WASHINGTON: The United States military has shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina, a week after it entered US airspace and triggered a dramatic spying saga that worsened relations between Beijing and Washington.
President Joe Biden said on Saturday that 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 to Earth.
The balloon had been flying at about 18,300 metres (60,000 ft.).
“We successfully took it down, and I want to complement our aviators who did it,” Biden told reporters.
Multiple fighter and refueling aircraft were involved in the mission, but just one, an F-22 fighter jet from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia took the shot at 2:39pm local time (19:39 GMT) using a single AIM-9X supersonic, heat-seeking, air-to-air missile, a senior US military official said.
The shoot down came shortly after the US government ordered a halt to flights around the South Carolina coast due to what it said at the time was an undisclosed “national security effort”. Television footage showed a small explosion, followed by the balloon descending towards the water. The Associated Press news agency said an operation was under way in US territorial waters in the Atlantic Ocean to recover debris from the balloon.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called the operation a “deliberate and lawful action” that came in response to China’s “unacceptable violation of our sovereignty”.
He said the balloon was being used by China “in an attempt to surveil strategic sites in the continental United States”.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau praised the operation, tweeting, “Canada strongly supports this action we’ll keep working together … on our security and defence.”
The balloon first entered US airspace in Alaska on January 28 before moving into Canadian airspace on Monday, January 30. It then re-entered US airspace over northern Idaho on January 31, a US defence official said. Once it crossed over US land, it did not return to the open waters, making a shoot down difficult.
US officials did not publicly disclose the balloon’s presence over the country until Thursday. “It’s clear the Biden administration had hoped to hide this national security failure from Congress and the American people,” said US Representative Mike Rogers, a Republican who leads the House Armed Services Committee.
“Allowing a spy balloon from the Communist Party of China to travel across the entire continental United States before contesting its presence is a disastrous projection of weakness by the White House,” said Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Biden’s emphasis on Saturday that he had ordered the balloon shot down as soon as possible could be an effort to respond to such critics. Defence officials on Saturday also appeared to play down the balloon’s effect on US national security.
“Our assessment and we’re going to learn more as we pick up the debris was that it was not likely to provide significant additive value over and above other (Chinese) intel capability, such as satellites in low-Earth orbit,” a senior US defence official told reporters.
The Chinese balloon’s overflight of US territory was of “intelligence value to us”, they added. (Int’l News Desk)