The United States has successfully shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina, according to a statement from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Austin said President Biden on Wednesday ordered the balloon be shot down “as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to American lives under the balloon’s path.”
Austin said the balloon was being used by the Chinese to “to surveil strategic sites in the continental United States, was brought down above U.S. territorial waters,” though China has said the balloon was a civilian airship that was blown off-course. Meanwhile, activity from two other balloons has also been reported, with one loitering over Latin America.
“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,” Austin said. “In accordance with the president’s direction, the Department of Defense developed options to take down the balloon safely over our territorial waters, while closely monitoring its path and intelligence collection activities.”
Austin thanked the Canadian government for helping to track and analyze the balloon through North American Aerospace Defense Command.
“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 [People's Republic of China's] unacceptable violation of our sovereignty,” Austin said.
The Pentagon disclosed the balloon’s presence over the United States on Thursday but said at the time it was too risky to shoot it down given the harm that could be caused on the ground by the debris field.
Biden today said he told the Pentagon on Wednesday to shoot down the balloon as soon as possible.
“I ordered the Pentagon to shoot it down on Wednesday as soon as possible,” he said. “They decided that the best time to do that was when it got over water. They successfully took it down and I want to complement our aviators who did it.”
Some Republicans, however, have criticized the Biden administration for not shooting the balloon down sooner.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he believes “it is clear that standard protocol for defense of U.S. airspace was ignored.”
“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,” he said. “The White House owes Congress and the American people answers about this failure.”
Meanwhile, the incident led to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to cancel a diplomatic trip to China.
A senior defense official who briefed reporters on Thursday said the balloon’s flight path took it over “sensitive” U.S. nuclear sites but likely provided little information the Chinese could not gather from other more sophisticated systems.
“Our best assessment at the moment is that whatever the surveillance payload is on this balloon, it does not create significant value-added over and above what the [People’s Republic of China] is likely able to collect through things like satellites and low-earth orbit,” the official said.