(The Hill) — Navy sailors are still pulling up debris from the Chinese spy balloon an F-22 fighter jet shot down on Saturday, and more details about the surveillance device are likely to be revealed in the coming days.
But for now, there are more questions than answers.
Here are the questions we have about the Chinese spy balloon.
What equipment was attached to the balloon, and what was it being used for?
A State Department official revealed on Thursday the balloon hosted antennas with the capability of collecting communications intelligence.
It also came “equipped with solar panels large enough to produce the requisite power to operate multiple active intelligence collection sensors,” the official said.
There is little else known about the equipment attached to the spy balloon, which weighed about 2,000 pounds and is the size of three coach buses.
While satellites are commonly used by nations for surveillance, balloons are cheaper to deploy and can linger over certain areas for longer than a satellite, potentially snapping clearer pictures and picking up on more communications.
Tim Heath, a senior international defense researcher at RAND Corporation, said China is using these balloons to “augment satellite collections.”
“Satellites are highly capable, but they’re in high demand so they can’t be everywhere,” Heath said. “Balloons are cheap and pretty cost-effective. … You can deploy them all over the place.”
Why didn’t the Pentagon tell the public about the balloon for five days?
The Pentagon first detected the balloon on Jan. 28 over the Aleutian Islands in Alaska but chose not to inform the public about it until Feb. 2, when it was spotted over Montana.
Military officials briefed President Joe Biden on the balloon last Tuesday. The next day, Biden ordered it to be shot down when it was safe to do so. That was determined to be when it was over water in the Atlantic Ocean.
Last Thursday, the Biden administration was forced to publicly acknowledge the balloon as the massive white ball floated through the skies of Montana and attracted attention.
What, if any, sensitive information did the balloon collect?
A major point of contention is how long it took the Pentagon to shoot down the balloon, which traveled from Alaska to the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of South Carolina.
Republican lawmakers have slammed the Biden administration for waiting to take it down, arguing they could have shot it out of the sky over the waters of the Aleutian Islands or over sparsely populated areas of America’s heartland.
A concern from the GOP is that the balloon traveled over much of the continental U.S. and potentially collected sensitive information.
We do know the balloon traveled over Montana, home to one of the nation’s three nuclear missile fields.
Defense officials have said they took steps to ensure the balloon was not collecting sensitive information.
Heath, from RAND Corporation, said the Pentagon could have jammed the technology by beaming static at the balloon’s frequency, which would then block it from electronically communicating any message to a satellite for collection by China.
Why didn’t the Pentagon know about previous balloon sightings?
One of the most pressing questions for investigators and intelligence officials is why at least four previous Chinese balloon flyovers were not detected by the Pentagon.
Three of those balloon sightings occurred during the Trump administration, and in addition to the one downed last week, there was one more during the Biden administration.
Gen. Glen VanHerck, the commander of U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, said there was a “domain awareness gap” in the Defense Department’s ability to detect these four balloons, which were discovered retroactively.
Retired Navy Adm. Harry Harris Jr., a former commander of U.S. Pacific Command, told a House congressional panel on Tuesday this detection gap is worrying.
“That ought to concern all of us,” he said, calling it a “disconnect in our ability to understand these balloons.”
Improved technology developed during the Biden administration helped detect the balloon last week, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Monday.
How often has China deployed these balloons, and to which countries?
China is deploying the spy balloons in a massive global surveillance campaign, according to the State Department.
A State Department official on Thursday said that China has deployed them in at least 40 countries across five continents.
Since the U.S. detection of the balloon last week, both Japan and Taiwan have come forward with information and pictures about what they now understand to be balloon sightings.
Previous balloons have been spotted in the Pacific, including one near Hawaii, according to the Pentagon. Last week, one was spotted in Latin America.
The State Department also said the manufacturer of these balloons has a direct relationship with China’s military.
The U.S. is exploring options to take action against the Chinese military and entities supporting the balloon incursions, along with efforts to expose and address the surveillance campaign.