The head of U.S. Northern Command said the Raytheon Technologies [RTX]-built AIM-9X Sidewinder missile fired from an F-22 fighter aircraft presented the safest and most effective option for taking out the Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon as it moved off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday.

Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of USNORTHCOM and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), on Monday also detailed the ongoing operation to recover debris from the site where the balloon was shot down, citing the intelligence collection opportunities.

Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander, North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, speaks at the Space Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, Ala. on Aug. 10, 2021 (DoD Photo)
Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander, North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, speaks at the Space Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, Ala. on Aug. 10, 2021 (DoD Photo)

“There was a potential opportunity for us to collect intel [on] where we had gaps on prior balloons. And so, I would defer to the intel community, but this gave us the opportunity to assess what [the Chinese] were actually doing, what kind of capabilities existed on the balloon and what kind of transmission capabilities existed. And I think you’ll see in the future that the timeframe was well worth its value to collect,” VanHerck told reporters during a briefing.

After the Pentagon first announced it was tracking the suspected surveillance balloon last week, which traveled eastward across the United States, airspace was closed off the coast of South Carolina before the military shot it down with an AIM-9X missile on Saturday.

“Absolutely, there was a warhead in the missile. You can see that explosion on TV as it goes through the lower part of the balloon and right there through the superstructure,” VanHerck said. “I’m not going to get into the technical details. I will just tell you there were multiple options considered and asked for at multiple levels. The decisions that were made were based on safety first and then effectiveness at being able to take the balloon down within our sovereign airspace and territorial waters.”

VanHerck was asked why that weapon was chosen over another missile option like Raytheon’s AIM-120 AMRAAM, which he said has a “significantly larger range and significantly larger missile warhead” compared to the AIM-9X. 

“The AIM-9[X] here, from a safety standpoint, it was going to be more safe. And we assessed, from an effectiveness standpoint, that it was going to be highly-effective. That was proven on Saturday,” VanHerck said. 

The balloon was assessed to be up to 200 feet tall, according to VanHerck, noting the payload was a “jet airliner type of a size, maybe a regional jet” and that it probably weighed “in excess of a couple thousand pounds.”

“From a safety standpoint, picture yourself with large debris weighing hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds falling out of the sky. That’s really what we’re kind of talking about. So glass off of solar panels, potentially hazardous material, such as material that is required for batteries to operate in an environment such as this and even the potential for explosives to detonate and destroy the balloon that could have been present. So I think that would give you an idea of the perspective of the balloon and the decision making process along the way,” VanHerck said.

VanHerck said the area covered by debris is approximately the size of “15 football fields by 15 football fields” with most of the material collected from the surface, while operations are ongoing to map out and recover what has sunk below the water.

“Yesterday, sea states did not allow us to conduct some of the operations that we would have liked to have conducted, such as underwater surveillance. So those forces that provide that explosive ordnance disposal to make sure that scene is safe, they’re out there today this morning,” VanHerck said.“ We expect them to get on there and to do some additional categorization of potential threats, such as explosives that may [have] been on it, hazardous materials that could be in batteries, etc.”

The debris recovery effort is utilizing the USS Carter Hall (LSD-50) dock landing ship for collecting and categorizing material and the USNS Pathfinder (T-AGS 60) oceanographic survey ship to “survey operations using sonar and other means to map out the debris field,” VanHerck noted. 

“It’s capable of conducting oceanographic, hydrographic [and] bathymetric surveys of the bottom of the ocean to do that. And that will eventually produce us a map. They’re in the process of doing that. I expect to have much more today [on] the full debris field,” VanHerck said. 

VanHerck noted the Coast Guard is also supporting the effort with the USCGC Venturous (WMEC-625) medium endurance cutter and two Sentinel-class cutters, the USCGC Richard Snyder (WPC-1127) and USCGC Nathan Bruckenthal (WPC-1128).

Forces on the scene are also utilizing unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV) to help locate sunken debris, which VanHerck said have photographic capabilities, the ability to emplace inflatable devices and mapping with sonar capabilities.

VanHerck declined to talk about any operations related to the surveillance balloon as it moved over the U.S., “such as attempts to use non-kinetic effects,” adding he is expecting to brief Congress before details can be discussed publicly.

“Those are things I need to go to Congress to talk about. I need to talk about it with the department, before we move forward,” VanHerck said. “What I will tell you is we took maximum precaution to prevent any intel collection. I was in close coordination with the commander of United States Strategic Command and we provided counter-intelligence messages out of intelligence shop across the entire Department of Defense and the interagency so that we could take maximum protective measures while the balloon transited across the United States.”

VanHerck was also asked about assessments regarding potentially shooting down the balloon as it crossed by the Aleutian Islands near Alaska.

“It wasn’t time. The domain awareness was there as it approached Alaska. It was my assessment that this balloon did not present a physical military threat to North America. This is under my NORAD hat. And therefore, I could not take immediate action because it was not demonstrating hostile act or hostile intent,” VanHerck said. 

Lawmakers in recent days have called for briefings from the White House and DoD on the decision making process related to tracking and ultimately taking out the Chinese balloon.

“Allowing a spy balloon from the Communist Party of China to travel across the entire continental United States before contesting its presence is a disastrous projection of weakness by the White House,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.. “It is clear that standard protocol for defense of U.S. airspace was ignored. If press reports are correct, the Biden Administration hoped to hide this incident from the American people from the start. The White House owes Congress and the American people answers about this failure, and I intend to get those answers without delay.”

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), chair of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, said he plans to hold a hearing on the matter soon.

“As Defense Chairman, I will be pulling people before my committee to get real answers from the Biden Administration about the Chinese spy balloon that invaded Montana’s airspace,” Tester said in a social media post. 

John Kirby, spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council, was asked Monday about the ramifications of the balloon situation on U.S.-China relations, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponing an upcoming trip to Beijing in the wake of the incident. 

“This balloon incident has done nothing to help improve U.S.-China bilateral relations. And now is just not the appropriate time for us to have those sorts of face-to-face discussions with them on larger diplomatic issues. But [the trip] was postponed, it wasn’t canceled. And, as Secretary Blinken has said himself, when the time is right, he will begin discussion with the Chinese what a future visit could look like,” Kirby told reporters.