U.S. military shoots down suspected Chinese spy balloon off Carolina coast
Beijing says vessel was civilian 'airship,' Washington decries 'violation' of sovereignty
U.S. military fighter aircraft shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon as it floated off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday, a move Beijing called a "serious violation of international practice" and for which it threatened repercussions.
"We successfully took it down, and I want to compliment our aviators who did it," U.S. President Joe Biden said.
Biden said he had issued an order on Wednesday to take down the balloon, but the Pentagon had recommended waiting until it could be done over open water to safeguard civilians from debris crashing down to Earth from thousands of metres above commercial air traffic.
Multiple fighter and refuelling aircraft were involved in the mission, but only one — an F-22 fighter jet — took the shot, using a single AIM-9X missile, a senior U.S. military official said.
The vessel was shot down about six nautical miles off the U.S. coast, over relatively shallow water, potentially aiding efforts to recover key elements of the Chinese surveillance equipment among the debris in the coming days, officials said.
"Our U.S. Navy component is currently conducting recovery operations, with the U.S. Coast Guard assisting in securing the area and maintaining public safety," Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, said in a statement on Sunday.
The shootdown came shortly after the U.S. government ordered a halt to flights in and out of three area airports — Wilmington, N.C., and Myrtle Beach and Charleston in South Carolina — due to what it said at the time was an undisclosed "national security effort." The flights resumed Saturday afternoon.
The balloon first entered a U.S. identification zone on Jan. 28, entered Canadian airspace three days later and then re-entered U.S. airspace on Jan. 31, a U.S. defence official said.
U.S. officials had publicly disclosed the balloon's presence over the United States on Thursday.
Washington has called the balloon a "clear violation" of U.S. sovereignty and notified Beijing about the shootdown on Saturday, a U.S. official said.
Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin first announced the shootdown, saying the balloon was being used by China "in an attempt to surveil strategic sites in the continental United States."
Austin said on Saturday the U.S. military was able to collect "valuable" intelligence by studying the balloon, and that three other Chinese surveillance balloons had transited the United States during Donald Trump's administration, a disclosure the Republican former president denied.
In a statement following the downing, Austin thanked Canada "for its contribution to tracking and analysis of the balloon ... as it transited North America," while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Twitter that Canada "strongly supports" the shootdown and pledged to "keep working together" with the U.S., including through the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD).
The bi-national <a href="https://twitter.com/NORADCommand?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@NORADCommand</a> has been tracking and analyzing the trajectory and actions of the balloon – and this Canada-U.S. cooperation ensures the security and defence of North American air sovereignty. <br><br>Today and always, we thank our people in uniform for having the watch.—@AnitaAnandMP
A Reuters photographer said the suspected Chinese spy balloon was shot down over the southeastern U.S. coast. A stream came from a jet and hit the balloon, but there was no explosion, the photographer said. It then began to fall, the photographer said.
China protests downing
Responding to the downing, China said the action violates international norms and it reserves the right to take further action in response.
"The U.S. in insisting on the use of force is an obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice," according to a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Sunday morning.
Previously, China expressed regret that an "airship" used for civilian meteorological and other scientific purposes had strayed into U.S. airspace.
China's Foreign Affairs Ministry said on Saturday that the flight of the "airship" over the U.S. was a force majeure accident, and it accused U.S. politicians and media of taking advantage of the situation to discredit Beijing.
"China will resolutely uphold the relevant company's legitimate rights and interests, at the same time, reserving the right to take further actions in response," Beijing's statement on Sunday read.
The suspected Chinese spy balloon prompted U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone a visit to China this week that had been expected to start on Friday.
The postponement of Blinken's trip, which had been agreed to in November by Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, is a blow to those who saw it as an overdue opportunity to stabilize an increasingly fractious relationship between the two countries.
China is keen for a stable U.S. relationship so it can focus on its economy, battered by the now-abandoned "zero-COVID" policy and neglected by foreign investors alarmed at what they see as a return of state intervention in the market.
Partisan hot air blows from balloon incident
Republican lawmakers on Sunday criticized Biden for waiting days to shoot down the balloon, accusing him of showing weakness toward China and initially trying to keep the breach of U.S. airspace undisclosed.
"We should have shot this balloon down over the Aleutian Islands. We should never have allowed it to transit the entire continental United States," said Republican Tom Cotton, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, referring to the chain of small islands that arc off the coast of mainland Alaska.
"I think part of it is the president's reluctance to take any action that would be viewed as provocative or confrontational towards the Chinese communists," he told the Fox News Sunday program.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, said of the Republican criticisms: "They are premature and they are political."
Schumer said downing the balloon into the ocean likely enables U.S. intelligence officials to examine its remnants.
"The bottom line here is that shooting down the balloon over water wasn't just the safest option, but it was the one that maximized our intel gain," Schumer told a news conference.
The Pentagon will brief senators on the balloon and Chinese surveillance on Feb. 15, Schumer said.
Republican Mike Turner, chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, said the panel would receive a briefing on the balloon sometime this week.
Turner said the balloon travelled unhindered over sensitive U.S. nuclear missile sites, and that he believed China was using it "to gain information on how to defeat the command and control of our nuclear weapons systems and our missile defence systems."
"The president has allowed this to go across our most sensitive sites and wasn't even going to tell the American public if you hadn't broken the story," Turner told NBC's Meet the Press program. "There was no attempt to notify Congress.... I think this administration lacks urgency."
Balloon sighting in Colombia
Meanwhile, Colombia's military confirmed a sighting of an airborne object similar to a balloon flying over its territory.
Colombia's air force issued a statement on Saturday providing limited details concerning a possible balloon its air defence system had located Friday morning.
U.S. military officials on Friday said another Chinese balloon was spotted somewhere over Latin America but did not specify its location.
According to the Colombian air force statement, an "object" was detected over its territory at an altitude of 55,000 feet that had entered the South American country's airspace to the north moving at an average speed of 25 knots, or roughly 46 km/h.
The statement added that the object exhibited "characteristics similar to those of a balloon," and that the air force monitored it until it left the country's airspace.
"It was determined that it did not represent a threat to national security," the statement added.
No other official confirmation of unidentified balloons flying over other Latin American countries has been issued as of Sunday.
In recent days, however, balloon sightings have been made in Venezuela and Costa Rica by multiple social media users.
Costa Rican officials received reports of a balloon on Thursday and planes were notified, according to the head of the civil aviation agency.
"It was the same thing everyone else saw, a white ball," said Fernando Naranjo, Costa Rica's civil aviation director, adding that no further action was taken.
Chinese ally Venezuela in a statement on Sunday condemned the U.S. decision to shoot down the balloon.
- An earlier version of this story said Wilmington is in South Carolina. In fact, it's in North Carolina.Feb 04, 2023 6:53 PM ET
With files from CBC News and The Associated Press