Navy and USCG Complete Recovery of Chinese Surveillance Balloon Debris
In a brief statement issued on Friday afternoon, the U.S. Northern Command confirmed that it concluded the recovery operation for the debris after the shoot-down of the Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon. The operation had been ongoing off the coast of South Carolina since shortly after the balloon was brought on February 4.
“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,” NORTHCOM said in its statement. They said the command had been successful in locating and retrieving the debris without giving any further indication about how much material had survived and been recovered.
Shortly after the downing it was reported that three Navy warships, the destroyer USS Oscar Austin, cruiser USS Philippine Sea, and amphib USS Carter Hall, had all been deployed to the area. In addition, Coast Guard cutters and support craft were also working on the site and maintaining a security perimeter was individuals were cautioned not to touch anything found on shore or floating in the ocean. Some of the vessels deployed were carrying ROVs, dive teams, and FBI counterintelligence officers, who worked to recover and analyze the wreckage.
Earlier in the week it was reported that salvors found and brought up a 30-foot section of the balloon's payload structure, while pictures showed portions of the balloon itself being hauled aboard. The other components were stored in plastic cases for transfer to the FBI. NORTHCOM officers said that the search team had found "all the priority sensor and electronics pieces identified" from the craft. It is believed that they were also able to recover large sections of the structure of the craft.
Officials alluded to the decision to shoot down the craft over the shallow waters on the continental shelf as possibly being strategic. In addition to the announced safety concerns, it is believed that the waters aided in the recovery effort and reduced damage as the debris crashed down.
The analysis efforts are reported to be ongoing reconstructing the device and analyzing the components. Counter-intelligence officials hope to determine what information the craft was collecting as well as how it was transmitting data and what controls China might have had over its direction and flight.
The U.S. Navy vessels as well as the U.S. Coast Guard and other assets deployed to the site reportedly departed on February 16. At the same time, they reported that both the air and maritime safety perimeters around the site had been lifted.