A balloon flies in the sky over Billings, Montana, U.S., February 1, 2023, in this social media image.
Chase Doak via Reuters
The US military shot down a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that had been flying over the country for several days on Saturday.
In a statement Saturday, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said a US fighter jet assigned to US Northern Command successfully downed the balloon on orders from President Joe Biden. Lloyd said the balloon would be used by the People’s Republic of China “to attempt to patrol strategic locations in the continental United States.”
Biden gave approval on Wednesday to dismantle the balloon as soon as it can do so “without undue risk to American lives beneath the balloon’s path,” Lloyd said.
“In accordance with the President’s instructions, the Department of Defense has developed options to safely dismantle the balloon over our territorial waters while closely monitoring its trajectory and intelligence gathering activities,” he said in the statement.
A jet flies past a suspected Chinese spy balloon hovering offshore in Surfside Beach, South Carolina, on February 4, 2023.
Randall Hill | Reuters
Television footage shows the high-altitude balloon, estimated to be the size of three school buses, bursting in a small explosion before falling into the water. Officials will attempt to salvage the debris, according to NBC News.
The Federal Aviation Administration issued a ground stop in parts of North Carolina and South Carolina Saturday afternoon and closed additional airspace. Departures were suspended “to assist the Department of Defense in national security efforts,” a representative told CNBC. Normal operations resumed later in the afternoon, the FAA said on Twitter.
Biden broke his silence on the balloon for the first time on Saturday, telling a group of reporters, “We’ll take care of it.” Later that afternoon, he told reporters that he instructed officers to “shoot it down” on Wednesday, however that they wanted to wait until it was as safe as possible.
“They successfully mined it, and I want to add to our airmen who did it,” Biden said. “And we’ll have more to say about that a little later.”
The suspected Chinese spy balloon drifts to the ocean after being shot down off the coast of Surfside Beach, South Carolina, USA, on February 4, 2023.
Randall Hill | Reuters
The balloon was first sighted over Billings, Montana on Wednesday. Defense officials said the Pentagon was considering shooting down the balloon earlier this week but decided against it after a briefing from Biden. The decision was made in consultation with senior officials including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.
Biden concluded that the US would not launch the balloon because debris from it could cause damage to the ground, a Pentagon official said. In addition, any information the balloon gathers would have “limited value” compared to China’s spy satellites.
China’s Foreign Ministry said on Friday that the balloon, a civilian weather airship intended for scientific research, had gone off course. She described the incident as a result of “force majeure” for which she was not responsible.
This claim was dismissed out of hand by US officials. A senior Pentagon official told reporters Thursday night that the object was clearly a surveillance balloon flying over sensitive locations to gather information.
“We have noted the PRC’s statement of regret, but the presence of this balloon in our airspace is a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law and it is unacceptable that this has happened,” the official said.
U.S. President Joe Biden gestures to reporters before boarding Air Force One en route to Camp David at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base in Syracuse, New York, on February 4, 2023.
Elisabeth Franz | Reuters
The balloon’s presence prompted US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to indefinitely postpone an already tense trip to China on Friday.
The visit should strengthen communication and cooperation between the two countries as tensions have deepened over China’s increasing military aggression against Taiwan and closer alliances with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Instead, Blinken told China’s Central Foreign Ministry director Wang Yi in a phone call Friday that the balloon was an “irresponsible act and a clear violation of US sovereignty and international law that undermines the purpose of the trip,” according to a reading the discussion.
– CNBC’s Christina Wilkie and Amanda Macias contributed to this report
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