The Chinese surveillance balloon drifting east toward the Atlantic Ocean has been shot down by the U.S. military and is now falling into the sea, video shows.
Television footage showed the balloon deflating before dropping toward the water around 2:40 p.m. U.S. military jets were visible flying in the vicinity, and ships were deployed in the water preparing for the recovery operation.
The shootdown came after President Joe Biden earlier on Saturday broke the silence on the balloon, telling reporters that “we’re gonna take care of it.”
In a statement that shortly followed, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said Biden gave the go-ahead on Wednesday to “take down the surveillance balloon as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to American lives under the balloon’s path.”
He added that the balloon was being used by Beijing “in an attempt to surveil strategic sites in the continental United States.”
After “careful analysis,” Austin said they ruled out the possibility of downing the balloon over land “due to the size and altitude of the balloon and its surveillance payload,” which would pose an “undue risk to people across a wide area.”
U.S. officials previously estimated its size at about three school buses, flying at about 60,000 feet.
The U.S. fighter aircraft assigned to U.S. Northern Command brought down the balloon over the water off the South Carolina coast, and the action was taken in coordination with the Canadian government, the statement said.
“Today’s deliberate and lawful action demonstrates that President Biden and his national security team will always put the safety and security of the American people first while responding effectively to the PRC’s unacceptable violation of our sovereignty,” he said, using the acronym for the People’s Republic of China.
Biden, in a conversation with reporters shortly after arriving in Maryland’s Hagerstown City, revealed more details about how they reached the decision.
After being briefed on the balloon, Biden said he ordered the Pentagon to shoot it down “as soon as possible,” but the Pentagon decided that without doing damage to anyone on the ground, “the best time to do that was out over water, within a 12-mile limit.”
“They successfully took it down, and I want to compliment our aviators who did it,” he said, adding that they will “have more to report on this a little later.”
“I told them to shoot it down on Wednesday,” said Biden. “They said to me, let’s wait for the safest place to do it.”
In preparation for the operation, the Federal Aviation Administration temporarily grounded flights in three airports in the Carolinas as the Chinese surveillance balloon moved past these states toward the coast.
“The FAA has paused departures from and arrivals to Wilmington (ILM), Myrtle Beach International (MYR), and Charleston International (CHS) airports to support the Department of Defense in a national security effort,” the agency said in a statement on Feb. 4. The pause was to stay in effect until at least 2:45 p.m.
Biden had mulled over taking the step on Tuesday when officials first briefed him on it, but decided against it after Pentagon officials, including Austin, Army General Mark Milley, and commander of United States Northern Command Gen. Glen Vanherck all voiced strong objections by pointing to the potential harms to civilians on the ground, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Friday.
“We are tracking closely and keeping all options on the table,” she said.
The balloon, described by U.S. officials as a “high altitude surveillance balloon,” has attracted rising attention since it was spotted on Wednesday above an airfield in Montana, one of three U.S. states where the nuclear missile fields are based. Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder late on Friday confirmed the presence of a second Chinese balloon flying over Latin America.
It drifted over Asheville, North Carolina, and then near Charlotte on Saturday morning.
The balloon’s incursion has ignited alarm in Washington, with members of Congress questioning why the balloon has been allowed to stay in the air.
The ill-timed balloon incident also forced Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday to postpone a scheduled trip to Beijing.
On late Friday, a spokesperson for Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the Biden administration will hold a classified briefing with the four congressional leaders from the House and Senate and the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate Select Committees on Intelligence over the balloon incident following the request of House Speaker Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).