US military fighter jets shot down the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon over the Atlantic Ocean off the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin confirmed Saturday.
The operation ended a remarkable public drama that prompted a diplomatic fallout between Washington and Beijing, as the American public tracked the balloon from Montana all the way to the Carolinas.
President Joe Biden approved the downing of the balloon, Austin said in a statement, which a US official previously told CNN was a plan that was presented and supported by US military leaders.
Recovery efforts began shortly after the balloon was downed, the same official added.
Speaking to reporters in Hagerstown, Maryland, shortly after the balloon was shot down, Biden reiterated that he first approved the plan to do so earlier this week but waited to carry out the operation until the balloon was safely over water.
“On Wednesday, when I was briefed on the balloon, I ordered the Pentagon to shoot it down on Wednesday as soon as possible. They decided without doing damage to anyone on the ground,” the president said Saturday.
Hear what Biden said after Chinese spy balloon was shot down
In his statement, Austin said American fighter aircraft “successfully brought down the high-altitude surveillance balloon launched by and belonging to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) over the water off the coast of South Carolina in US airspace.”
Austin said Biden gave his authorization “as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to American lives under the balloon’s path.”
The spy balloon was first spotted in the sky over Montana earlier this week and traveled across the middle of the country following weather patterns before it exited the continental United States on Saturday.
The discovery of the balloon prompted US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone his highly anticipated diplomatic visit to China this week, saying the incident had “created the conditions that undermine the purpose of the trip.”
Biden has faced intense criticism from Republicans for allowing the balloon to continue drifting above the continental US for days.
Top military officials had advised against shooting down the balloon while over the continental US because of the risk the debris could pose to civilians and property on the ground, but officials had maintained that all options remained on the table.
Waiting to carry out the operation has allowed the US to “study and scrutinize” the balloon and its equipment, a senior Defense official said during a call with reporters following the operation but did not elaborate on when that occurred.
While US officials were able to learn more about the balloon, it was not the primary reason for delaying the shoot-down, the senior Defense official said, calling it an “added benefit” of the decision to wait until it was safely over water.
“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 official added.
Prior to the balloon being shot down, the Federal Aviation Administration had issued a ground stop for airports in Wilmington, North Carolina, and Charleston and Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. The FAA also restricted airspace near Myrtle Beach “to support the Defense Department in a national security effort.”
Advanced F-22 fighter jets from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia then fired a single missile to take down the Chinese spy balloon at 2:39 p.m. Eastern time on Saturday, said a senior US military official, who also briefed reporters Saturday.
The moment of impact could be seen from the shore as onlookers captured video of the military operation.
Earlier Saturday, Biden had told reporters in Syracuse, New York, that his administration was “gonna take care” of the suspected Chinese spy balloon when asked by CNN if the US would shoot it down. He had been discussing options with top military officials since first being briefed on the balloon on Tuesday.
China expressed its “strong dissatisfaction and protest” against the shooting down of its balloon, saying Washington was “overreacting” and “seriously violating international practice,” in a statement from its foreign ministry.
“The Chinese side has repeatedly informed the US side after verification that the airship is for civilian use and entered the US due to force majeure – it was completely an accident,” read the statement, which was published Sunday morning Beijing time.
The State Department has said the presence of the balloon in US airspace was “a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law, and it is unacceptable that this has occurred.”
A senior administration official on Saturday pushed back on China’s claim that the balloon was simply for “civilian use” and made its way into the country by “accident.”
“This was a PRC surveillance balloon. This surveillance balloon purposely traversed the United States and Canada and we are confident it was seeking to monitor sensitive military sites,” the official said. “Its route over the United States near many potentially sensitive sites contradicts the PRC government explanation that it is a weather balloon.”
On Friday, the Pentagon said the balloon did not pose a military or physical threat. A defense official told CNN that US Northern Command coordinated with NASA to determine the debris field in the event of a shoot down.
The military’s attention next turns to recovering the balloon debris. The US Navy and Coast Guard had assets on standby to assist with the recovery effort before the balloon was shot down, another Defense official told CNN prior to the operation.
“The debris is in 47 feet of water, primarily – the recovery, that will make it fairly easy,” the senior military official who briefed reporters Saturday said once the operation to shoot down the balloon was carried out.
“Actually, we planned for much deeper water. So as far as the specific timeline to recovery, I can’t give you that right now,” the senior official added.
The debris field from the balloon is spread out over 7 miles, a senior military official said, an area that Navy and Coast Guard vessels are now searching for remnants and pieces of the balloon.
The recovery operation has begun on the surface of the water, with ships looking for wreckage floating on top of the Atlantic Ocean in the debris field, a senior military official said. When the salvage vessel arrives in the area, the underwater effort will commence with Navy divers and unmanned vessels.
The vessels on site have already begun to establish a security perimeter around the wreckage and are scouring the surface of the ocean for parts of the balloon.
There are plans for the balloon equipment to be taken to the FBI lab in Quantico, Virginia, to be analyzed by experts from the bureau and intelligence agencies, two people briefed on the matter said.
Earlier Saturday, a senior Defense official said the Pentagon has launched “a collaborative effort” with the FBI and “counterintelligence authorities” to assist with “categorizing and assessing the platform itself.”
This story and headline have been updated.