WASHINGTON — A week after a Chinese surveillance balloon was first spotted over Alaska at the start of its journey across North America, questions remain about its path over the state and the U.S. military response.
The balloon first entered the U.S. Air Defense Identification Zone north of the Aleutian Islands on Jan. 28 and entered Canadian airspace on Jan. 30, according to the Department of Defense.
According to a media briefing transcript published by the Defense Department, a senior military official told reporters Saturday that once the balloon entered Alaska it stayed over the state’s physical territory, moved east across the northern part of Alaska and then into the Northwest Territories of Canada.
But the balloon’s specific path across Alaska remained a mystery on Sunday, including where it was initially spotted north of the Aleutians and its trajectory once it reached the mainland.
A senior defense official, also on the Saturday call with reporters, said officials’ primary consideration was whether the balloon presented a threat to civilian aviation and people on the ground.
Asked why the U.S. military did not down the balloon when it crossed into Alaska, the senior military official said “it really didn’t go back out over the water.”
“So there was not really a specific water shot there, opportunity at that point,” the official said after outlining the flight path.
[Pentagon reports past Chinese surveillance balloons near Florida, Texas]
A Defense Department spokesperson declined to provide additional details about the balloon’s path over Alaska on Sunday. Representatives of military commands in Alaska could not be reached for comment Sunday.
Alaska U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, who was briefed on the balloon Sunday, said it traveled from the Aleutians toward the Seward Peninsula, across the state and into Canada.
Sullivan, a Republican, said military personnel in Alaska tracked the balloon as it traversed the state.
“My point is it was not at all like the men and women up here were asleep at the switch,” Sullivan said in an interview Sunday. “To the contrary, they did an exceptional job of tracking and alerting senior leadership at an early stage.”
Asked about the specifics of the U.S. military response in Alaska, Sullivan deferred to the Defense Department.
The Defense Department spokesperson did not provide additional details about the initial military response to the balloon entering Alaska, saying, “At this time we have nothing further beyond what has already been said on this issue.”
[Timeline: A suspected Chinese spy balloon’s eight-day journey]
The New York Times reported that the balloon first appeared “to trackers at United States Northern Command to be just another one of China’s light probes around the edges of America’s defensive borders.”
Sullivan said he has lingering questions about the balloon and intends to press the administration for answers.
“One of which is, you know, why didn’t we shoot down this aircraft earlier?” Sullivan said.
The Biden administration shot down the balloon on Saturday once it reached the Atlantic Ocean off South Carolina. Military officials said downing the balloon over land would have posed “an undue risk of debris causing harm to civilians.”
“You know, I take that at face value right now until we see more details,” Sullivan said.
A Department of Defense statement said Chinese surveillance balloons have previously entered U.S. airspace. Sullivan said the subject needs to be looked into.
“What needs to happen in my view is a deep dive on this, an understanding, and an assessment and then transparency on what the answer is,” Sullivan said
All three members of the Alaska congressional delegation commended the military for ultimately downing the balloon off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday, but are seeking further clarity on the situation.
“I think it’s important not to be alarmist. I don’t want to say much more until I’ve learned more,” Alaska Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola said in a statement Sunday. “At this point, with the limited information we have, speculation would be irresponsible.”