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U.S. has downed Chinese spy balloon off the Carolina coast and will attempt to recover debris

President Joe Biden said he ordered the Pentagon to shoot it down after being briefed Wednesday.
/ Source: NBC News

The U.S. downed the Chinese surveillance balloon off the Carolina coast on Saturday and will attempt to recover its debris, according to a U.S. official.

The action came a couple of hours after President Joe Biden responded to a reporter who asked whether the U.S. would shoot down the balloon. “We’re gonna take care of it,” Biden said, in his first public remarks about the balloon.

In remarks to reporters after the balloon was shot down, Biden said he made the order to the Pentagon after he was briefed on Wednesday.

“They decided — without doing damage to anyone on the ground — they decided that the best time to do that was when it got over water,” he said. “They successfully took it down and I want to compliment our aviators who did it. And we’ll have more to report on this a little later.”

The balloon was shot down at 2:39 p.m. by an F-22 raptor with a single missile, according to a senior defense official. The balloon was between 60,000 to 65,000 feet in the air when it was downed.

The debris field from the balloon extends across about 7 nautical miles, and ships and navy divers are expected to help recover the pieces, a senior U.S. military official told NBC News.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in a statement that the balloon was shot down “above U.S. territorial waters” off the coast of South Carolina.

“This afternoon, at the direction of President Biden, U.S. fighter aircraft assigned to U.S. Northern Command successfully brought down the high altitude surveillance balloon launched by and belonging to the People’s Republic of China (PRC),” Austin said in the statement.

“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,” he said.

Biden on Wednesday “gave his authorization to take down the balloon as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to American lives under the balloon’s path,” he added. “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.”

The balloon entered U.S. airspace on Jan. 28 north of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska before entering Canadian airspace on Monday, the senior defense official said. It re-entered U.S. airspace on Tuesday in northern Idaho.

Officials have been analyzing the balloon over recent days, a senior defense official said, noting that it “was clearly crossing over sensitive sites, including sensitive military sites.”

“We have learned technical things about this balloon and its surveillance capabilities and I suspect if we are successful in recovering aspects of the debris we will learn even more,” the defense official said.

Hours before it was shot down, residents in North Carolina and South Carolina reported seeing the spy balloon, and the Federal Aviation Administration said it had paused departures and arrivals at three local airports to support the Defense Department in “a national security effort.”

Flights to and from the three airports — Wilmington International Airport and Myrtle Beach International Airport in North Carolina, and Charleston International Airport in South Carolina — have resumed, the FAA said Saturday afternoon in an update.

Videos showing fighter jets targeting the spy balloon and taking it down are circulating on social media. The jets are seen approaching the balloon before it starts to fall from the sky.

The two F-22s used for the mission were called FRANK01 and FRANK02, named for Frank Luke Jr., a World War I hero known for destroying German observational balloons, a senior U.S. military official said.

Some lawmakers took to social media to applaud Biden’s decision to take down the spy balloon while others criticized his administration’s handling of the situation.

“I strongly condemn President Xi’s brazen incursion into American airspace, and I commend President Biden’s leadership in taking down the Chinese balloon over water to ensure safety for all Americans,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted following the news.

“Now we can collect the equipment and analyze the technology used by the CCP,” the New York Democrat added.

A senior U.S. military official said there was no timeline for how long the recovery would take, but the official expected it to be a short period.

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee tweeted, “The admin 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 CCP collected while its spy balloon was over our country for days. I will be demanding answers and will hold the admin accountable for this embarrassing display of weakness.”

Now that the balloon has been shot down, the Biden administration should make clear to China the gravity of its violation of U.S. airspace, a former Obama administration official said.

Brett Bruen, who was director of global engagement in Barack Obama’s White House, said in an interview Saturday that Chinese President Xi Jinping “is probing and testing how far he can push the West and, in particular, Biden, and we have to respond in a strong and sustained way.”

Bruen suggested the U.S. consider recalling its ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns, to protest China’s actions.

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