — I’ll hand it over to our senior military official for any additional details.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL:  Yes, thank you very much.  I concur that the timeline for recovery at this point is relatively unknown.  We have multiple U.S. Navy vessels and Coast Guard vessels in the region right now, establishing a security perimeter, conducting search for any debris that may be on the water to ensure the safety of U.S. civilians, any maritime activity that is ongoing out in the water.

We will provide, under NORTHCOM command and control, a salvage vessel, United States Navy, which will be on-scene within a couple of days.  The debris is in 47 feet of water, primarily.  The recovery that will make it fairly easy, actually.  We planned for much deeper water.

As far as the specific time line to recover it, I can’t give you that right now.  Thank you.

STAFF:  Thank you, gentlemen.

Our next question will go to Oren Liebermann, CNN.

Q:  Hey, I just wondered if you could say more about the assets used to down the balloon.  You had mentioned fighters out of Langley.  Are those F-22s?  What sort of munition was used to down the balloon as well?  Was that an AMRAAM or something else?  And that’s it at the moment.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Sure, hey, Oren, just a few things and then we’ll hand it over to our senior military official for other details.  So one F-22 successfully engaged the Chinese high-altitude surveillance and reconnaissance balloon with one air-to-air missile.  As planned, the F-22 engaged the balloon from an altitude of 58,000 feet.  The balloon itself was between 60 and 65,000 feet.

And, as I said in my opening comments, our initial assessment is there was no collateral damage or harm to civilians.  And all of the debris from the surveillance balloon is scattered throughout the planned and cleared operations box.  And the main portion of the debris landed in relatively shallow water, as the senior military official just stated.

The pilots are safe and returning — sorry, I’m getting — somebody is coming in on the line.  Anyway, I was saying the pilots are safe and returning to base.

And with that, I think we should hand it over to our senior military official for any more details.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL:  Thank — thank you very much.  So as our senior defense official said, the 1st Fighter Wing, Langley Air Force Base, took the shot with F-22s.  We also had support with F-15s that were from Barnes Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts.  We had tanker support from multiple locations, including units that supported from Oregon, Montana, Massachusetts, South Carolina, North Carolina, et cetera.

The — the actual operation was a combination of active duty forces, National Guard forces, forces assigned to the commander of NORAD, and forces assigned to the commander of the United States Northern Command.

I’d like to thank our Canadian allies who are part of NORAD.  And they were with us the entire way as we executed this operation.

On the Navy side we have multiple forces as well.  The USS Oscar Austin, and the Philippine Sea out of Naval Station Norfolk, the USS Carter Hall out of Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek as well.  Over.

STAFF:  Thank you, gentlemen.

Q:  And can you just say the type of missile fired?  I’m sorry.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL:  Did you say the type of missile fired?

Q:  Yes.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL:  The type of missile fired was an AIM-9X.

STAFF:  Thank you, gentlemen.

And just a reminder to those on the line, please mute your phones if you’re not asking questions.

Our next question will go to Dan Lamothe, Washington Post.

Q:  Hey, thank you for your time today.  I was hoping we could backtrack a bit.  Can you explain a bit when you first became aware of the surveillance — surveillance balloon, whether that was over the Aleutians, at what point you had eyes on it?  And can you elaborate a bit on I guess the — in terms of recovering debris, will this require diving?  Will this require only scooping things from the — from smaller vessels?  How — how will this work in practical terms?  Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Thanks, Dan.  So, we’ve been tracking this high-altitude balloon for some time.  It entered the Alaska Joint Operating Area on January 28th, having entered the U.S. Air Defense Identification Zone north of the Aleutian Islands, and therefore passing into sovereign U.S. airspace.  It then entered into Canadian airspace on January 30th, and re-entered U.S. airspace over northern Idaho on January 31st.

We’ve confidence that the high-altitude balloon, as I said, was a PRC surveillance balloon.  We assessed that it did not pose a threat at any time to civilian air traffic because of the altitude of the balloon.  We also assessed it did not pose a military or kinetic threat to U.S. people or property on the ground.  Although we were constantly updating both of those assessments and prepared to take it out if that threat profile changed.

