Suspected Chinese spy balloon shot down off South Carolina coast

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U.S. fighter jets shot down the suspected Chinese spy balloon that had drifted across the United States for several days on Saturday, bringing an end to the opening chapter of a tense public standoff with Beijing over the intrusion into U.S. airspace.

The balloon was shot down off the coast of South Carolina shortly after 2:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, U.S. officials confirmed to CBS News. A senior defense official said an F-22 dispatched out of Langley Air Force Base took down the balloon with a single air-to-air missile.

U.S. military seeks to recover debris from Chinese spy balloon

Defense officials previously told CBS News that the surveillance equipment attached to the balloon was the size of two to three school buses. Its presence over U.S. airspace prompted a diplomatic dispute between Washington and Beijing, which has claimed the balloon was meant for observing weather conditions, a claim U.S. officials have refuted.

The Chinese foreign ministry on Sunday called the decision to shoot down the balloon "a clear overreaction and a serious violation of international practice."

"China will resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of the company concerned, and reserves the right to make further responses if necessary," a statement by the foreign ministry said.

Senior Biden administration officials told CBS News that, after the balloon was shot down, the U.S government spoke directly with the Chinese government about the action.

Footage shared on Twitter showed the balloon falling from the sky. The senior defense official told CBS News that the balloon was about six nautical miles off the coast of South Carolina when it was shot down. There were no indications that any military personnel, civilian aircraft or maritime vessels were harmed, the official added.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in a statement Saturday afternoon that President Biden had given his authorization on Wednesday "to take down the surveillance balloon as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to American lives under the balloon's path."

Officials had initially advised against shooting down the balloon as it crossed over the nation's midsection because falling debris could cause risk to people on the ground. However, on Saturday morning, Mr. Biden told reporters that "we're gonna take care of" the balloon.

The Federal Aviation Administration closed the airspace and issued a ground stop at three airports in North and South Carolina on Saturday afternoon, ahead of the operation. Flights resumed shortly after the balloon was taken down.

After the operation, Mr. Biden addressed the operation to take down the balloon after landing in Hagerstown, Maryland.

"They successfully took it down, and I want to compliment our aviators who did it, and we'll have more to report on this a little later," he said.

A senior military official told CBS News that multiple Navy and Coast Guard vessels, including the USS Carter Hall — which is equipped with a heavy crane for recovery — were in vicinity of where the balloon fell for debris collection.

The official said that while the debris is spread out over a field of about seven miles, it is in shallow water. The recovery process was expected to be relatively short.

On Facebook, South Carolina's North Myrtle Beach Police Department warned residents that some "pieces" of the balloon "may wash ashore."

"Any stray pieces are expected in the North Carolina area but could wash ashore in (North Myrtle Beach)," police wrote. "If a piece is located please contact your local law enforcement agency for collection."

The senior defense official also said that the U.S. was able to study the balloon's equipment and surveillance materials and pick up valuable intelligence while the balloon was aloft.

In this photo provided by Brian Branch, a large balloon drifts above the Kingstown, N.C. area, with an airplane and its contrail seen below it.  / Credit: Brian Branch / AP
In this photo provided by Brian Branch, a large balloon drifts above the Kingstown, N.C. area, with an airplane and its contrail seen below it. / Credit: Brian Branch / AP

Austin said the mission to shoot down the balloon was conducted in coordination with the Canadian government.

"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," Austin said, using an acronym for the People's Republic of China.

Chinese officials have denied that the balloon was meant for surveillance, saying in a statement on Friday that it is a civilian device used for scientific research that was blown off-course by unexpected winds.

However, senior Biden administration officials told CBS News Saturday evening that the White House believes the balloon's route over many potentially sensitive sites contradicts China's claim that it was merely a weather research satellite.

The officials provided a timeline of the U.S. response since it was first detected over Alaska on Jan. 28. The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, began tracking it, but at the time, did not deem it to be an intelligence risk or a threat.

The balloon made its way into Canadian airspace, and then reentered U.S. airspace on Tuesday. That same day, Mr. Biden directed the military to present options for how to shoot down the balloon immediately. Meanwhile, the military also took steps to mitigate the balloon's ability to collect any sensitive information.

The military Wednesday presented options to Mr. Biden, advising that it was too risky to shoot down the balloon over land, the officials said, and the president then directed the military to put together a plan to shoot down the balloon over water.

NASA was also brought it to determine what the debris field may look like when the balloon was shot down. The military also looked at how it might bring the balloon down while recovering it payload.

A second balloon that was observed flying over Central and South America this week is also believed to be a Chinese surveillance balloon, the official said. Both carried surveillance equipment not usually associated with standard meteorological activities.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York who serves on the Intelligence Committee, praised the operation on Twitter Saturday afternoon, saying that the United States could now "collect the equipment and analyze the technology" used by the Chinese government.

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