A U.S. fighter jet, acting on an order from President Biden, downed a Chinese surveillance balloon off the South Carolina coast on Saturday, the Pentagon said, ending what senior administration officials contend was an audacious attempt by Beijing to collect intelligence on sensitive American military sites.
With a single missile fired from an F-22 Raptor, the craft was taken down at 2:39 p.m., shortly after the Federal Aviation Administration ordered ground stops for all flights in and out of Wilmington, N.C., Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Charleston, S.C. The agency lifted the order less than an hour later.
Videos taken by onlookers showed shredded remnants of the balloon falling, leaving a white plume in its wake. One witness described hearing a “boom.”
The days-long ordeal has caused a political furor in Washington and placed new strains on what was already a fraught relationship between the two world powers, leading the Biden administration to announce on Friday it was postponing a trip to Beijing by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. With efforts to recover and examine the downed craft now underway, friction between the two governments is expected to continue as the administration presses for answers and China insists the incursion was innocuous and unintended.
“This is 100 percent their fault, their problem, and they’ve got to answer for it,” said one U.S. official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity citing the matter’s sensitivity.
U.S. officials spoke with their Chinese counterparts after the balloon was shot down.
The Chinese government, which has claimed the balloon was merely collecting weather data before being blown off course, called the vessel’s downing “a clear overreaction and a serious violation of international practice” and said it “reserves the right to make further responses if necessary.”
The discovery of this military spy balloon and others — the presence of a second craft loitering over Latin America was disclosed on Friday, and officials say there is likely a third operating elsewhere — is highly embarrassing to the Chinese.
A second official said that Beijing was “freaked” by the incident. “They’re in a very tough place,” this person said. “And they have very few cards to play right now.”
The balloon was struck by an air-to-air Sidewinder missile at an altitude of 60,000 to 65,000 feet by a jet that had flown from Joint Base Langley-Eustis in southeastern Virginia, top Defense Department officials told reporters in a conference call. The Raptor pilot’s call sign, Frank 01, was a nod to World War I ace Frank Luke Jr., known as “the Arizona Balloon Buster” for destroying German observation balloons and enemy planes. The historical connection was reported by the War Zone. The plane was joined in the operation by other aircraft, including F-15s from Barnes Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts and tanker planes from several states.
Soon after, an array of Coast Guard and Navy vessels descended on the debris field to recover as much as possible from the balloon, they said.
The balloon went down off the coast of South Carolina in relatively shallow waters, about 47 feet deep, which should make recovery easier, a senior military official said. A Navy salvage vessel will arrive within a couple of days, with FBI counterintelligence officials aboard, the official said, adding that it will probably include divers and unmanned underwater vessels.
The administration’s reluctance to shoot down the balloon before Saturday was criticized by Republican lawmakers, who called it a failure to protect American airspace from a top U.S. adversary. After the operation, some in the GOP continued to question the administration’s handling of the situation.
Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that “the White House must provide answers about why they decided to allow a [Chinese Communist Party] spy balloon to cross the United States and what damage to our national security occurred from this decision.”
A senior defense official portrayed the delay in downing in the craft as an intelligence coup for the United States. “This actually provided us with a number of days to analyze this balloon, and through a number of means … to learn a lot about what this balloon was doing, how it was doing it, why the PRC may be using balloons like this,” the official said, declining to offer specifics. PRC stands for the People’s Republic of China.
The craft entered Alaskan airspace a week ago, on Jan. 28, officials said. It crossed north of the Aleutian Islands and over mainland Alaska before entering Canadian airspace on Monday. It reentered American airspace over northern Idaho on Tuesday, one day before it was spotted over Montana by civilians, prompting a ground stoppage at the airport in Billings. U.S. officials considered shooting it down at that time, but planners could not mitigate the risk to people on the ground.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken summoned the senior-most official at the Chinese Embassy in Washington and on Friday morning he spoke by phone to China’s foreign affairs chief Wang Yi, warning both officials that the presence of the surveillance balloon was a violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law, a senior administration official said.
