F-22 warplane shoots down suspected Chinese spy balloon off SC coast near Myrtle Beach

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WASHINGTON –  A United States warplane downed the suspected Chinese spy balloon off the South Carolina coast near Myrtle Beach after it traversed across North America and became the latest flashpoint in tensions between Washington and Beijing.

The balloon was downed after it passed into U.S. territorial waters, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement. The balloon, which carried a large payload of spy gear according to U.S. officials, had soared over several strategic sites, including nuclear missile silos, and became the latest flashpoint in tensions between Washington and Beijing.

President Joe Biden ordered the Pentagon to down the balloon on Wednesday but commanders worried about debris killing people on the ground.

Where did the balloon come from?US tracked suspected Chinese spy balloon for 5 days before shooting it down over the Atlantic

"After careful analysis, U.S. military commanders had determined downing the balloon while over land posed an undue risk to people across a wide area due to the size and altitude of the balloon and its surveillance payload," Austin said. "In accordance with the president’s direction, the Department of Defense developed options to take down the balloon safely over our territorial waters, while closely monitoring its path and intelligence collection activities."

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. The United States says it is a Chinese spy balloon moving east over America at an altitude of about 60,000 feet (18,600 meters), but China insists the balloon is just an errant civilian airship used mainly for meteorological research that went off course due to winds and has only limited “self-steering” capabilities.

An operation was underway in U.S. territorial waters to recover debris from the balloon, which had been flying at about 60,000 feet and estimated to be about the size of three school buses.

The balloon could be seen across Upstate South Carolina and the mountains and Piedmont of North Carolina before it drifted toward the coast.

"Shortly after noon today, I was briefed by the Pentagon on plans to shoot down the Chinese spy balloon once it was safely off our coast. It appears that has just happened," South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster tweeted just before 3 p.m. Saturday.

Before the downing, President Joe Biden had said earlier Saturday, “We’re going to take care of it,” when asked by reporters about the balloon. The Federal Aviation Administration and Coast Guard worked to clear the airspace and water below.

Television footage showed a small explosion, followed by the balloon descending toward the water.

In a brief remark Saturday in response to a reporter’s question about the balloon earlier Saturday, President Joe Biden said: “We’re going to take care of it.”Later in the day when asked whether he planned to shoot down the balloon drifting over the United States,  Biden smiled and gave a thumbs up.

Biden was first briefed on Tuesday about the balloon, the same day a White House spokesman talked to reporters about the importance of improving engagement with the Chinese.

Three days later, Secretary of State Antony Blinken scrapped a trip to China because of the balloon.

The Federal Aviation Administration wrote on Twitter Saturday afternoon that it is pausing several departures and arrivals on the east coast to "support the Department of Defense in a national security effort."

A map generated by UNC Asheville Meteorology Major Evan Fisher and posted in a 9:19 a.m. Feb. 4 tweet on his @EFisherWX account shows the estimated trajectory of a balloon said by U.S. officials to be associated with the People's Republic of China.
A map generated by UNC Asheville Meteorology Major Evan Fisher and posted in a 9:19 a.m. Feb. 4 tweet on his @EFisherWX account shows the estimated trajectory of a balloon said by U.S. officials to be associated with the People's Republic of China.

Among the many lingering questions is why the balloon, which the Chinese maintain is a “civilian airship” used mostly for weather research that was blown off course, was in U.S. airspace – and why now.

Beijing is unlikely to gather more information from the balloon than it can learn from the satellites both countries use to spy on each other. And an airship as large as two buses was not going to go undetected.

“What are they signaling? And what do they hope to achieve?" said Kari Bingen, a former deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security. "Because this is something that you can't miss. They were going to get caught. That's what's so brazen about it."

How the US shot down the balloon

The Pentagon scrambled F-22 warplanes from Virginia and F-15s from Massachusetts to down the balloon after it passed the coastline of South Carolina, the officials said.

An F-22, the most sophisticated warplane in the U.S. arsenal, flying at 58,000 feet fired a single AIM 9X sidewinder air-to-air missile and struck the balloon at 2:39 p.m. EDT, the official said. The balloon had been flying at about 65,000 feet when the shootdown occurred six nautical miles off the South Carolina coast in U.S. territorial waters, according to one of the officials. That was the first opportunity to do so that was deemed safe. No people or vessels were struck by the debris.

