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Chinese Balloon Shot Down by US. Here’s What We Know


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. Officials said the balloon was successfully downed by a single missile at 2:39 p.m. “I told them to shoot it down,” Biden reporters, during a travel stop in Hagerstown, Md. on the way to Camp David.

Shooting 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 authorized the U.S. military to take down the surveillance balloon on Wednesday as soon as possible without endangering Americans on the ground.

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 is trying to retrieve the wreckage to obtain insights into its surveillance payload— what’s described as a basket of equipment under the craft.

“Today’s deliberate and lawful action demonstrates that President Biden and his national security team will always put the safety and security of the American people first while responding effectively to the (People’s Republic of China’s) unacceptable violation of our sovereignty,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement. “The balloon, which was being used by the PRC in an attempt to surveil strategic sites in the continental United States, was brought down above U.S. territorial waters.”

Austin said the shoot-down was taken in coordination with the Canadian government, which helped monitor and track the balloon as it transited North America. News of the balloon’s presence over the U.S. came late Thursday when senior U.S. defense officials told reporters the military was tracking its flightpath, which was detected above the Aleutian Islands near Alaska, then through Canada, and ultimately into the United States.

The Chinese government confirmed on Friday that the massive balloon was theirs, while insisting it was merely a “civilian airship” used for weather research that accidentally wafted into U.S. airspace.

Read more: The Chinese Balloon Looks Nothing Like a Weather Balloon, Experts Say

The Pentagon considered shooting the balloon down earlier in the week 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 decided not to attempt a shoot-down out of fears that such an act could create falling debris that would endanger Americans on the ground.

U.S. officials still haven’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.

Yet the balloon’s discovery was important enough to prompt Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a long-planned trip to Beijing this week, 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. Although the State Department never officially announced any details surrounding the trip, U.S. officials say Blinken had been scheduled to leave for Beijing Friday night.

—With reporting by Anisha Kohli

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Write to W.J. Hennigan at [email protected]

Source: Time