U.S. shoots down Chinese spy balloon over Atlantic Ocean

The U.S. shot down a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon over the Atlantic Ocean on Saturday ending a multi-day saga as the spy craft tracked eastward across U.S. airspace igniting diplomatic and political tensions in its wake.

Television cameras captured a small explosion off the east coast of the Carolinas before the balloon began its descent toward the ocean. U.S. military jets were seen flying in the vicinity.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin confirmed in a statement that U.S. fighter aircraft assigned to U.S. Northern Command had “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 U.S. airspace.”

Mr. Austin said the operation was carried out at the direction of President Biden, who had authorized the Pentagon “to take down the surveillance balloon as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to American lives,” earlier in the week.

“Today’s deliberate and lawful action demonstrates that President Biden and his national security team will always put the safety and security of the American people first while responding effectively to the PRC’s unacceptable violation of our sovereignty,” he said. 

Mr. Biden thanked those involved in the operation soon after the balloon was shot down. 

SEE ALSO: Biden says he’ll ‘take care of’ Chinese balloon

President Biden told reporters earlier Saturday “we’re gonna take care of it” when pressed to comment on the balloon.

President Biden thanked those involved in the operation soon after the balloon was shot down.

“They successfully took it down and I want to compliment our aviators that did it,” he said. 

Earlier Saturday, the president said “we’re gonna take care of it” when pressed to comment on the balloon. 

Military officials had previously estimated that shooting down the balloon, which is estimated to be the size of three school buses, would leave a significant debris field. 

The balloon was spotted over North Carolina on Saturday morning as it tracked eastward toward the coast. 

Residents in Asheville reported seeing the balloon overhead at around 8:30 a.m. and by 10 a.m. the floating mass was seen over the Charlotte area.

The Federal Aviation Administration temporarily closed airspace near the coast, including over airports in Wilmington, North Carolina and Charleston and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. 

The Coast Guard also advised boaters to leave the area in preparation for U.S. military operations “that present a significant hazard.”

The Pentagon revealed on Thursday evening that it is tracking the Chinese balloon in U.S. airspace. 

The public disclosure came days after officials first became aware of the balloon on Jan. 28, when it was spotted over Alaska. 

After first penetrating U.S. airspace, the balloon tracked over Canadian airspace before returning to U.S. skies over northern Idaho on Tuesday. 

The balloon was later spotted over Montana, which is home to one of America’s three nuclear missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base. 

Biden administration officials kept quiet for nearly a week after the suspected Chinese spy balloon first entered U.S. airspace, fearing the matter would derail Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s planned trip to Beijing, according to a Bloomberg report citing several officials familiar with the matter. 

The administration was forced to go public on Thursday, however, after the Billings Gazette published a photo of the balloon.

The Pentagon also said it had considered deploying F-22s to shoot down the balloon but decided against it, citing the safety of people on the ground.

The public acknowledgment sparked a firestorm of concern on Capitol Hill and ultimately led Mr. Blinken to postpone his planned trip to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

China‘s Foreign Ministry, in a relatively conciliatory message on Friday, confirmed the craft was from China but said the balloon was not engaged in espionage and was collecting meteorological data and had been blown off course by “westerly winds.”

That explanation, however, fell flat in Washington.

The White House on Friday said the incident is a “clear violation” of U.S. sovereignty and international law, despite Beijing’s claims that the craft was not engaged in espionage.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Friday that President Biden was first briefed on the balloon on Tuesday and has continued to receive “regular briefings and updates” from his national security team as the balloon remained in flight.

Mr. Biden said on Saturday that he “ordered the Pentagon to shoot it down on Wednesday as soon as possible.”

“They decided that the best time to do that was when it got over water… within 12 mile limit,” he said. 

But the administration’s decision not to immediately shoot the balloon down has been the subject of intense criticism by some who say not doing so was a display of weakness by the administration.

“Allowing a spy balloon from the Communist Party of China to travel across the entire continental United States before contesting its presence is a disastrous projection of weakness by the White House,” Sen. Roger F. Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on Saturday in response to the balloon being shot down. 

“It is clear that standard protocol for defense of U.S. airspace was ignored,” the Mississippi lawmaker added. “The White House owes Congress and the American people answers about this failure, and I intend to get those answers without delay.”

Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican and member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said China’s “brazen deployment of a spy balloon to surveil some of our most sensitive military assets required a forceful response by our government.”

“I support the decision to shoot down the balloon, but it should have been taken out earlier, over remote areas of Alaska or Montana,” she said. “Good job by our talented military.”

Sen. Jon Tester, Montana Democrat and chairman of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said on Friday that he was “still waiting for real answers on how this happened and what steps the Administration took to protect our country.”

“Montanans value their freedom and privacy and I’ll always fight to defend both,” Mr. Tester said. “China’s actions are a clear threat to those values and to America’s national security, and I’m demanding answers from the Biden Administration.”

The Biden administration is expected to hold a briefing for the “Gang of Eight” on Capitol Hill, which includes the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate intelligence committees, next week.

Source: WT