The U.S. downed the Chinese surveillance balloon off the Carolina coast on Saturday, a U.S. official said, setting off a tense exchange between both nations.
An F-22 raptor with a single missile shot the balloon down at 2:39 p.m., according to a senior defense official. It was between 60,000 to 65,000 feet in the air when it was downed.
The action came a couple of hours after President Joe Biden responded to a reporter who asked whether the U.S. would shoot down the balloon. “We’re gonna take care of it,” Biden said, in his first public remarks about the balloon.
In remarks to reporters after the balloon was shot down, Biden said he made the order to the Pentagon after he was briefed on Wednesday.
“They decided — without doing damage to anyone on the ground — they decided that the best time to do that was when it got over water,” he said. “They successfully took it down and I want to compliment our aviators who did it. And we’ll have more to report on this a little later.”
The U.S. and China exchanged strong words after the balloon was downed, with China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressing in a statement its “strong dissatisfaction and protest over the use of force” by the U.S.
“The Chinese side had clearly requested the U.S. side to handle the situation properly in a calm, professional and restrained manner,” the statement said, adding that the U.S. was an “obvious over-reaction and a serious violation of international customary practice.”
“The Chinese side will resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of the companies concerned, while reserving the right to make further necessary responses,” the statement said.
The ministry has said the balloon was a “a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological purposes,” and that it entered the U.S. airspace due to force majeure, a point the ministry reiterated in its statement Saturday, calling it a “completely accidental situation.”
A senior administration official reacted to China’s statement Saturday, doubling down on the position that the balloon was a surveillance balloon that “purposely traversed” the U.S. and Canada “and we are confident it was seeking to monitor sensitive military sites.”
The administration official said in a statement to NBC News that both the balloon that was shot down and a second balloon observed over Latin America have surveillance equipment atypical of “standard meteorological activities or civilian research,” and that flight patterns and video show motors and propellers, meaning they can be maneuvered.
“In fact, these balloons are all part of a PRC fleet of balloons developed to conduct surveillance operations, which have also violated the sovereignty of other countries,” the senior official said. “Over the past several years, Chinese balloons have previously been spotted over countries across five continents.”
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in a statement that the balloon was shot down “above U.S. territorial waters” off the coast of South Carolina.
“This afternoon, at the direction of President Biden, U.S. fighter aircraft assigned to U.S. Northern Command successfully brought down the high altitude surveillance balloon launched by and belonging to the People’s Republic of China (PRC),” Austin said in the 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,” he said.
Biden on Wednesday “gave his authorization to take down the balloon as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to American lives under the balloon’s path,” he added. “After careful analysis, U.S. military commanders had 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 debris field from the balloon extends across about 7 nautical miles, and ships and navy divers are expected to help recover the pieces, a senior U.S. military official told NBC News.
Balloon crossed over ‘sensitive sites,’ official says
The balloon entered U.S. airspace on Jan. 28 north of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska before entering Canadian airspace on Monday, the senior defense official said. It re-entered U.S. airspace on Tuesday in northern Idaho.
Officials have been analyzing the balloon over recent days, a senior defense official said, noting that it “was clearly crossing over sensitive sites, including sensitive military sites.”
“We have learned technical things about this balloon and its surveillance capabilities and I suspect if we are successful in recovering aspects of the debris we will learn even more,” the defense official said.
Hours before it was shot down, residents in North Carolina and South Carolina reported seeing the spy balloon, and the Federal Aviation Administration said it had paused departures and arrivals at three local airports to support the Defense Department in “a national security effort.”
Flights to and from the three airports — Wilmington International Airport and Myrtle Beach International Airport in North Carolina, and Charleston International Airport in South Carolina — have resumed, the FAA said Saturday afternoon in an update.
Videos showing fighter jets targeting the spy balloon and taking it down are circulating on social media. The jets are seen approaching the balloon before it starts to fall from the sky.
The two F-22s used for the mission were called FRANK01 and FRANK02, named for Frank Luke Jr., a World War I hero known for destroying German observational balloons, a senior U.S. military official said.
Some lawmakers took to social media to applaud Biden’s decision to take down the spy balloon while others criticized his administration’s handling of the situation.
“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,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted following the news.
“Now we can collect the equipment and analyze the technology used by the CCP,” the New York Democrat added.
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee tweeted, “The admin should have taken care of this before it became a national security threat. I hope we will be able to recover the wreckage to help determine what intelligence the CCP collected while its spy balloon was over our country for days. I will be demanding answers and will hold the admin accountable for this embarrassing display of weakness.”
Recovery efforts underway
A senior U.S. military official said there was no timeline for how long the recovery would take, but the official expected it to be a short period.
The city of North Myrtle Beach urged residents to report any sightings of debris along the coastline to its dispatch non-emergency line.
“Debris should not be touched, moved, or removed,” it said. “Such items are part of a federal investigation and tampering could interfere in that investigation.”
Now that the balloon has been shot down, the Biden administration should make clear to China the gravity of its violation of U.S. airspace, a former Obama administration official said.
Brett Bruen, who was director of global engagement in Barack Obama’s White House, said in an interview Saturday that Chinese President Xi Jinping “is probing and testing how far he can push the West and, in particular, Biden, and we have to respond in a strong and sustained way.”
Bruen suggested the U.S. consider recalling its ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns, to protest China’s actions.