There have been four previous instances of Chinese surveillance balloons flying over US territories, the Pentagon said here Wednesday as the military continued with its operation to recover the balloon and its payload shot down by fighter jets.
The balloon was shot down on Saturday off the coast of South Carolina in the Atlantic Ocean. It had hovered over continental America for several days after entering the US airspace on January 30 in Montana.
China has acknowledged that the balloon was theirs but denied that it was for surveillance purposes rather for weather monitoring and that it had drifted off course.
Department of Defense Spokesperson Gen Pat Ryder told reporters that the operation to recover the debris is being carried out by the US Northern Command.
"Sea states Tuesday permitted divers and explosives ordnance technicians to conduct underwater salvage and recovery, and underwater survey activities continue using unmanned underwater vehicles," he said.
USS Carter Hall remains in the vicinity of the debris field and is leading the recovery efforts. US Coast Guard cutters continue to provide security, and the FBI and NCIS agents continue their work cataloguing debris and transporting it for further processing, Ryder added.
In response to a question, he said the United States is aware that there have been four balloons that had previously flown over US territory. "This is what we assess as part of a larger Chinese surveillance balloon programme," he said, adding that this programme is being operated for several years.
"Some of these balloons previously had not been identified. Subsequent intelligence analysis enabled us to indicate that these were Chinese balloons," the defence department spokesperson added.
"I'm not going into details other than those four we assessed flew over the US. I'm not going to go over specifically what they tracked other than what we've acknowledged publicly that we know that they were looking to surveil strategic sites, to include some of our strategic bases in the continental United States," Ryder said.
He refrained from giving the specific location from where China launched the surveillance balloon but said that last week provided the United States with a unique opportunity to learn a lot more about the programme.
When the balloon entered the continental United States, the US began to develop options on how to take it down and address this threat, Ryder said.
"We wanted to wait until it was over water so that we could mitigate any potential civilian harm or property damage and use this as an opportunity to better understand the Chinese surveillance balloon programme to increase our ability to track these kinds of objects,' he said.
Meanwhile, Senators Roger Wicker, a ranking member on Senate Armed Services Committee, and Marco Rubio, vice-chairman on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Wednesday sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines asking questions about the Joe Biden Administration's decision-making process related to the incursion of the Chinese balloon.
"This incident is only the latest in a series of increasingly brazen violations of our nation's sovereignty by the Chinese Communist Party," Wicker and Rubio wrote.
"It is also hard to separate Beijing's intent to conduct new forms of reconnaissance over our most important nuclear weapons sites from the recent news that Chinese ground-based nuclear launchers now outnumber ours," they said.