US shoots down suspected China spy balloon

TV footage showed a small explosion, followed by the balloon descending towards the water

US fighter jet shoots down suspected China spy balloon

In this photo provided by Chad Fish, the remnants of a large balloon drift above the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of South Carolina, with a fighter jet and its contrail seen below it, Saturday, Feb.  4, 2023.  The downing of the suspected Chinese spy balloon by a missile from an F-22 fighter jet created a spectacle over one of the state’s tourism hubs and drew crowds reacting with a mixture of bewildered gazing, distress and cheering.  (Chad Fish via AP)
Powered by automated translation

The United States shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off its eastern coast on Saturday, after the device crossed North America.

TV footage showed a small explosion and the balloon descending towards water as US military jets flew past and ships were stationed nearby.

An operation was launched in US territorial waters in the Atlantic Ocean to recover debris from the balloon, which had been flying at about 18,000 metres.

“We successfully took it down, and I want to compliment our aviators who did it,” President Joe Biden said.

China's Foreign Ministry expressed strong dissatisfaction at the use of force to attack its balloon on Sunday, describing it as a “serious violation of international practice”.

The balloon, the latest flashpoint in tensions between the US and China, was shot as it reached the east coast.

An F-22 fighter jet from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia fired at 2.39pm local time using a single AIM-9X supersonic, heat-seeking, air-to-air missile, a senior US military official said.

Watch: Witness captures images of suspected Chinese spy balloon over US

This handout photo from Chase Doak taken on February 1, 2023 and released on February 2 shows a suspected Chinese spy balloon in the sky over Billings, Montana.  - The Pentagon said February 2 it was tracking a Chinese spy balloon flying high over the United States, reviving tensions between the two countries just days ahead of a rare visit to Beijing by the top US diplomat.  (Photo by Chase DOAK  /  CHASE DOAK  /  AFP)  /  -----EDITORS NOTE --- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO  /  CHASE DOAK " - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS

The balloon first entered US airspace over Alaska on January 28, before drifting over Canada and then back into the US, Pentagon officials said.

It flew over parts of the north-west that are home to airbases.

“We are confident it was seeking to monitor sensitive military sites,” a senior defence official said.

'Unacceptable violation'

The US government ordered a halt to flights around the Carolinas coast because of what it called an undisclosed “national security effort”.

Officials tried to time the operation so they could recover as much of the debris as possible before it sank into the ocean.

“On Wednesday, when I was briefed on the balloon I ordered the Pentagon to shoot it down as soon as possible,” Mr Biden said.

“They decided, without doing damage to anyone on the ground, that the best time to do that was when they got over water within our … 12-mile limit.”

The debris landed in 14 metres of water and is spread out over about 11km for a recovery operation the US expects to complete quickly, bringing in several ships including one salvage vessel.

Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin called the operation a “deliberate and lawful action” that answered China's “unacceptable violation of our sovereignty”.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau praised the operation, tweeting: “Canada strongly supports this action — we'll keep working together … on our security and defence.”

In Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, a crowd lining the boardwalk cheered as the balloon was hit.

The Federal Aviation Administration and Coast Guard worked to clear the airspace and water below the balloon as it reached the ocean.

China's Foreign Ministry on Sunday said it reserved the right to “take further actions” and criticised the US for “an obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice”.

It had earlier called the flight over the US an accident.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken cancelled a visit to Beijing scheduled for Sunday for talks aimed at reducing tensions. The Chinese government on Saturday sought to play down the cancellation.

“In actuality, the US and China have never announced any visit,” it said in a statement on Saturday morning.

China has continued to claim that the balloon was merely a weather research “airship” that had been blown off course. The Pentagon rejected the suggestion.

The FAA has reopened the airspace off the coast of the Carolinas, after three south-eastern airports were temporarily shut.

Updated: February 06, 2023, 6:40 AM