Recovery efforts began immediately and are ongoing. U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships are patrolling the area. The debris is in about 47 feet of water, a relatively shallow site that a salvage ship and divers will investigate in the coming days.

Sending a message?

Bingen, who is now the director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., believes China is sending the Biden administration a message.

The balloon arrived not only shortly before Blinken’s planned trip but also as the U.S. was inking a deal with the Philippines to double U.S. military presence there. That’s part of an effort to counter China’s threats to Taiwan and growing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

If the balloon was intended as a retaliatory poke in the eye, it’s backfired, according to a senior U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. China is now lying about losing it and apologizing for entering U.S. airspace.

But it's causing not just national security and diplomatic concerns for the Biden administration, but also a political headache.

Sam Tyndall of Coastal Carolina Skywatchers in Calabash captured the Chinese balloon (shown circled) with aircraft nearby.
Sam Tyndall of Coastal Carolina Skywatchers in Calabash captured the Chinese balloon (shown circled) with aircraft nearby.

Democrat demands answers

Republicans aren't the only ones criticizing Biden's handling of the situation. Montana Sen. Jon Tester, one of the most vulnerable Democrats up for re-election in 2024, demanded "real answers" after the balloon drifted over his state.

Tester, who heads the Senate subcommittee that oversees defense spending, said he will be pulling administration officials before his panel.

"Montanans value their freedom and privacy, and I'll always fight to defend both," he tweeted.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on July 8, 2022, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken attends a meeting with China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Nusa Dua on the Indonesian resort island of Bali . - Blinken on February 3, 2023, scrapped a long-planned Beijing trip aimed at easing escalating tensions between the two superpowers, after the Pentagon said that China sent a spy balloon over the US. Moments before the decision, China issued a late-night statement voicing regret over what it called an accident with a civilian airship but the US was not impressed. (Photo by Stefani Reynolds / POOL / AFP) (Photo by STEFANI REYNOLDS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images) ORIG FILE ID: AFP_338G4XL.jpg

Not the first time

Incursions by spy balloons into U.S. airspace have occurred before, Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters Friday. But he declined to list instances.

“What I would tell you right now is that information is classified,” Ryder said. “I'm not able to provide it other than I can confirm that there have been other incidents where balloons did come close to or cross over U.S. territory.”

The current one was traveling eastward over the center of the U.S. on Friday. Combined with its equipment, the balloon is as big as two buses, according to a second senior U.S. official. It is bristling with intelligence and surveillance sensors.

Unclear what Chinese are looking for

It’s unclear what the Chinese are looking for, said the official who was not authorized to speak publicly. Shooting it down would spread debris over a wide area, and the risk of injuries or death on the ground has been deemed too high.

Scott Murray, a retired Air Force colonel and intelligence officer, said the balloon could carry basic intelligence gathering gear for collecting communications and other signals, snapshot imagery or full-motion video.

“What gives me pause though is anything they put on the balloon has the potential to be captured and exploited if the balloon is shot down,” Murray said.

FILE - An American flag is flown next to the Chinese national emblem during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Nov. 9, 2017. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has postponed  a planned high-stakes weekend diplomatic trip to China as the Biden administration weighs a broader response to the discovery of a high-altitude Chinese balloon flying over sensitive sites in the western United States, a U.S. official said Friday.(AP Photo/Andy Wong, File) ORG XMIT: WX105

Thomas Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the balloon is likely to contain multiple sensors used to assess U.S. civilian and military facilities, intercept communications and possibly even more operational technologies that can help China detect U.S. missiles.

“It's a big platform with presumably a fairly big payload. We don't know what the exact sensors are. But it could be a mix of things,” Karako said. “Obviously, it could be cameras, but it could also be things like infrared or signals intelligence. It could be soaking up electronic emissions or communications or any number of other things.”

Karako, a former aide on the House Armed Services Committee, said the Biden administration should take it down, or find a way to capture it, to send a message back to Beijing.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Suspected Chinese spy balloon shot down off South Carolina coast near Myrtle Beach