US military fighter aircraft shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon as it floated off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday, drawing to a close a dramatic saga that shone a spotlight on worsening Sino-U.S. relations.
“We successfully took it down, and I want to compliment our aviators who did it,” President Joe Biden said.
Biden said he had issued an order on Wednesday to take down the balloon, but the Pentagon had recommended waiting until it could be done over open water to safeguard civilians from debris crashing down to Earth from thousands of feet (meters) above commercial air traffic.
Multiple fighters and refuelling aircraft were involved in the mission, but only one — an F-22 fighter jet from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia — took the shot at 2:39 p.m. (1939 GMT), using a single AIM-9X supersonic, heat-seeking, air-to-air missile, a senior U.S. military official said.
The balloon was shot down about six nautical miles off the U.S. coast, over relatively shallow water, potentially aiding efforts to recover key elements of the alleged Chinese surveillance equipment among the debris in the coming days, officials said.
Television footage showed a small explosion, followed by the balloon descending toward the water. US military jets were seen flying in the vicinity and ships were deployed in the water to mount the recovery operation.
Before the downing, President Joe Biden had said earlier on Saturday: “We’re going to take care of it,” when asked by reporters about the balloon. The Federal Aviation Administration and Coast Guard worked to clear the airspace and water below.
The balloon was spotted Saturday morning over the Carolinas as it approached the Atlantic coast. In preparation for the operation, the Federal Aviation Administration temporarily closed airspace over the Carolina coastline, including the airports in Charleston and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Wilmington, North Carolina. The FAA was rerouting air traffic from the area and warned of delays as a result of the flight restrictions.
The Coast Guard also advised mariners to immediately leave the area because of US military operations “that present a significant hazard.”
Officials were aiming to time the operation so they could recover as much of the debris as possible before it sinks into the ocean. The Pentagon had previously estimated that the balloon, flying at about 60,000 feet in the air, was about the size of three school buses and that any debris field would be substantial.
Biden had been inclined to down the balloon over land when he was first briefed on it on Tuesday, but Pentagon officials advised against it, warning that the potential risk to people on the ground outweighed the assessment of potential Chinese intelligence gains.
The public disclosure of the balloon this week prompted the cancellation of a visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing scheduled for Sunday for talks aimed at reducing US-China tensions. The Chinese government on Saturday sought to play down the cancellation.
China has continued to claim that the balloon was merely a weather research “airship” that had been blown off course. The Pentagon rejected that out of hand — as well as China’s contention that it was not being used for surveillance and had only limited navigational ability.
The Pentagon also acknowledged reports of a second balloon flying over Latin America. “We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to a question about the second balloon.
Blinken, who had been due to depart Washington for Beijing late Friday, said he had told senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi in a phone call that sending the balloon over the US was “an irresponsible act and that (China’s) decision to take this action on the eve of my visit is detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have.”
Uncensored reactions on the Chinese internet mirrored the official government stance that the US was hyping the situation. Some used it as a chance to poke fun at US defences, saying it couldn’t even defend against a balloon, and nationalist influencers leapt to use the news to mock the US.