US downs suspected Chinese spy balloon off Carolina coast

WASHINGTON – A U.S. warplane shot down the suspected Chinese spy balloon off the South Carolina coast Saturday afternoon, sending its surveillance gear into relatively shallow water where recovery efforts began immediately, Pentagon officials announced.

The balloon was downed after it passed into U.S. territorial waters, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement.The balloon, which carried a large payload of spy gear according to U.S. officials, had soared over several strategic sites, including nuclear missile silos, and became the latest flashpoint in tensions between Washington and Beijing.

More:Video shows moment US shot down suspected Chinese spy balloon after Americans reported sightings Saturday

President Joe Biden ordered the Pentagon to down the balloon on Wednesday but commanders worried about debris killing people on the ground. 

“After careful analysis, U.S. military commanders had determined downing the balloon while over land posed an undue risk to people across a wide area due to the size and altitude of the balloon and its surveillance payload,” Austin said. “In accordance with the president’s direction, the Department of Defense developed options to take down the balloon safely over our territorial waters, while closely monitoring its path and intelligence collection activities.”

Senior Pentagon officials, briefing reporters Saturday, revealed that suspected surveillance balloons from China had breached U.S. airspace three times during the Trump administration and at other times during Biden’s tenure. The balloon shot down Saturday had made the longest incursion, they said. The officials described the shoot down and recovery efforts on condition of anonymity under Defense Department ground rules.

How the US shot down the balloon

The Pentagon scrambled F-22 warplanes from Virginia and F-15s from Massachusetts to down the balloon after it passed the coastline of South Carolina, the officials said.

Backstory:US tracking suspected Chinese spy balloon as it drifts across Montana to Midwest

An F-22, the most sophisticated warplane in the U.S. arsenal, flying at 58,000 feet fired a single AIM 9X sidewinder air-to-air missile and struck the balloon at 2:39 p.m. EDT, the official said. The balloon had been flying at about 65,000 feet when the shootdown occurred six nautical miles off the South Carolina coast in U.S. territorial waters, according to one of the officials. That was the first opportunity to do so that was deemed safe. No people or vessels were struck by the debris.

Recovery efforts began immediately and are ongoing. U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships are patrolling the area. The debris is in about 47 feet of water, a relatively shallow site that a salvage ship and divers will investigate in the coming days. 

What was the balloon in the US for?

Defense officials refuted the Chinese claim that the balloon was collecting weather data and had been blown off course. It had passed over sensitive military sites, including nuclear missile silos in Montana, and was clearly spying. The Pentagon took efforts to shield information the balloons sensors could glean from those sites, the official said.

The balloon entered Alaskan airspace at the Aleutian Islands on Jan. 28, the Pentagon said. It drifted into Canadian airspace on January 30 and breached the airspace in the continental United States at Idaho on Jan. 31. Commanders declined to shoot down the balloon over Montana, fearing debris could kill people or damage buildings on the ground.

Debris from shooting it down could scatter over a seven-mile swath,officials estimated. 

The debris recovered from the ocean will be examined to help determine Chinese spying capabilities, the Pentagon said. However, intelligence has already been gathered by tracking it over the United States.

Before the downing, Biden had said earlier Saturday, “We’re going to take care of it,” when asked by reporters about the balloon.

Television footage showed a small explosion, followed by the balloon descending toward the water.

 Biden was first briefed on Tuesday about the balloon, the same day a White House spokesman talked to reporters about the importance of improving engagement with the Chinese.Three days later, Secretary of State Antony Blinken scrapped a trip to China because of the balloon.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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