US military shoots down suspected Chinese surveillance balloon

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A hot air balloon flies in the sky over Billings, Montana, USA on February 1, 2023, in this photo obtained from social media.

Chase Doak via Reuters

The US military on Saturday shot down a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that had been hovering over the country for several days.

In a statement on Saturday, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said that a US fighter jet assigned to the North of the US successfully dropped the balloon in the direction of President Joe Biden. Lloyd said the balloon was being used by the People’s Republic of China “in an effort to monitor strategic sites in the continental United States.”

Biden on Wednesday authorized the balloon to be brought down as quickly as possible “without undue risk to American life under the balloon’s path,” Lloyd said.

“At the President’s direction, the Department of Defense developed options to bring the balloon down safely over our territorial waters, while closely monitoring its trajectory and intelligence-gathering activities.” ,” he said in a statement.

A jet flies a suspected Chinese spy balloon as it floats off the coast in Surfside Beach, South Carolina, US February 4, 2023.

Randall Hill | Reuters

TV footage shows the high-altitude balloon, estimated to be the size of three school buses, explode in a small explosion before falling into the water. Officials will try to recover the debris, according to NBC News.

The Federal Aviation Administration issued a ground stop in parts of North Carolina and South Carolina and closed additional airspace Saturday afternoon. The deployment was halted “to support the Department of Defense in a national security effort,” a representative told CNBC. Normal activity began to resume later in the evening, the FAA said on Twitter.

Biden broke his silence about the balloon for the first time on Saturday, telling a group of reporters, “We’re going to take care of it. ” Later in the evening, he told reporters that he had instructed officers to “shoot down” on Wednesday, but that they wanted to wait until it was as safe as possible.

“They successfully brought it down, and I want to add to our aircraft that did,” Biden said. “And we’ll have more to report on this a little later.”

The suspected Chinese spy balloon drifts into the ocean after being shot down from the coast in Surfside Beach, South Carolina, US February 4, 2023.

Randall Hill | Reuters

The balloon was first spotted over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday. Defense officials said the Pentagon considered shooting down the balloon earlier this week but decided against it after contacting Biden. The decision was made in consultation with senior leaders, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

Biden decided that the US would not shoot down the balloon because debris from it could damage the ground, a Pentagon official said. Additionally, any information the balloon gathers would have “limited relative value” compared to China’s spy satellites.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Friday that the balloon was a civilian weather aircraft for scientific research that was blown off course. He described what happened as a result of “force majeure” for which he was not responsible.

This claim was summarily rejected by US officials. A senior Pentagon official told reporters Thursday night that the object was a surveillance balloon flying over sensitive sites to gather information.

“We have noted the PRC’s statement of regret, but the presence of this balloon in our airspace is a serious violation of our sovereignty as well as international law and it is impossible that this happened, “said the officer.

US President Joe Biden waves to reporters before boarding Air Force One en route to Camp David at Hancock Air National Guard Base in Syracuse, New York, US, February 4, 2023.

Elizabeth Frantz | Reuters

The balloon’s presence prompted US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone an already tense trip to China indefinitely on Friday.

The visit was intended to strengthen communication and cooperation between the two countries as tensions have deepened over China’s military aggression towards Taiwan and closer alliances with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Instead, Blinken told the director of China’s Foreign Affairs Headquarters, 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 ‘ undermining the purpose of the visit,” according to his reading of the debate.

—CNBC’s Christina Wilkie and Amanda Macias contributed to this report

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