We were also looking at the intel value of the balloon throughout.  Our assessment, and this is just our assessment, and we’re going to learn more as we pick up the debris, was that it was not likely to provide significant added — additive value over and above other PRC intel capabilities such as, you know, satellites in Low Earth Orbit, for example.

But nevertheless, this balloon was clearly crossing over sensitive sites, including sensitive military sites.  And so we took additional precautions to make sure that whatever additive intel value would be minimized.

Our number one concern was how could we take this down while not creating undue risk to people or property on the ground?  The president asked for options.  He asked for those options on Tuesday.  On Wednesday morning, the secretary convened our commander of NORTHCOM, our chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, other military commanders, senior — other senior leaders at the Department.

A number of courses of action were — were put forward.  Ultimately our military commanders recommended that while we had a shot window to take it down over Montana, we just didn’t feel like we could buy down the risk enough over land.  So the president was comfortable with us taking the balloon down if we could avoid undue risk to civilians.  And so we worked up an option to take it out over the water.  And that’s what we did this afternoon.

And as it relates to your recovery question, I’m going to hand that over to the senior military official.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL:  Thank you very much.  So recovery operations have begun already.  Multiple vessels, as I conveyed, are already on-scene.  And a few things up off the surface right now.  Once the salvage ship comes up, your question specific to divers, absolutely.  We have divers that will be capable Navy divers to — to go down if needed.  We’ll also have unmanned vessels that can go down to get the structure and lift it back up on the recovery ship.

There, it will be a collaborative effort.  We’ll have FBI on board as well under the counter-intelligence authorities to also be categorizing and assessing the platform itself.  Thank you.

STAFF:  Thank you, gentlemen.

Our next question will go to Helene Cooper, New York Times.

Q:  Hi.  Thanks for doing this.  First, I have two questions.  First, I’d like to ask (inaudible) to please put (inaudible) opening statement on the record instead of on background.  My other question is you mentioned that you — there was some value to the United States of tracking this balloon across the country.  Can you go into a little bit more detail on what — what kind of — how that was valuable?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Yes, I’m going to very cautious here given the level of classification.  I’ll just say this.  You know, much has been made over the last couple of days of what the PRC may or may not be learning as the surveillance balloon passed over U.S. territory.  We think we bought down a lot of that risk through the mitigation measures that we took.

But — but I do think what has not been understood quite so much is that this actually provided us a number of days to analyze this balloon.  And through a number of means, which I can’t go into at this level of classification, learn a lot about what this balloon was doing, how it was doing it, why the PRC might be using balloons like this.

And so, you know, we haven’t — we don’t know exactly all the benefits that will derive.  But we have learned technical things about this balloon and its surveillance capabilities.  And I suspect if we are successful in recovering aspects of the debris, we will learn even more.  Over.

STAFF:  Thank you.

Our next question will go to Nancy Youssef, Wall Street Journal.

Q:  Thank you so much.  I wanted to clarify — get a clarification on something you said earlier.  I want to understand, if it made sense to — why not take down the balloon when it was over Alaska and when it first entered U.S. airspace?  I guess what I’m trying to understand is how much was the calculation about risk to the ground and how much of it was to gather a better understanding of the surveillance balloon and what the Chinese were doing?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Hey, Nancy.  So throughout, the primary consideration was, did the balloon itself pose an ongoing risk to civilian aviation given the altitude it was at?  The answer was consistently no.  Did the balloon itself, you know, pose a kinetic or physical threat to folks on the ground all by itself?  The answer was no.

The consideration then was, could we take it down over land and have confidence that it would not fall on somebody even if it, you know, was a bolt of lightning type of situation?  And we just could — we weren’t able to, you know, buy down the undue risk sufficiently over land.

We also used the extra time to do some modeling.  Our NORTHCOM command worked with NASA to do modeling about what this would look like if we took it over water.  So it was out of an abundance of caution to U.S. citizens on the ground that we chose not to take it out over land, but to take it out over water.  Over.

Q:  I appreciate that, but was intelligence-gathering part of your calculus at all in terms of understanding what the Chinese were doing?  Understanding this balloon specifically, was that part of your calculation — the collection part?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I would say that that was a — a benefit of waiting a few days was that we learned more about the balloon.  But the fundamental calculation was not the intelligence value, but rather the safety to Americans on the ground.

