At President Joe Biden’s direction, a U.S. fighter jet downed a Chinese surveillance balloon off the coast of the Carolinas on Saturday.
A jet assigned to U.S. Northern Command successfully brought down the craft that sparked national security concerns and a rift with China as it drifted across the continental United States this week.
Biden had told the military earlier this week to shoot down the balloon, but the Pentagon recommended they wait until it was safe to do so, the president told reporters on Saturday.
“They decided the best time to do that was when it got over water,” Biden said.
“On Wednesday, President Biden gave his authorization 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,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement. “After careful analysis, U.S. military commanders 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.”
The FAA on Saturday restricted airspace over three cities in the Carolinas after Biden pledged “we’re going to take care of it” during a stop in Syracuse, N.Y.
Later Saturday, Biden smiled and flashed a thumbs up to reporters when asked if the U.S. was going to shoot down the balloon. He did not respond to further questions as to if he ordered the downing or any message it would send to China as he boarded Air Force One at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base in New York.
The FAA said flights to and from Wilmington, Myrtle Beach International and Charleston International airports were resuming Saturday afternoon.
“Other airspace has been reopened. Normal operations resuming,” a spokesperson said.
U.S. officials began tracking the balloon over U.S. territory on Jan. 28, when it was seen over Alaska, according to a senior Defense official. It then entered Canadian airspace on Jan. 30, and re-entered U.S. airspace over northern Idaho on Jan. 31.
The president asked for options on Tuesday, the official said. On Wednesday, Austin convened the chief of U.S. Northern Command, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and other senior leaders to discuss the way ahead.
While DoD had a “shot window” to take down the balloon over Montana, military commanders “just didn’t feel like we could buy down the risk enough over land,” the person said.
Defense officials estimated debris from could fall in at least a seven-mile radius, a senior military official said, so the decision was made to hold off.
At the president’s direction, the Pentagon developed options to bring down the balloon “safely over our territorial waters, while closely monitoring its path and intelligence collection activities,” Austin said.
On Saturday, an F-22 stealth fighter jet from Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, shot a single AIM-9X air-to-air missile that took down the balloon, the senior official said. The mission was supported by F-15s from Barnes Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts and tankers from multiple locations.
This was “the first available opportunity to successfully bring down the surveillance balloon in a way that would not pose a threat to the safety of Americans,” the official said.
There are no indications that any people, civilian aircraft or maritime vessels were harmed in any way.
The U.S. will now work to recover any debris and any material of intelligence value from the balloon. Multiple U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard vessels are in the region to help with the recovery mission, the senior military official said. The debris is in just 47 feet of water, which will make the recovery “fairly easy, actually,” the person said.
While the Pentagon worked to bring down the balloon, officials also took steps to protect against the balloon’s ability to collect sensitive information, the person said. Its flight path took it over some sensitive military installations.
The balloon’s flight was also of intelligence value to the United States, the official noted.
“I can’t go into more detail but we were able to study and scrutinize the balloon and its equipment,” the person said.
The mission was closely coordinated with the Canadian government, Austin noted.
China has denied that it was using the balloon to spy on the U.S., saying it was a civilian airship used to monitor weather that blew off course due to unexpected wind.
The presence of the balloon has further strained an already tense U.S.-Chinese relationship, and a public downing of the vessel isn’t likely to improve ties. Still, it will help Biden on the domestic political front, where he’s facing calls, especially from Republicans, to be even tougher on Beijing.
Throughout the week lawmakers had called on Biden to address the potential threat, with Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who chairs the panel that oversees the Pentagon’s budget, calling the balloon a “clear threat” to national security.
On Saturday, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said in a statement: “The balloon should have been shot down before it crossed the continental United States, not after. We still don’t know what information was collected and where it was sent. This was a dereliction of Biden’s duty, and let’s hope the American people don’t pay a price.”
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said in a statement: “I support the decision to shoot down the balloon, but it should have been taken out earlier, over remote areas of Alaska or Montana. Good job by our talented military.”
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer praised the president’s actions. “I strongly condemn President Xi’s brazen incursion into American airspace, and I commend President Biden’s leadership in taking down the Chinese balloon over water to ensure safety for all Americans. Now we can collect the equipment and analyze the technology used by the CCP.”
It’s not the first time a Chinese spy balloon has entered U.S. air space, the Pentagon official said, noting at least three times during the previous administration and once at the beginning of this administration — but never for this duration of time.
“We spoke directly with Chinese officials through multiple channels, but rather than address their intrusion into our airspace, the PRC put out an explanation lacking any credibility,” the DoD official said. “The PRC has claimed publicly that the high altitude balloon operating above the United States is a weather balloon that was blown off course. This is false. This was a PRC surveillance balloon.”
News of the balloon led to a discussion among State Department and agency leaders inside the administration about whether to cancel Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s planned visit to Beijing this weekend. Ultimately, the decision was made to postpone, not cancel, though it’s not clear when Blinken will now go.
Adam Cancryn, Oriana Pawlyk and Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.