The United States has shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the coast of the US state of South Carolina, a week after it entered US airspace and triggered a dramatic spying saga that worsened relations between Beijing and Washington.
The military attack on Saturday drew an immediate rebuke from China, which warned of “necessary” responses and insisted the “unmanned civilian airship” was a weather research balloon that had strayed into US airspace “completely accidentally”.
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US defence officials said multiple fighter and refuelling aircraft were involved in Saturday’s mission, but just one – an F-22 fighter jet from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia – took the shot at 2:39pm (19:39 GMT) using a single AIM-9X supersonic, heat-seeking, air-to-air missile.
The balloon, which had been flying at about 18,300 metres (60,000 ft), was shot down about six nautical miles off the coast of South Carolina.
US President Joe Biden told reporters that 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 to Earth.
“We successfully took it down, and I want to compliment our aviators who did it,” Biden said in Maryland.
The shootdown came shortly after the US government ordered a halt to flights around the South Carolina coast due to what it said at the time was an undisclosed “national security effort”. Flights resumed on Saturday afternoon.
Television footage showed a small explosion, followed by the balloon falling towards the water. The Associated Press news agency said an operation was under way in US territorial waters in the Atlantic Ocean to recover debris from the balloon.
Reuters quoted a US military official as saying that the debris field was spread out over 11km (seven miles) of ocean and that multiple military vessels were on site.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called the operation a “deliberate and lawful action” that came in response to China’s “unacceptable violation of our sovereignty”.
He said the balloon was being used by China “in an attempt to surveil strategic sites in the continental United States”.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau praised the operation, tweeting, “Canada strongly supports this action – we’ll keep working together … on our security and defence.”
The balloon first entered US airspace in Alaska on January 28 before moving into Canadian airspace on Monday, January 30. It then re-entered US airspace over northern Idaho on January 31, a US defence official said. Once it crossed over US land, it did not return to open waters, making a shootdown difficult.
China’s foreign ministry condemned Saturday’s hit on the balloon, expressing Beijing’s “strong dissatisfaction and protests against the use of force by the United States to attack the unmanned civilian airship”.
It criticised the US for “an obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice” and said it “will resolutely uphold the relevant company’s legitimate rights and interests, and at the same time reserve the right to take further necessary responses”.
The balloon’s presence in the skies above North America has dealt a severe blow to already strained US-Chinese relations, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken abruptly cancelling on Friday a high-stakes Beijing trip aimed at easing tensions.
China has been eager for a stable relationship with Washington so it could focus on its economy, battered by its now-abandoned zero-COVID policy.
Earlier on Saturday, the Chinese foreign ministry played down the cancellation of the Blinken visit, which had been agreed in November by Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, saying neither side had formally announced any such plan.
“In actuality, the US and China have never announced any visit, the US making any such announcement is their own business, and we respect that,” the ministry said in a statement.
It also emphasised that the balloon’s journey was out of China’s control and urged the US not to “smear” it based on the balloon.
Senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi said China “has always strictly followed international law, we do not accept any groundless speculation and hype”. He added, “Faced with unexpected situations, both parties need to keep calm, communicate in a timely manner, avoid misjudgments and manage differences.”
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.
While Saturday’s shootdown concludes the military dimension to the spying saga, Biden is likely to continue to face intense political scrutiny from Republican opponents in Congress who argue he failed to act quickly enough.
“It’s clear the Biden administration had hoped to hide this national security failure from Congress and the American people,” said US Representative Mike Rogers, a Republican who leads the House Armed Services Committee.
“Allowing a spy balloon from the Communist Party of China to travel across the entire continental United States before contesting its presence is a disastrous projection of weakness by the White House,” said Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Biden’s emphasis on Saturday that he had ordered the balloon shot down as soon as possible could be an effort to respond to such critics.
Defence officials on Saturday also appeared to play down the balloon’s effect on US national security.
“Our assessment – and we’re going to learn more as we pick up the debris – was that it was not likely to provide significant additive value over and above other [Chinese] intel capability, such as satellites in low-Earth orbit,” a senior US defence official told reporters.
The Chinese balloon’s overflight of US territory was of “intelligence value to us”, they added.
The Pentagon assesses that the balloon was part of a fleet of Chinese spy balloons. On Friday, it said another Chinese balloon was flying over Latin America but did not say where exactly.
A spy balloon – a gas-filled balloon flying relatively high in the sky – generally has sophisticated cameras and imaging technology that point downwards, collecting information through photography and other imaging of whatever is on the ground below it.
David DesRoches, professor at the US-based National Defense University, said a balloon could gather higher resolution imagery than a satellite as it hovers over its targets for longer.
“You can get a lot of visual information from a satellite, but somewhere as far north as [the state of] Montana, a satellite only has a few seconds of time over the target whereas a balloon has more time. The second thing a balloon would be capable of doing would be gathering electronic signals, so it could intercept communications,” he said.
“If we do recover [the balloon] and it does prove to be surveillance stuff, I think there will be some public display of that,” DesRoches said, adding that this “will be further embarrassment for the Chinese”.