The amphibious warship that has served as the nerve center for the recovery of the remains of a Chinese spy balloon is headed back to port to drop off what divers have recovered, a defense official confirmed to USNI News.
On Thursday, USS Carter Hall (LSD-50) was bound for its homeport at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, Va., to drop off flotsam and underwater debris collected from the Chinese spy balloon that was downed Saturday by an F-22 Raptor off the coast of South Carolina, the official confirmed to USNI News.
Counterintelligence agents with the FBI are set to lead a forensic analysis of the balloon and the surveillance package at labs in Quantico, Va., once in receipt of the remains.
The official told USNI News the amphibious warship was planned to return to the crash site.
Carter Hall departed as a contracted commercial offshore supply vessel HOS Rosebud arrived off Myrtle Beach with additional divers and recovery equipment to continue the search.
A Pentagon spokesperson confirmed to USNI News Thursday that Rosebud had been contracted to bring additional capabilities to the search but did not elaborate on the units embarked.
While Rosebud is on the scene, additional recovery efforts could be hampered by looming rough seas.
According to the National Weather Service, high sea states are anticipated off the South Carolina coast through the weekend. The wave height could prevent boats and search crews from continuing to hunt for the pieces of the balloon and its surveillance package about 6 miles off the coast from Myrtle Beach.
Defense officials have said the balloon’s envelope was 200 feet high and its surveillance package was about the size of a regional commuter jet and weighed thousands of pounds.
Also on Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee held a contentious hearing with U.S. officials on the risks the balloon posed and how much the Pentagon and the White House knew about Chinese surveillance capabilities.
The balloon entered the Alaskan air defense identification zone on Jan. 28, and then traveled over Canada and back into the U.S. across the Idaho border.
“I don’t want a damn balloon going over the United States when we could’ve taken it down over the Aleutian Islands,” committee chairman Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said during the hearing.
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Hemispheric Affairs Melissa Dalton told the panel the U.S. decision to down the balloon off the coast of South Carolina was designed to recover as much of the aircraft intact as possible, which would be lost in the cold, deep water in the Bering Sea.
As of Thursday, Chinese officials have continued to say the balloon was a civilian weather monitoring device. Chinese military leaders earlier this week refused a call from Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to discuss the balloon.
“The use of force violates international practice and sets a bad precedent,” defense ministry spokesman Tan Kefei said in a statement on Thursday. “The U.S. hasn’t created a proper atmosphere for dialogue.”