A balloon flies in the sky over Billings, Montana, U.S. February 1, 2023, in this picture obtained from social media.
Chase Doak via Reuters
The U.S. military on Saturday shot down a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that had been transiting across the country for several days.
In a statement Saturday, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said a U.S. fighter aircraft assigned to U.S. Northern Command successfully brought down the balloon at the direction of President Joe Biden. Lloyd said the balloon was being used by the People’s Republic of China “in an attempt to surveil strategic sites in the continental United States.”
Biden gave authorization on Wednesday to take down the balloon as soon as it could be done “without undue risk to American lives under the balloon’s path,” Lloyd said.
“In accordance with the President’s direction, the Department of Defense developed options to take down the balloon safely over our territorial waters, while closely monitoring its path and intelligence collection activities,” he said in the statement.
A jet flies by a suspected Chinese spy balloon as it floats off the coast in Surfside Beach, South Carolina, U.S. February 4, 2023.
Randall Hill | Reuters
TV footage shows the high-altitude balloon, which is estimated to be the size of three school busses, bursting in a small explosion before falling into the water. Officials will attempt 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 on Saturday afternoon. The departures were paused “to support the Department of Defense in a national security effort,” a representative told CNBC. Normal operations began resuming later that afternoon, the FAA said on Twitter.
Biden broke his silence about the balloon for the first time Saturday, telling a group of reporters, “We’re going to take care of it.” Later that afternoon, he told reporters that he had instructed officials to “shoot it down” on Wednesday, but that they wanted to wait until it was as safe as possible.
“They successfully took it down, and I want to complement our aviators who did it,” Biden said. “And we’ll have more to report on this a little later.”
The suspected Chinese spy balloon drifts to the ocean after being shot down off the coast in Surfside Beach, South Carolina, U.S. February 4, 2023.
Randall Hill | Reuters
The balloon was initially spotted over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday. Defense officials said the Pentagon considered shooting down the balloon earlier this week but decided against it after briefing Biden. The decision was made in consultation with senior leaders, including Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Biden concluded that the U.S. would not shoot down the balloon because debris from it could cause damage on the ground, a Pentagon official said. Moreover, any information the balloon collects would have “limited additive value” compared with China’s spy satellites.
China’s Foreign Ministry said Friday that the balloon was a civilian weather airship intended for scientific research that was blown off course. It described the incident as a result of a “force majeure” for which it was not responsible.
This claim was summarily dismissed by U.S. officials. A senior Pentagon official told reporters Thursday night that the object was clearly a surveillance balloon that was flying over sensitive sites to collect intelligence.
“We have noted the PRC 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 is unacceptable that this has occurred,” 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, U.S., February 4, 2023.
Elizabeth Frantz | Reuters
The presence of the balloon prompted U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to indefinitely postpone what was to be an already tense trip to China on Friday.
The visit was intended to reinforce communication and cooperation between the two countries as tensions have deepened over China’s increasing military aggression toward Taiwan and closer alliances with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Instead, Blinken told China’s director of Central Foreign Affairs Office, Wang Yi, in a phone call Friday that the balloon was an “irresponsible act and a clear violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law that undermined the purpose of the trip,” according to a readout of the discussion.
—CNBC’s Christina Wilkie and Amanda Macias contributed to this report