The balloon’s presence in the mainland United States was acknowledged by the Pentagon on Thursday following an NBC report after the balloon appeared over Montana, where it loitered for a time near Malmstrom Air Force Base, home to several nuclear missile silos. Its path from there took it over several U.S. military installations, officials disclosed Saturday. Without elaborating, officials said that the administration had taken steps to thwart the craft’s ability to collect information that would undermine U.S. national security.
Two officials told The Washington Post that the balloons are part of an extensive Chinese military surveillance program that has been running for years and relies on technology from a Chinese company that supplies the People’s Liberation Army.
The airship contains “sophisticated communications gear,” said one official. “But what it actually does we don’t know.”
Before Saturday’s takedown, U.S. officials said they believed that the balloon, outfitted with propellers on the bottom, was able to drift with air currents and be directed. It has changed course on a number of occasions, they said. The balloon’s payload or bay, which contained suspected surveillance equipment, is roughly the size of three large buses, they said.
But there is still much the United States does not know. “We know that these are military intelligence systems,” the second official said. “We don’t know how capable they are. We don’t know what they are tracking, and we don’t know how they’re getting the information back [to the PLA].”
The Chinese government reacted apologetically initially, saying it “regrets the unintended entry” of what Beijing insisted was an unmanned weather balloon used for civilian research. By Friday evening, after the announcement that Blinken would postpone his trip, a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs took a more combative tone, saying China had no intention to violate American airspace or sovereignty while accusing “some politicians and media in the U.S.” of having “hyped” the incident to “attack and smear China.”
The spokesperson called for maintaining “a coolheaded and prudent” approach to the incident, noting that Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in November agreed that maintaining contact and communications was an important goal.
The incident has put Beijing on its back foot, officials said.
“The Chinese don’t want to make this a crisis,” one official said. But as more surveillance platforms emerge, “that’s going to become increasingly hard.”
Onlookers were taken by the unusual activity Saturday afternoon. Sally Howard, 79, who lives in a townhouse across from the ocean in Myrtle Beach, said that she had spotted the balloon high in the sky above her home around 2 p.m. and had spent some time squinting at it in the sun, watching the silent contrails of fighter jets circling high above before going back inside her house.
Just after walking back inside, she said, she heard a loud noise. “It was this boom,” she said. “It literally shook my home.” Rushing back out, she could see the white dot of the balloon drifting to Earth. The beach, she said, was full of people gawking at the sight, unusual for a cold day in the beach town.
“February’s usually pretty boring here,” she said. “That certainly gave some excitement.”
In Aynor, S.C., about 30 miles from the coast, high school teacher Marie Ellis had been watching as fighter jets got closer and closer to the balloon. “After the second jet passed, we saw the missile head toward it and then saw the puff,” she said. Ellis said it was not immediately clear what had happened but then she noticed the balloon was quickly falling from the sky and realized it had been shot down.
The Pentagon has not explained why it did not bring down the balloon in the earliest days, when it drifted over the Aleutian Islands and other remote areas where it posed little to no hazard. Once it reached mainland Alaska and Canada, officials said, there were no opportunities to do so without risk of harming civilians. The debris field would have covered an estimated seven-mile radius, they said.
A senior defense official said there have been four previous Chinese balloon incursions over the continental United States, including one early in the Biden administration and three during the Trump administration. Former defense secretary Mark T. Esper, speaking to CNN on Friday, said that he did not ever recall the issue coming up. “I would remember that for sure,” said Esper, a Trump appointee. “My focus was on implementing the national defense strategy to take on the Chinese as the greatest strategic threat facing our country.”
Chinese surveillance balloons have previously been spotted over five continents, the official said, and the United States is briefing allies and partners about the practice.
Yasmeen Abutaleb and Josh Dawsey in Washington and Christian Shepherd in Taipei contributed to this report.