The United States on Saturday downed a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the Carolina coast after it traversed sensitive military sites across North America and became the latest flashpoint in tensions between Washington and Beijing.
An operation was underway in US territorial waters in the Atlantic Ocean to recover debris from the balloon, which had been flying at about 60,000 feet and was estimated to be about the size of three school buses. The balloon was downed by Air Force fighter aircraft, according to two officials who were not authoriSed to publicly discuss the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.
President Joe Biden had told reporters earlier Saturday that “we’re going to take care of it,” when asked about the balloon. The Federal Aviation Administration and Coast Guard worked to clear the airspace and water below the balloon as it reached the ocean.
Television footage showed a small explosion, followed by the balloon descending toward the water. US military jets were seen flying in the vicinity and ships were deployed in the water to mount the recovery operation.
Officials were aiming to time the operation so they could recover as much of the debris as possible before it sinks into the ocean. The Pentagon had previously estimated that any debris field would be substantial.
The balloon was spotted Saturday morning over the Carolinas as it approached the coast. In preparation for the operation, the FAA Administration temporarily closed airspace over the Carolina coastline, including the airports in Charleston and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Wilmington, North Carolina. The FAA rerouted air traffic from the area and warned of delays as a result of the flight restrictions.
The Coast Guard advised mariners to immediately leave the area because of US military operations “that present a significant hazard.”
Biden had been inclined to down the balloon over land when he was first briefed on it on Tuesday, but Pentagon officials advised against it, warning that the potential risk to people on the ground outweighed the assessment of potential Chinese intelligence gains.