U.S. Shoots Down Suspected Chinese Spy Balloon, Recovery Under Way

China’s Foreign Ministry protests, saying U.S. overreacted and violated international norms

WASHINGTON—The U.S. shot down a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon over the Atlantic Ocean, days after it was spotted crossing the U.S. and adding to already high tensions between Washington and Beijing.

An Air Force F-22 Raptor jet fighter on Saturday downed the balloon with a single AIM-9X Sidewinder missile off the coast of South Carolina at 2:39 p.m. ET within U.S. territorial waters, officials said. The jet fighter was flying at 58,000 feet, below the balloon, which had been flying as high as 65,000 feet.

U.S. Navy ships, as well as Coast Guard vessels, have begun the effort to recover the surveillance equipment the balloon was carrying, the Pentagon said.

Defense officials said they didn’t know how long the recovery would take and what could be gleaned from the recovered equipment. The debris fell in relatively shallow water about 47 feet deep and was spread out over at least 7 miles, a senior military official said.

President Biden had signaled earlier Saturday that the U.S. would “take care of” the balloon. After the downing, Mr. Biden said he had ordered the Pentagon on Wednesday to shoot down the balloon “as soon as possible.”

“They decided that the best time to do that was when it got over water,” said Mr. Biden. “They successfully took it down.”

Mr. Biden didn’t respond to a question about how the shootdown might affect U.S.-China relations.

China protested the military action in a statement early Sunday in Beijing by expressing its “strong dissatisfaction,” saying in a statement from the Foreign Ministry that the U.S. overreacted and violated international norms.

The presence of the balloon prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday to postpone a visit to Beijing aimed at steadying the two powers’ tense relations, delaying a diplomatic effort both governments agree is needed to manage their geopolitical rivalry. It also touched off a debate within the administration and in Congress over how to handle a surveillance craft flying over much of the continental U.S., officials said.

Earlier in the week, the Pentagon advised against shooting down the balloon, which is roughly the size of three school buses, while it was over Montana out of concern that the falling debris could hurt people and damage property on the ground. Once over the Atlantic Ocean, the falling debris was less of a consideration.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry in its statement reiterated that the balloon was for civil purposes and its entry to U.S. airspace was accidental. The ministry described the U.S. action as the “use of force to attack a civilian unmanned airship” and said China reserved the right to respond further, though it didn’t specify how.

The Pentagon said at a media briefing the balloon was part of a “fleet” of Chinese surveillance balloons that have also been spotted previously over Latin America, Europe and Asia. Officials said China’s explanation that the downed balloon was a civilian weather craft “lacked any credibility.”

The balloon had a “broad array of [intelligence] capabilities,” a senior defense official said. “The intrusion of our airspace for multiple days was an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty.”

The U.S. military first detected the balloon north of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska on Jan. 28 and watched as it crossed the northern part of the state and then entered northwest Canada on Jan. 30.

The next day, the balloon was tracked over Idaho and then Montana, where 150 U.S. Minuteman III nuclear-armed missiles are deployed. Mr. Biden asked for military options on Jan. 31, which the Pentagon presented the next day.

Ultimately, the Pentagon concluded it was safest to shoot down when it moved offshore, and Mr. Biden authorized the shootdown as soon as the balloon did so.

“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,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in the statement Saturday.

“The balloon, which was being used by the PRC in an attempt to surveil strategic sites in the continental United States, was brought down above U.S. territorial waters,” Mr. Austin added, referring to the People’s Republic of China.

Under international law, U.S. territory extends 12 nautical miles from its coast.

The jet fighters and refueling and surveillance aircraft that were mobilized for the mission were under U.S. Northern Command, which is responsible for U.S. military operations in North America. It was the first known takedown for the F-22, the Air Force’s premier air-to-air fighter.

The shootdown operation disrupted air travel on the East Coast on Saturday after the Federal Aviation Administration closed parts of North and South Carolina airspace for several hours. It also halted flights to and from three commercial airports, before lifting the ban after the balloon was downed.

Large surveillance balloons and their payloads are usually returned to the ground via parachute, said Russ Van Der Werff, vice president of stratospheric solutions at Sioux Falls, S.D.-based Aerostar, which makes balloons and manages their flights for government agencies including the Pentagon and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

International aviation law gives countries jurisdiction over airspace at the altitudes the Pentagon has said were flown by the Chinese balloon, around 60,000 feet. Jurisdiction becomes unclear at much higher altitudes toward the edge of space.

As the balloon crossed the U.S. this week, China hawks on Capitol Hill said allowing the U.S.’s top rival to conduct surveillance over the U.S. unfettered would signal the U.S. government’s unwillingness to defend its airspace.

“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,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.) said in a statement after Saturday’s downing of the balloon.

Sen. Roger Wicker and other Republicans on Capitol Hill criticized the Biden administration’s handling of the incident.Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

The senior Defense official said that the U.S. had learned a lot about the technical capabilities of the balloon and its surveillance capabilities during the days monitoring its passage across the U.S. But this “benefit” wasn’t the reason the Biden administration had waited to shoot it down.

The official added that Chinese surveillance balloons flew over the continental U.S. at least three times during the Trump administration and once before during the Biden administration but for much shorter periods. Pentagon officials have declined to say precisely when and where these flights occurred.

Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, said in a statement she agreed with the decision to shoot down the balloon, but that “it should have been taken out earlier, over remote areas of Alaska or Montana.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer praised Mr. Biden for waiting until the balloon was over water before bringing it down. “Now we can collect the equipment and analyze the technology,” he said.

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