WASHINGTON (OSV News) — A Chinese surveillance balloon flying at high altitudes over the continental U.S. was shot down over the water off the South Carolina coast by U.S. military Feb. 4, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III confirmed in a statement Saturday afternoon.
The balloon, which was first spotted Feb. 2 over Montana, moved southeast across the United States, with sightings in the Midwest and Southeast. Television footage showed a white object falling from the sky just before 3 p.m. Eastern. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration grounded flights at three airports along the Carolina coastline Saturday afternoon.
“On Wednesday, President Biden gave his authorization to take down the surveillance balloon as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to American lives under the balloon’s path,” the statement said. “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.
“In accordance with the president’s direction,” the statement continued, “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.”
Balloon violated U.S. airspace and international law
The balloon, Austin said, was “being used by the (People’s Republic of China) in an attempt to surveil strategic sites in the continental United States.”
The incident created increasing tensions in already fraught U.S.-China relations, and prompted one Catholic lawmaker to call for a “frank and sober” discussion about China.
Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters Feb. 3 at a press conference that the balloon “has violated U.S. airspace and international law, which is unacceptable.”
Ryder said the balloon is carrying surveillance gear and a payload. “Once the balloon was detected, we acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information,” he added.
More ‘Frank and sober’ national security conversations
The U.S. State Department said its Secretary Antony Blinken postponed a planned trip to Beijing over the incident.
“The Chinese Communist Party’s spy balloon flying over our country is a serious national security incursion that must have decisive consequences,” Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China and a longtime Catholic lawmaker, said in a Feb. 3 statement.
Smith said, “It is long past time that we as a nation have a more frank and sober conversation about the challenges and the costs of a strategic competition with China.”
The Biden administration must “immediately take bold action to counter the great and growing threat posed by Xi Jinping’s Communist regime and safeguard our national security and the livelihoods of the American people,” Smith added.
“Communist dictatorship that brutally abuses, tortures and kills its own people cannot be trusted or appeased,” Smith said. “I will continue to work tirelessly to protect our great nation from those who seek to harm or destroy it and ensure that the U.S. always stands for freedom, justice, and the protection of human rights against the rising tide of authoritarianism.”
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Feb. 3 that “we are tracking closely and keeping all options on the table.”
China: Balloon was not used for research
China’s foreign ministry issued a statement Feb. 3 claiming the balloon is “civilian in nature, used for meteorological and other scientific research,” and blew off course due to “the influence of westerly winds and its limited control capability.”
“China regrets that the airship strayed into the United States by mistake due to force majeure. China will continue to maintain communication with the U.S. side to properly handle this accident,” the statement said.
Jean-Pierre said the administration noted the statement of regret, “but the presence of this balloon in our airspace, it is a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law, and it is unacceptable this occurred.”
Following reports that the balloon was in U.S. airspace above Billings, Montana, near to locations of U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile silos and strategic bomber bases, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said in a statement, “This provocation is completely unacceptable, and I am in close contact with Department of Defense and Intelligence officials.”
“We are still waiting for real answers on how this happened and what steps the administration took to protect our country, and I will hold everyone accountable until I get them,” Tester said.
Kate Scanlon is a national reporter for OSV News covering Washington.