US military fighter jets shot down the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon over the Atlantic Ocean off the east coast of the United States, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin confirmed Saturday.
The operation ended a remarkable public drama that led to a diplomatic spat between Washington and Beijing as the American public followed the balloon from Montana all the way to the Carolinas.
President Joe Biden approved bringing down the balloon, Austin said in a statement, which a US official previously told DailyExpertNews was a plan presented and supported by US military leaders.
Recovery efforts began shortly after the balloon was brought down, the same official added.
Speaking to reporters in Hagerstown, Maryland, Biden reiterated shortly after the balloon was shot down that he first approved the plan to do so earlier this week, but waited to perform the operation until the balloon was safely above the water.
“Wednesday, when I was briefed on the balloon, I ordered the Pentagon to shoot it down as soon as possible on Wednesday. They have decided without harming anyone on the ground,” the president said on Saturday.
Hear what Biden said after China’s spy balloon was shot down
In his statement, Austin said U.S. fighter jets “successfully downed the high-altitude surveillance balloon launched by and belonging to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) over the water off the coast of South Carolina in U.S. airspace.”
Austin said Biden gave his consent “as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to American lives below the balloon’s path.”
The spy balloon was first seen in the skies over Montana earlier this week, traveling through the center of the country according to weather patterns before leaving the mainland United States on Saturday.
The balloon’s discovery prompted US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone his long-awaited diplomatic visit to China this week, saying the incident had “created conditions that undermined the purpose of the trip”.
Biden has faced intense criticism from Republicans for allowing the balloon to float over the mainland US for days on end.
Top military officials had advised against shooting down the balloon over the U.S. mainland because of the risk it could create debris for civilians and property on the ground, but officials had maintained that all options were left on the table.
Waiting to conduct the operation allowed the US to “study and examine” the balloon and its equipment, a senior defense official said in a conversation with reporters after the operation, but did not specify when.
While U.S. officials learned more about the balloon, it wasn’t the main reason for delaying its shoot-down, the senior defense official said, calling it an “additional benefit” to the decision to wait until it was safely above water.
“We learned technical things about this balloon and its monitoring capabilities. And I suspect that if we manage to recover parts of the debris, we will learn even more,” the official added.
Before the balloon was shot down, the Federal Aviation Administration had issued a ground stop for airports in Wilmington, North Carolina, and Charleston and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The FAA also restricted airspace near Myrtle Beach “to support the Department of Defense in a national security effort.”
Advanced F-22 fighter jets from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia then fired a single missile to bring down the Chinese spy balloon at 2:39 p.m. Eastern time Saturday, said a senior U.S. military official, who also briefed reporters on Saturday.
The moment of the impact could be seen from shore as onlookers videotaped the military operation.
Earlier Saturday, Biden had told reporters in Syracuse, New York, that his administration would “handle” the suspected Chinese spy balloon when asked by DailyExpertNews whether the US would shoot it down. He had been discussing options with top military officials since he was first briefed on the balloon on Tuesday.
On Friday, the Pentagon said the balloon posed no military or physical threat. A defense official told DailyExpertNews that US Northern Command was working with NASA to determine the debris field if the balloon were to be shot down.
China’s foreign ministry said the balloon accidentally entered US airspace. But the State Department has said the balloon’s presence in US airspace was “a clear violation of our sovereignty and of international law, and it is unacceptable that this has occurred.”
The military’s attention then turns to salvaging the balloon debris. The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard had resources on hand to assist with the recovery before the balloon was shot down, another defense official told DailyExpertNews ahead of the operation.
“The debris is mainly in 14 meters deep water – the recovery, that will make it quite easy,” said the senior military official who briefed reporters on Saturday after the operation to shoot down the balloon was carried out.
“Actually, we had planned much deeper water. So as for the specific timeline for recovery, I can’t give you that right now,” the senior official added.
Plans are underway to take the balloon equipment to the FBI’s laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, to be analyzed by agency and intelligence experts, two people briefed on the matter said.
Earlier Saturday, a senior Defense official said the Pentagon has begun “a collaboration” with the FBI and “counterintelligence authorities” to help “categorize and assess the platform itself.”
This story and headline have been updated.