At the direction of President Joe Biden, the US military on Friday at 2:39 pm EST shot down the Chinese surveillance balloon in the Atlantic Ocean, about six miles (9.65 km) off the US coast in South Carolina, without damage to American lives and property, a senior defense official told reporters in Washington.
A fighter plane at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia inspired a single missile into the balloon, causing it to crash into the ocean within US territorial airspace, the official said, adding that there are currently no indications that people , including US military personnel, civilian aircraft or seagoing vessels were damaged in any way.
“I told them to take it down,” Biden told reporters in Hagerstown, Maryland.
“When I was briefed on the balloon on Wednesday, I ordered the Pentagon to shoot it down as soon as possible. They decided, without harming anyone on the ground, that the best time to do it was when the water ran out, outside within the 12-mile limit,” Biden said.
In response to the downing of the balloon, China has expressed strong dissatisfaction and opposition to the United States’ use of force to attack China’s civilian unmanned airship, state-run Xinhua news agency reported Sunday, citing a statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
Watch: US military shoots down Chinese spy balloon amid heightened tensions
“US insistence on the use of force is a clear overreaction and a gross violation of international practice. China will resolutely uphold the rights and legitimate interests of the affected society, at the same time reserving the right to take further action in response,” the foreign ministry statement in Beijing said.
The Chinese side, after verification, repeatedly informed the US side of the civilian nature of the airship and communicated that its entry into the US due to force majeure was completely unexpected, the statement said, noting that the Chinese side clearly asked the US side to properly handle the matter in a calm, professional and sober manner.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said that, under the direction of President Biden, a fighter jet assigned to the US Northern Command successfully shot down the high-altitude surveillance balloon launched by and belonging to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) over the water off the coast of South Carolina in US airspace.
“The balloon, which was being used by the PRC in an attempt to survey strategic sites in the continental US, was shot down over US territorial waters,” Austin said.
China said the balloon was simply a weather research “blimp” that had been blown off course.
This action to bring down the three bus-sized balloon was undertaken in coordination and with the full support of the Canadian government. Defense officials told US media the debris landed in 14m of water – shallower than they expected – near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
The military is now trying to recover the debris that spans seven miles (11 km).
The Pentagon official told reporters he took immediate steps to protect himself from the balloon’s collection of sensitive information, diluting its intelligence value to China.
By shooting down the balloon, he addressed the surveillance threat posed to military installations and further neutralized any valuable intelligence it might have produced, preventing it from returning to China.
“Also, shooting down the balloon could allow the US to recover sensitive PRC equipment. While we have taken all necessary measures to protect ourselves from the collection of sensitive information by the PRC surveillance balloon on the territory of the United States, which had intelligence value for us, ”the official said without disclosing much of the information.
“I can’t go into more detail, but we were able to study and examine the balloon and its equipment carefully, which was invaluable. Chinese officials themselves have recognized the high-altitude surveillance balloon that has been useful to the People’s Republic of China,” the official said.
Now that the balloon has been shot down, attention has turned to the recovery mission, which is already underway.
Multiple vessels are in place along with divers, to disembark if needed. The United States has also deployed unmanned vessels that can descend to recover the structure and lift it onto the recovery vessel, the official said. Officials from the FBI and other counterintelligence authorities are also present to classify and evaluate the platform itself.
According to the second senior defense official, the Pentagon has been tracking this high-flying balloon for some time. Entered Alaska on 28 January. It then entered Canadian airspace on 30 January and reentered US airspace over northern Idaho on 31 January.
“With confidence, the high-altitude balloon was a PRC surveillance balloon. We have assessed that it has never posed a threat to civilian air traffic and due to the altitude of the balloons. We also assess that it did not pose a military or kinetic threat to U.S. people or property in the field, although we were constantly updating both of these assessments and were prepared to eliminate it if the threat profile changed,” the official said.
Chinese authorities denied it was a spy plane, instead saying it was a weather vessel that went astray.
“We are also looking into the information value of the ball. We will learn more as we collect the debris that is unlikely to provide significant added value compared to other PRC intelligence capabilities such as low-Earth orbit satellites, for example,” the official said.
However, this balloon was clearly passing through sensitive sites, including sensitive military sites. Therefore, the Pentagon took extra precautions to ensure that any intelligence-added value was minimized.
Through constant monitoring and surveillance, the United States has learned technical things about this balloon and its surveillance capabilities. “I suspect that if we can recover aspects of the debris we will learn even more,” the official said.
President Biden had been under pressure to bring down the balloon since defense officials first announced they were monitoring him Thursday. After the balloon was shot down, Biden said, “They successfully shot it down and I want to commend our aviators who did it.”
Senator Jack Reed, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Biden made the right decision to shoot down this alleged Chinese spy balloon out of reach of American civilians and infrastructure. United States first Mrs. Jill Biden he described it as a moment of pride.
“I mean, I felt such a sense of pride in the effort and in the fact that our military, you know, shot down the balloon, how coordinated it was, how thoughtful it was, that it was decided to wait until it was above the water so civilians weren’t affected,” he said.
A senior military official told CNN that recovering the debris from the balloon should be “fairly easy” and could take a “relatively short time”. The official added that “capable Navy divers” could be deployed to assist in the operation.
China has a fleet of these types of surveillance balloons, according to another senior defense official, including one that was spotted flying over Venezuela and Colombia this week.
“These balloons are all part of a balloon fleet (People’s Republic of China) developed to conduct surveillance operations, which also violated the sovereignty of other countries. This type of activity is often undertaken under the direction of the People’s Liberation Army or PLA,” ABC News quoted the official as saying.
“In recent years, Chinese balloons have previously been seen in countries on five continents, including East Asia, South Asia and Europe.”
The incident has added new tensions to US-China relations. The Pentagon called it an “unacceptable violation” of US sovereignty.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Beijing it was “an irresponsible act”. He also postponed his trip to China on February 5-6.
But China has tried to downplay the cancellation of its visit, saying in a statement on Saturday that neither side had formally announced plans for a trip.