A U.S. Air Force fighter safely shot down a Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon today, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said in a written statement.
President Joe Biden ordered the action on Wednesday, but it was delayed until the balloon was over water off the coast of South Carolina to ensure no Americans on the ground were harmed.
"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," Austin said.
The action was taken in coordination and support of the Canadian government. "We thank Canada for its contribution to tracking and analysis of the balloon through [North American Aerospace Defense Command] as it transited North America," Austin said. "Today's deliberate and lawful action demonstrates that President Biden and his national security team will always put the safety and security of the American people first while responding effectively to the PRC's unacceptable violation of our sovereignty," Austin said referring to the Peoples Republic of China.
U.S. officials first detected the balloon and its payload on January 28 when it entered U.S. airspace near the Aleutian Islands. The balloon traversed Alaska, Canada and re-entered U.S. airspace over Idaho. "President Biden asked the military to present options and on Wednesday President Biden gave his authorization to take down the Chinese surveillance balloon as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to us civilians under the balloon's path," said a senior defense official speaking on background. "Military commanders determined that there was undue risk of debris causing harm to civilians while the balloon was overland."
An F-22 Raptor fighter from the 1st Fighter Wing at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, fired one AIM-9X Sidewinder missile at the balloon.
The balloon fell approximately six miles off the coast in about 47 feet of water. No one was hurt.
Long before the shoot down, U.S. officials took steps to protect against the balloon's collection of sensitive information, mitigating its intelligence value to the Chinese. The senior defense official said the recovery of the balloon will enable U.S. analysts to examine sensitive Chinese equipment. "I would also note that while we took all necessary steps to protect against the PRC surveillance balloon's collection of sensitive information, the surveillance balloon's overflight of U.S. territory was of intelligence value to us," the official said. "I can't go into more detail, but we were able to study and scrutinize the balloon and its equipment, which has been valuable."
The balloon did not pose a military or physical threat. Still its intrusion into American airspace over several days was an unacceptable violation of U.S. sovereignty. The official said Chinese balloons briefly transited the continental United States at least three times during the prior administration.
While Chinese officials admitted that the balloon was theirs, they said it was a runaway weather balloon. "The PRC has claimed publicly that the high-altitude balloon operating above the United States is a weather balloon that was blown off course. This is false," the official said. "This was a PRC surveillance balloon. This surveillance balloon purposely traversed the United States and Canada, and we are confident it was seeking to monitor sensitive military sites."
The mission now transitions to one of recovery. There are a number of U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels establishing a security perimeter around the area where the balloon came to Earth. They are searching for debris, said a senior military official also speaking on background.
There is no estimate for how long the recovery mission will take, the military official said, but the fact that it came down in such a shallow area should make recovery "fairly easy".
The military official gave some detail of the engagement. The F-22 fired the Sidewinder at the balloon from an altitude of 58,000 feet. The balloon at the time was between 60,000 and 65,000 feet.
F-15 Eagles flying from Barnes Air National Guard Base, Massachusetts, supported the F-22, as did tankers from multiple states including Oregon, Montana, South Carolina and North Carolina. Canadian forces also helped track the overflight of the balloon.
The Navy has deployed the destroyer USS Oscar Austin, the cruiser USS Philippine Sea and the USS Carter Hall, an amphibious landing ship in support of the effort.