Watch: Chinese spy balloon shot down

A second mystery 'surveillance device' has been spotted over South America - Twitter/ @el_charlie/Twitter/ @el_charlie
A second mystery 'surveillance device' has been spotted over South America - Twitter/ @el_charlie/Twitter/ @el_charlie

The United States has downed a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the Carolina coast, after it crossed over sensitive military sites across North America and became the latest flashpoint in tensions between Washington and Beijing.

An operation is underway in US 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.

Before the downing, President Joe Biden had said: "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.

It comes after US officials said Joe Biden was considering a plan to shoot down the balloon. On Saturday, the FAA shut down three airports and closed airspace in parts of North and South Carolina due to “national security initiatives”.

The balloon was first seen floating over sensitive military sites in Montana late on Thursday, prompting US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to cancel an official trip to China.

When asked about the situation on Saturday, he replied simply: "We're gonna take care of it." He did not give further details.

But four US officials told AP that the Biden administration was considering shooting it down once it is above the Atlantic Ocean where the remnants would not harm civilians and could potentially be recovered.

The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive operation, said it was unclear whether a final decision had yet been made by President Joe Biden.

It came as a second craft was spotted flying over South America, with reports on the ground suggesting it is above Colombia and Venezuela.

While the Pentagon did not confirm its exact location, spokesman Pat Ryder said: "We are seeing reports of a balloon transiting Latin America. We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon.”

The Chinese spy balloon has made headlines around the world since being spotted late on Thursday - abc7news
The Chinese spy balloon has made headlines around the world since being spotted late on Thursday - abc7news

China has insisted that the first balloon - which was high above Charlotte, North Carolina on Saturday evening - 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.

That explanation has not been accepted by the US, and Mr Blinken called off a visit to Beijing, saying the incursion of the “surveillance asset” was “unacceptable” and “an irresponsible act."

On Saturday, China hit back, saying that it "would not accept any groundless conjecture or hype" and accused "some politicians and media in the United States" of using the incident "as a pretext to attack and smear China."

It urged the US to remain “cool-headed.”

The first balloon was spotted in the sky over Asheville, North Carolina on Saturday morning, moving over Charlotte in the afternoon.

Travelling at 46,000ft, the helium balloon with a payload the size of three buses, packed with instruments and sensors, is expected to continue east and could leave the continental US this weekend.

The second balloon was seen from the ground in Cartagena, northern Columbia and from Zulia state, in western Venezuela. There have been other unconfirmed sightings from Costa Rica.

Posting pictures of the foreign object, Venezuelan Meteorologist Oniel Castellanos said: "It is a white balloon that carries an antenna at the bottom and moves very slowly, at low altitude, from west to east.”

Mr Biden has faced repeated calls to shoot down the balloon travelling over the US, but has so far refused to do so, with officials citing the possibility of a large debris field being a danger to people on the ground.

Michael McCaul, the Republican chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, accused Mr Biden of allowing the balloon to pose "a direct and ongoing national security threat to the US homeland."

Former President Donald Trump simply said on his Truth Social platform: “SHOOT DOWN THE BALLOON.”

Mike Pompeo, the former CIA director and possible Republican 2024 presidential candidate, said it was the "right decision" for Anthony Blinken to cancel the planned trip to China.

But he told the BBC's Today programme that it wasn't "remotely enough" to respond to what is a "Chinese Communist party intentional incursion into the United States American airspace and sovereignty."

Mr Pompeo said the spy balloon should be brought down: "One, to let the Chinese Communist party know that we are serious.

"Two, to find out what it is that they are collecting and why it is the case that they have decided to fly this over the United States of America. And finally to do so in a way that is safe for everyone on the ground.

"I'm very confident that the United States can do each of those three things."

“The Chinese are probing, they are prodding, they are trying to find out how far they can go,” he said. “We should defeat this Chinese spying effort. It’s not that complicated. Pull it off, pull it down and let the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) know they are not going to walk all over us.”

On Saturday, experts said that the balloons may be being guided by advanced artificial intelligence technology.

William Kim, a specialist in surveillance balloons at the Marathon Initiative think tank in Washington, told AFP that it appears to have advanced steering technologies that the US military hasn't yet put in the air.

Artificial intelligence has made it possible for a balloon, just by reading the changes in the air around it, to adjust its altitude to guide it where it wants to go, Mr Kim said.

"Before you either had to have a tether or you just send it up and it just goes wherever the wind takes it," he said.

"What's happened very recently with advances in AI is that you can have a balloon that doesn't need its own motion system. Merely by adjusting the altitude it can control its direction."

That could also involve radio communications from its home base, he said.