Navy Contracted Salvage Ship Underway to Collect Chinese Spy Balloon Remains

February 8, 2023 8:43 PM
Sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recover a high-altitude surveillance balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Feb. 5, 2023. US Navy Photo

A contracted offshore supply vessel left Virginia bound for the crash site of the Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina, USNI News has learned.

HOS Rosebud departed from Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, Va., Wednesday afternoon, according to ship spotters. Defense officials confirmed to USNI News Monday the ship would embark additional material to help recover the remains of the surveillance balloon. A Pentagon spokesperson acknowledged a request for additional information from USNI News but did not immediately provide a response.

Since the 200-foot balloon and its commuter jet-sized surveillance package underneath were shot down on Saturday by an Air Force F-22 Raptor, Navy divers, warships and Coast Guard cutters have been on station around the debris field, Pentagon officials said. The balloon crashed in about 50 feet of water inside territorial waters just off the coast of Myrtle Beach, S.C.

As of Wednesday afternoon, amphibious warship USS Carter Hall (LSD-50) and the Coast Guard 87-foot patrol USCGC Yellowfin (WPB-87319) were near the shootdown site, according to automated identification system signals. Coast Guard cutters USCGC Venturous (WMEC-625), USCGC Richard Snyder (WPC-1127) and USCGC Nathan B. Bruckenthal (WPC-1128) were assisting in patrolling the debris field.

Navy surveillance ship USNS Pathfinder (T-AGS-60), guided-missile destroyer USS Oscar Austin (DDG-79) and guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea (CG-58) were on scene just after the crash but have since departed. As of Wednesday evening, Pathfinder was steaming north off the coast of North Carolina, according to AIS.

HOS Rosebud underway off the coast of Virginia Beach, Va., on Feb. 8, 2023. Photo by John Morgan used with permission

Photos of Navy Explosive Ordnance Group 2 were released on Wednesday showing sailors pulling up the fabric from the balloon’s envelope from the ocean and picking through other flotsam. The unit has also been using Mk-18 Mod 1 Lionfish and Mk-18 Mod 2 Kingfish unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) equipped with side scan sonar to hunt for debris in the shallow water.

Rough weather prevented searches earlier in the week but, “sea states Tuesday permitted divers and explosives ordnance technicians to conduct underwater salvage and recovery, and underwater survey activities continue using unmanned underwater vehicles,” Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters on Wednesday.

“USS Carter Hall remains in the vicinity of the debris field and is leading the recovery efforts. U.S. Coast Guard cutters continue to provide security, and the FBI and NCIS agents continue their work cataloging debris and transporting it for further processing,” Ryder said.

USNI News understands that Rosebud will bring more complex salvage UUVs and other systems that can bring larger pieces of debris to the surface. For example, similar systems were used to recover a Navy F-35C from more than 12,500 feet underwater in the Pacific. The surveillance package slung under the envelope of the balloon is thought to weigh several thousand pounds, officials have said.

Beyond the current recovery mission, the Pentagon acknowledged the wreck was part of a sophisticated Chinese surveillance operation, and there have been at least four other U.S. overflights by other spy balloons.

“We are aware that there have been four previous balloons that have gone over U.S. territory. This is what we assess as part of a larger Chinese surveillance balloon program,” Ryder said. “You’ve heard us talk in the past about the fact that this is a program that’s been operated for several years. What we do know is that in some cases whereas some of these balloons previously had not been identified, subsequent analysis, subsequent intelligence analysis did enable us to indicate that these were Chinese balloons.”

Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone is the editor of USNI News. He has covered legislation, acquisition and operations for the Sea Services since 2009 and spent time underway with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and the Canadian Navy.
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