The US military has concluded its recovery operations for the suspected Chinese spy balloon that was shot down off the coast of South Carolina earlier this month, as well as the search for flying objects it later downed off the coast of Alaska and over Lake Huron after days of ultimately fruitless searches.
The recovery effort ended after “U.S. Navy assets assigned to U.S. Northern Command successfully located and retrieved debris” from the balloon, a statement from US Northern Command said Friday.
“Final pieces of debris are being transferred to the Federal Bureau of Investigation Laboratory in Virginia for counterintelligence exploitation, as has occurred with the previous surface and subsurface debris recovered. U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard vessels have departed the area. Air and maritime safety perimeters have been lifted,” the statement added.
NORTHCOM said in a statement later in the day that it would end the search for two of the three objects shot down over North America last weekend, stating that”the US military, federal agencies, and Canadian partners conducted systematic searches of each area using a variety of capabilities, including airborne imagery and sensors, surface sensors and inspections, and subsurface scans, and did not locate the debris.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin approved the command’s recommendation to call off the search.
The Biden administration had repeatedly pointed to the need to locate and recover the downed objects to be able to identify what they were and who launched them, but US officials had grown less optimistic about recovering debris from them.
The failed search efforts make it increasingly unlikely the public will receive a thorough explanation of what the objects were that US fighters had shot down over three consecutive days.
National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby suggested as much at a White House press briefing on Friday, telling reporters, “We would like nothing better, but I can’t sit here and promise you that we’ll get to that level of fidelity of detail.”
He noted the “extremely bad winter weather” up in the North of Alaska and “arctic conditions” were making recovery efforts extremely difficult.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Kirby said, have been unable to find the object downed in the Yukon territory and the Canadians have decided not to look for the object that fell into Lake Huron.
“So pretty tough conditions, going to be very difficult to find them, let alone once you find that debris be able to do the forensics to identify it. So I can’t promise you that we’ll know definitively one way or the other,” he added.
The RCMP had said in a statement Friday that “the highest probability area has been searched and the debris was not located.”
After the Chinese balloon was shot down, the US military had downed the three subsequent objects that were much smaller and are now believed to have not been tied to any country’s surveillance program, President Joe Biden said Thursday. Instead, they were likely used for weather or research purposes by private entities.
US officials have said that the Chinese balloon, in contrast, had a payload – or the equipment it was carrying – the size of roughly three buses and was capable of collecting signals intelligence and taking photos. The balloon traveled over sensitive sites in Montana, officials have said, but the administration has said it tracked the balloon’s path and worked to minimize its intelligence collection capabilities.
The US has said that the balloon is part of a large fleet controlled by the Chinese military that has conducted surveillance over at least 40 countries across five continents in recent years.
CNN reported this week that the US intelligence community is examining the possibility that the balloon, which lifted off from Hainan, China, in January, did not intend to travel over the continental US but was blown off its path by strong winds. The balloon’s original surveillance target was likely Guam, but the weather may have shifted the balloon northward, officials said.
The president said that he expects to speak with Chinese President Xi Jinping about the balloon but that he will not apologize for shooting it down.
“I hope we are going to get to the bottom of this, but I make no apologies for taking down that balloon,” he said.
The US will be crafting parameters moving forward on how to handle unidentified objects in US airspace that could pose a risk to civilian aircraft, Biden said.
This story and headline have been updated with additional developments Friday.