U.S. fighter jet assigned to U.S. Northern Command, acting on an order from President Joe Biden, successfully shot down 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.
Biden had authorized the takedown on Wednesday “as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to American lives under the balloon’s path,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement confirming the operation.
The balloon was brought down over the Atlantic Ocean 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, which had said the action was to “support the Department of Defense in a national security effort,” lifted the order at 3:20 p.m., allowing normal flight activity to resume.
The days-long ordeal has placed new strains on what was already a fraught relationship between the two world powers, leading the Biden administration on Friday to postpone a trip to Beijing by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
“They decided the best time to do that was when it got over water,” Biden said.
The discovery of this 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 near U.S. interests elsewhere — is highly embarrassing to the Chinese.
One official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity citing the matter’s sensitivity, 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 presence in the mainland United States was disclosed to the public on Thursday, after appearing over Montana the day before and prompting a temporary stoppage of all flights out of the airport in Billings.
China’s foreign ministry claimed on Friday that the incursion was “unintended,” saying the balloon was merely collecting weather data when it was blown off course.
Two officials saig 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, said two officials.
The airship contains “some sophisticated communications gear,” said one official. “But what it actually does we don’t know.”
Earlier in the week it was spotted loitering over Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, home to several nuclear missile silos.
Without elaborating, officials have insisted that the administration had taken steps to thwart the craft’s ability to collect information that would undermine U.S. national security.
“We took very early action to make sure those sites don’t show anything that anybody would find interesting,” one defense official said.