US shoots down Chinese spy balloon and moves to recover wreckage

The US military has shot down the Chinese spy balloon that flew over North America for a week and moved to recover the debris to glean more information about the surveillance equipment on board the craft.

US defence secretary Lloyd Austin said a fighter jet on Saturday afternoon shot down the surveillance balloon off the coast of South Carolina in American airspace and over its territorial waters.

Austin said President Joe Biden had on Wednesday authorised that the balloon be shot down “as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to American lives”.

A senior military official said an F-22 fired an air-to-air missile at the balloon at 2.39pm when it was six nautical miles off the eastern coast. He added that the US military had started the process of trying to recover the debris, which is spread across seven miles of sea.

The Pentagon on Wednesday revealed the presence of the balloon as it was flying over a sensitive military installation in Montana where the US bases some of its nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles.

A senior defence official said the craft entered US airspace on January 28 near the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. It flew into Canadian airspace two days later and re-entered US airspace over Idaho on January 31. But the US has not made clear if it detected the balloon on January 28, or was able to calculate the data by later assessing its flight speed.

The Pentagon said it would learn more in the coming days about the balloon, but the senior defence official said the US military had already concluded the vessel had a “broad array of capabilities”.

The debris fell into an area of the sea that is 47 feet deep, which one official said would make it easier to recover the debris than expected.

In a statement, Austin said the “lawful action” had shown that Biden and his national security team would “always put the safety and security of the American people first while responding effectively to the PRC’s unacceptable violation of our sovereignty”.

Speculation had mounted that the US would shoot the balloon when the Federal Aviation Administration ordered the closure of US airspace around Charleston and Myrtle Beach between 12.45pm and 2.45pm.

Biden had come under pressure from Republicans to down the craft, which was estimated to be the size of several buses. The Pentagon presented that option earlier this week when it was over a military base that houses nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles. But Biden decided against the option because of the risk posed to civilians.

Some lawmakers questioned why the president had allowed the balloon to continue to fly across the US, giving China additional opportunities to surveil sensitive American military installations.

Michael McCaul, the Republican head of the House foreign affairs committee, said the administration “should have taken care of this before it became a national security threat”.

“I hope we will be able to recover the wreckage to help determine what intelligence the Chinese Communist party collected while its spy balloon was over our country for days,” McCaul added.

Roger Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate armed services committee, described the delay in destroying the balloon as “a disastrous projection of weakness by the White House”.

The Pentagon defended the decision to allow the balloon to cross the US. The defence official said the main reason was to avoid civilian casualties, but stressed that the Pentagon had gathered intelligence about its capabilities while China was spying on the US.

“What has not been understood quite so much is that this actually provided us a number of days to analyse this balloon and . . . learn a lot about what this balloon was doing, how it was doing it,” said the defence official.

Earlier on Saturday, the Pentagon said a second Chinese spy balloon had been detected over Latin America but did not elaborate. The defence official said the craft shot down on Saturday was part of a fleet of Chinese spy balloons that were operating over five continents.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken on Friday cancelled a visit to China because of the discovery of the balloon. He had been expected to meet President Xi Jinping. He would have been the first Biden administration cabinet secretary to visit China.

China has expressed regret over the incident but rejected suggestions that it was a spy balloon was spying. The foreign ministry said it was a “civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes” that strayed off course due to winds and “limited self-steering capability”.

Pentagon spokesperson General Patrick Ryder on Friday dismissed the Chinese explanation. “We know that it’s a surveillance balloon.”

Following the downing of the balloon, the Pentagon said the US had notified China about the action and was in the process of notifying allies. Austin also thanked Ottawa, saying the action was “taken in coordination, and with the full support, of the Canadian government”.

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