Rep. Ruben Gallego: Military should have been better prepared for balloon response

Feb 17, 2023, 12:19 PM | Updated: 12:25 pm
In this U.S. Navy handout, sailors prepare material recovered in the Atlantic Ocean from a high-alt...
In this U.S. Navy handout, sailors prepare material recovered in the Atlantic Ocean from a high-altitude balloon for transport to federal agents on Feb. 10, 2023. (Photo by Ryan Seelbach/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)
(Photo by Ryan Seelbach/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)

PHOENIX — U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona said Friday the Department of Defense should know that not every unidentified object in the sky is a threat.

“Not all of them deserve to be shot at by a million-dollar missile,” the Phoenix Democrat told KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Arizona’s Morning News.

Gallego, a Marine Corps veteran, thinks the suspected Chinese spy balloon that was shot down off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4 was handled appropriately.

But downing three much smaller objects about a week later over Canada, Alaska and Lake Huron may have been a waste of resources that could have been avoided, he said.

“I think the subsequent balloons, I think everyone’s kind of overthinking it and they’re overreacting,” he said. “There is a lot of weather balloons out there that are benign, that are done by private companies, that are done by private citizens.”

Gallego said the Department of Defense would have been better prepared if it had properly followed regulations he worked on as chairman of the Intelligence and Special Operations subcommittee in 2021.

He said the legislation created an office in the DOD to identify and plan for different types of aerial phenomena. But the department dragged its feet and didn’t fully staff the office, he said,

“If the DOD would actually implement some of the regulations that I have been talking about, they would … actually be able to say what is a real threat versus what is not a real threat,” he said.

“We don’t want to be spending millions of dollars shooting down $50,000 balloons. That’s not a smart way to use your tax dollars.”

President Joe Biden said Thursday the U.S. is developing “sharper rules” to track, monitor and potentially shoot down unknown aerial objects. The administration has admitted that the three smaller objects were likely civilian-owned balloons that were targeted after radars were recalibrated to detect slower moving items in response to the first balloon.

On Monday, Gallego sent Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin a letter requesting a briefing on the matter.

“I asked them to basically start looking into actually fully funding that office as well as give an explanation about what happened and how we’re going to prevent this in the future,” he said.

The initial balloon floated across the U.S. before being shot down, a delay that was criticized by some. But Gallego said waiting was the right thing to do in that case.

He said the most important thing, once it was identified as a Chinese asset, was to be able to recover the payload to get information out of it.

However, shooting it down over land would have been too much of a risk to the public, he said.

“We don’t know if there was any type of nuclear, biological [or] chemical gear in there that could have gone down over Montana or somewhere else,” he said.

“So taking it down over territorial waters, where we have the right to bring it and salvage, by international law, I think was the right idea.”

U.S. officials said Friday that efforts to recover the remnants of the large balloon are finished, and analysis of the debris reinforces conclusions that it was a Chinese spy device.

The officials also said the search for the object that was shot down over Lake Huron has stopped, and nothing has been recovered. U.S. officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss military operations. The U.S. and Canada have also failed to recover any debris so far from the other two objects.

Due to their small size and the remote areas over the Yukon and northern Alaska where they were shot down, officials acknowledge that recovering any debris is difficult and probably unlikely. The last two searches, however, have not been formally called off.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Rep. Ruben Gallego: Military should have been better prepared for balloon response