The Pentagon denied a request from the Air Force in Alaska to shoot down the suspected Chinese spy balloon last month before it flew across North America, according to the state’s Republican senator.
Dan Sullivan, an Alaska lawmaker and Senate armed services committee member, said the 11th Air Force, which is based in his state, had sought permission to shoot it down after F-22 and F-35 fighter jets tracked the balloon “from far away” before it entered North American air space over the Aleutian Islands on January 28.
“Our Alaska commanders requested permission to shoot it down. Was denied,” Sullivan said at the Hudson Institute on Thursday, in comments that have not previously been reported. “I’m not sure that’s public, but it’s a fact.”
In a Q&A session, Sullivan did not say where the balloon was located when the Air Force commanders asked for permission to take it out. He also did not make clear who had refused the request.
The 11th Air Force is part of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or Norad, a joint US-Canadian military command responsible for defending the two countries, which is led by General Glen VanHerck.
Sullivan’s office did not provide more detail when asked for comment by the Financial Times. But his claim opens the possibility that some commanders discussed shooting the balloon down before President Joe Biden ordered the military to come up with options to take it out on January 31 when the balloon was over Montana.
The following day, Biden’s top commanders, including VanHerck, recommended waiting until the balloon was over the ocean where the risk to civilians would be far lower.
The Pentagon did not comment directly on Sullivan’s claim. Brigadier General Patrick Ryder, its press secretary, said VanHerck had ordered the Alaskan component of Norad to “identify and monitor the high altitude balloon” and that he had determined that “it did not present an immediate military threat”.
Ryder added that VanHerck had “elevated the decision to the higher authority” and that Norad and Northern Command, which oversees the defence of the US, “continued to develop options” before the downing on February 4.
The White House National Security Council declined to comment on the claims from Sullivan, who has previously said the Biden administration needed to be more transparent about what happened with the Chinese balloon.
An F-22 shot the balloon down off the coast of South Carolina on February 4, a week after it flew over the Aleutians. Republican lawmakers have slammed Biden for not ordering the military to take action before the balloon had flown over much of the US and loitered over a military site that houses nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The balloon episode triggered another spiral downward in US-China relations, which are already at their lowest point since the countries established diplomatic relations in 1979. Secretary of state Antony Blinken cancelled a trip to Beijing that would have included a meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping.
China claims that the balloon was a civilian craft conducting meteorological research that blew off course due to high winds. But US officials say the payload under the balloon contained equipment for surveillance and not for observing weather conditions.
US authorities are examining the debris they recovered off the coast of South Carolina and are considering declassifying intelligence to prove their case.
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