A U.S. fighter jet on Saturday shot down off the South Carolina coast a suspected Chinese spy balloon that had flown over the United States for several days, roiling already troubled relations between the two world powers.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement the balloon had been used to “surveil strategic sites in the continental United States” and was brought down above U.S. territorial waters – meaning within 12 nautical miles of the coast.
President Joe Biden told reporters that he had given the order to shoot it down on Wednesday – a day before its presence was divulged publicly by U.S. officials.
“They decided that the best time to do that was as it got over water,” Biden said Saturday. “They successfully took it down. And I want to compliment our aviators who did it.”
The Pentagon had said Friday that that the balloon had the capability to conduct surveillance and was controllable, despite China’s contention it is a weather-monitoring system that had simply been blown off course.
Its discovery prompted U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday to postpone a planned visit to China to repair relations between Washington and Beijing amid deep differences over security, trade and human rights.
Earlier on Saturday, before the balloon was destroyed, China’s Foreign Ministry repeated its claims that it was a civilian airship that had drifted “far from its planned course.”
“We have no intention to violate and has (sic) never violated the territory or airspace of any sovereign country. Some politicians and media in the U.S. have hyped it up to attack and smear China,” a spokesperson was quoted as saying in a posting on the ministry’s website.
Reuters reported that the shootdown came shortly after the U.S. government ordered a halt to flights in and out of three regional airports — Wilmington, Myrtle Beach and Charleston — due to what it said at the time was an undisclosed “national security effort.” The flights resumed on Saturday afternoon.
The wire service, quoting a senior U.S. military official, said multiple fighter and refueling aircraft were involved in the mission, but only one — an F-22 fighter jet from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia — took the shot at 2:39 p.m. eastern time (1939 GMT), using a single AIM-9X supersonic, heat-seeking, air-to-air missile.