Q:  Thank you.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL:  The senior military official would like to add something there.  Just to put some context to the risk.  So — so the debris field is at least seven miles spread out.  So you can have an understanding, it doesn’t just fall down.  It would have fallen at least in a seven-mile kind of radius that you’d have to clear and ensure safety of U.S. citizens and also infrastructure.  Thank you.

STAFF:  Thank you very much.

Let’s go to David Martin, CBS.

Q:  (inaudible), I’m still having trouble understanding the decision early on.  You — you just said seven miles of debris.  I mean, there must be parts of the Aleutian Islands and — and Canada that are so — so sparsely populated that there are fewer civilians per square mile than there are off the East Coast of the United States.  So was it really just what might happen to people on the ground or was — was it the fact that you weren’t ready to take a shot early on?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I’ll say that we were consistently assessing the threat that this ballooned posed.  At the point that we thought that it posed a potential threat to us here in the continental United States, we started developing options.  And at that point we decided that the risk-reward was not worth taking it down over land.  And we waited for it to go over more.

Q:  But that — that sounds like it was — it was too late to take a shot by the — by the time you realized it was an intelligence threat to the United States.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  We — we assess that it was not a considerable intelligence threat to the United States, because we don’t think the technology on this balloon provided significant value-added over and above what the PRC already had.  And we also took additional mitigation steps along the path of the balloon.

So we were constantly assessing the threat that this balloon posed to civil aviation, to anybody on the ground, to the intelligence value.  And doing the risk-reward, about whether it was worth bringing this thing down over land, we ultimately decided it was the least risky option to bring it down over the water, and that’s what we did successfully today.

STAFF:  Thank you.

Ladies and gentlemen, we only have time for a couple more questions.  The next question will go to Jennifer Griffin, FOX.

Q:  Thanks.  I just need — I’m really confused about why not take — I understand why not take it down over land after January 31st, but after January 28th, when it crossed over Alaska, and then it’s my understanding it crossed over water again, why not take it down over the water at that time before it entered the continental United States?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  The options presented to us were to take it down over the continental United States or over the water.

Q:  So does that suggest you only began — when did you begin tracking this balloon?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  The balloon entered the ADIZ north of the Aleutian Islands on January 28th.  It then entered Canadian airspace on January 30th.  It entered the continental United States airspace on January 31st, just in northern Idaho.  And I would kick it out to our senior military official for any additional operational detail.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL:  Thank you.  Jennifer, I would say that it really didn’t go back out over the water.  Once it entered over Alaska, it stayed over Alaskan physical territory, traversed east across the northern part of Alaska and then into the Northwest Territories in the far northwest portion of Canada before it came back south into the Idaho area.

So there was not really a specific water shot there, opportunity at that point.

Q:  Thank you.

STAFF:  Thank you.

Final question will go to Phil Stewart, Reuters.

Q:  Hey there.  Do you have any kind of timeline for the recovery efforts?  When do you expect them to begin?  When you do you expect them to end?

And can you give us any details now that this balloon is down about what kinds of surveillance elements were — were onboard?  I mean, no one said anything.  You know, was it visual?  Was it signals?  What — what kinds of surveillance elements were onboard?  Just even — even in broad terms.  Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I’ll say this, I think we — we believe there were a broad array of capabilities.  We’re going to learn more as we scoop up the debris.  As our senior military official noted, we already have assets in the area to start the recovery.  That recovery is under way.

How long it will take, I think is still to be determined based on the — you know, once we figure out more about the nature of the debris field.  But we believe that the debris fell in relatively shallow water, which should expedite things.  But I’ll have our senior military official elaborate on any of that.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL:  I really don’t have anything to add.  We’re under way on the recovery right now.  Once they get on station with the recovery ship we should have a better idea of exactly how long this will take.  I don’t anticipate months and weeks.  I would say it’s a relatively short time.

STAFF:  Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.  Thank you to our senior defense official, senior military official.  That is all the time we have available today.

We will post a transcript as soon as possible onto defense.gov.  Thank you.