A U.S. fighter jet shot down a suspected Chinese spy blimp above the Atlantic Ocean off the South Carolina coast Saturday, ending a three-day spectacle that dominated headlines and created an international incident.
The operation took place at the direction of President Joe Biden in U.S. airspace as the balloon drifted over the water. Senior defense officials said the balloon was successfully downed by a single missile at 2:39 p.m. “I told them to shoot it down,” Biden told reporters, during a travel stop in Hagerstown, Md. on the way to Camp David.
Downing the large, slow-moving balloon over the ocean reduced the risk of falling debris causing damage or casualties, a concern that military commanders had earlier in the week as it drifted eastward across the country. Biden said he gave the U.S. military authority to take down the alleged surveillance balloon on Wednesday with orders to shoot it once there was no longer a fear of endangering Americans on the ground.
“Our number one concern was how can we take this down, while not creating undue risk to people or property,” a senior defense official told reporters.
The Federal Aviation Administration restricted airspace Saturday afternoon over three cities in North and South Carolina as military assets moved into position. The balloon was flying at roughly 60,000 feet, an altitude about twice that of normal civilian air traffic. In the aftermath of the unmanned balloon being shot down, U.S. officials say, the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard have sent multiple ships to retrieve the wreckage to obtain insights into its surveillance payload—what’s described as a basket of equipment under the craft.
The debris is scattered across a seven-mile area in the Atlantic at depths of around 47 feet, officials said. The exact duration of the recovery mission is unknown at this time, officials said, but it’s expected to take days rather than weeks or months. “We’ll make sure that we’re working closely with the FBI on that chain of custody,” the official said.
The Pentagon hasn’t revealed what type of spy technology is on the Chinese balloon, only that the “large payload” doesn’t give China any additional surveillance capabilities beyond what it already can collect through spy satellites currently orbiting the Earth.
The balloon has never posed a risk to Americans’ safety, but it did linger over sensitive sites, a fact that defense officials say gave them new insights into the balloon’s true mission. “We have learned technical things about this balloon and its surveillance capabilities,” the official said. “And I suspect if we are successful in recovering aspects of the debris, we will learn even more.”
The Chinese government confirmed that the massive balloon was theirs on Friday, while insisting it was merely a “civilian airship” used for weather research that accidentally wafted into U.S. airspace. The Pentagon has refuted this benign portrayal, saying the aircraft was just the latest in a string of Chinese balloons that have traversed over the U.S. and other countries collecting aerial intelligence.
The U.S. military tracked the balloon’s flightpath above the Aleutian Islands and Alaska last Saturday, then through Canada on Monday, and ultimately into the United States over Idaho on Tuesday, officials said. Biden asked the Pentagon to come up with options regardingagainst the balloon and the military considered shooting it down Wednesday as it traveled over Montana. The state is home to Malmstrom Air Force Base, one of three bases that hosts nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile fields. In the end, military commanders recommended not to attempt a shoot-down out of fears that such an act could create falling debris endangering people on the ground.
Biden gave the military the greenlight to down it as soon as it was safe. News of the balloon’s presence over the U.S. came late Thursday when the Pentagon said it was monitoring it while denouncing the Chinese government for illegally penetrating American airspace. On Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a trip to Beijing hours before he was set to depart, underscoring how seriously the White House views the incident. Blinken would’ve been the highest-ranking Biden Administration official to visit China and the first U.S. secretary of state to travel to Beijing in six years.
Meanwhile, the balloon continued to leisurely transit over the central U.S., causing Midwesterners to crane their necks in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the immense white aircraft as it flew overhead. Republicans in Congress took notice and called for it to be shot down. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy demanded a briefing for the “Gang of Eight,” a colloquial term for the Republican and Democrat Congressional leaders who are kept informed on classified intelligence matters from the executive branch.
On Saturday, the balloon arrived on the East Coast and the U.S. military had attack aircraft into position. The Air Force scrambled F-22 stealth fighter jets from Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Hampton Va. along with F-15 fighter jets from Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield, Mass. In the afternoon, officials said, one of the F-22s soared to an altitude of around 58,000 feet, firing an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile toward the balloon floating less than 10,000 feet above it.
The supersonic, heat-seeking, air-to-air missile screeched over the Atlantic, popping the balloon and sending it into the sea.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement that the shoot-down was lawful and proper, given the intrusion into American airspace “to surveil strategic sites in the continental United States.” Austin said all actions were taken in coordination with the Canadian government, which helped monitor and track the balloon as it transited North America. However, it remains unclear how much diplomatic damage has been done over this incident and whether the military actions were necessary or a show-of-force that will usher in a more contentious era.
“I want to complement our aviators who did it,” Biden said after it was over. “And we’ll have more to report on this a little later.”
—With reporting by Anisha Kohli