US downs suspected Chinese spy balloon off Carolina coast

Written by on February 4, 2023

WASHINGTON – U.S. warplanes shot down the suspected Chinese spy balloon of the South Carolina coast on Saturday, the Pentagon announced.

The balloon, which carried a large payload of spy gear according to U.S. officials, had soared over several strategic sites, including nuclear missile silos, and became the latest flashpoint in tensions between Washington and Beijing.

President Joe Biden ordered the Pentagon to down the balloon on Wednesday but commanders worried about debris killing people on the ground. 

“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.”

Before the downing, President Joe Biden had said earlier Saturday, “We’re going to take care of it,” when asked by reporters about the balloon. The Federal Aviation Administration and Coast Guard worked to clear the airspace and water below.

Television footage showed a small explosion, followed by the balloon descending toward the water.

Later in the day when asked whether he planned to shoot down the balloon drifting over the United States,  Biden smiled and gave a thumbs up.

 Biden was first briefed on Tuesday about the balloon, the same day a White House spokesman talked to reporters about the importance of improving engagement with the Chinese.

Three days later, Secretary of State Antony Blinken scrapped a trip to China because of the balloon.

The Federal Aviation Administration wrote on Twitter Saturday afternoon that it was pausing several departures and arrivals on the east coast to “support the Department of Defense in a national security effort.”

Among the many lingering questions is why the balloon, which the Chinese maintained was a “civilian airship” used mostly for weather research that was blown off course, was in U.S. airspace – and why now.

Beijing is unlikely to gather more information from the balloon than it can learn from the satellites both countries use to spy on each other. And an airship as large as two buses was not going to go undetected.

“What are they signaling? And what do they hope to achieve?” said Kari Bingen, a former deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security. “Because this is something that you can’t miss. They were going to get caught. That’s what’s so brazen about it.”

Related:Blinken postpones China trip amid spy balloon row; US officials scramble to get rid of it

An American flag is flown next to the Chinese national emblem during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Nov. 9, 2017.

Sending a message?

Bingen, who is now the director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., believes China is sending the Biden administration a message.

The balloon arrived not only shortly before Blinken’s planned trip but also as the U.S. was inking a deal with the Philippines to double U.S. military presence there. That’s part of an effort to counter China’s threats to Taiwan and growing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

If the balloon was intended as a retaliatory poke in the eye, it’s backfired, according to a senior U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. China is now lying about losing it and apologizing for entering U.S. airspace.

But it’s causing not just national security and diplomatic concerns for the Biden administration, but also a political headache.

Democrat demands answers

Republicans aren’t the only ones criticizing Biden’s handling of the situation. Montana Sen. Jon Tester, one of the most vulnerable Democrats up for re-election in 2024, demanded “real answers” after the balloon drifted over his state.

Tester, who heads the Senate subcommittee that oversees defense spending, said he will be pulling administration officials before his panel. 

“Montanans value their freedom and privacy, and I’ll always fight to defend both,” he tweeted.

A high altitude balloon floats over Billings, Mont., on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. The Pentagon would not confirm that the balloon in the photo was the surveillance balloon. (Larry Mayer/The Billings Gazette via AP)

Not the first time

Incursions by spy balloons into U.S. airspace have occurred before, Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters Friday. But he declined to list instances.

“What I would tell you right now is that information is classified,” Ryder said. “I’m not able to provide it other than I can confirm that there have been other incidents where balloons did come close to or cross over U.S. territory.”

The current one was traveling eastward over the center of the U.S. on Friday. Combined with its equipment, the balloon is as big as two buses, according to a second senior U.S. official. It is bristling with intelligence and surveillance sensors. 

Unclear what Chinese are looking for

It’s unclear what the Chinese are looking for, said the official who was not authorized to speak publicly. Shooting it down would spread debris over a wide area, and the risk of injuries or death on the ground has been deemed too high. 

Scott Murray, a retired Air Force colonel and intelligence officer, said the balloon could carry basic intelligence gathering gear for collecting communications and other signals, snapshot imagery or full-motion video.

“What gives me pause though is anything they put on the balloon has the potential to be captured and exploited if the balloon is shot down,” Murray said.

Thomas Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the balloon is likely to contain multiple sensors used to assess U.S. civilian and military facilities, intercept communications and possibly even more operational technologies that can help China detect U.S. missiles.

“It’s a big platform with presumably a fairly big payload. We don’t know what the exact sensors are. But it could be a mix of things,” Karako said. “Obviously, it could be cameras, but it could also be things like infrared or signals intelligence. It could be soaking up electronic emissions or communications or any number of other things.”

Karako, a former aide on the House Armed Services Committee, said the Biden administration should take it down, or find a way to capture it, to send a message back to Beijing.

Pentagon spokesman U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder speaks during a media briefing at the Pentagon, Friday, Feb. 3, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) ORG XMIT: DCAB113

Republicans want balloon shot down

Many Republicans attacked the administration for letting the balloon linger. 

Former President Donald Trump said the Pentagon should shoot it down, as did former Vice President Mike Pence and Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, both of whom are considering joining Trump in the GOP race for the 2024 presidential nomination. 

Rep. Michael McCaul, the Texas Republican who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the balloon should never have been allowed to enter U.S. airspace. 

“U.S. officials have acknowledged they were monitoring this balloon since it flew over the Aleutian Islands – where it could have easily been shot down over water,” McCaul said in a statement in which he joined those calling on the administration to remove the balloon.

Rep Michael McCaul, R-Texas

Response to ‘armchair generals’

Connecticut Rep. Jim Himes, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, encouraged “the armchair generals to take the boxing gloves off” to allow time to determine if shooting down the balloon is the best course of action.

“There are instances where you would much rather own something whole than spread a debris field across hundreds of square miles,” Himes told USA TODAY Friday.

John Bolton, who served as Trump’s national security adviser, wondered if it’s possible to put a small tear in the balloon so it could drift down and be captured. 

“That way we can do to the Chinese what others do to us, and get the technology hanging from the balloon and see what it actually is,” he said.

‘Most consequential bilateral relationship’

The administration is tracking the situation closely and is “keeping all options on the table,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Friday.

She told reporters Biden had been initially briefed on Tuesday and is receiving regular updates.

Also on Tuesday, White House spokesman John Kirby said Blinken’s planned trip was part of an effort to restore some of the lines of communication between the nations. 

“This is the most consequential bilateral relationship in the world,” Kirby said.

On Friday, Blinken said he will reschedule his trip “when conditions allow.”

“The first step,” Blinken said, “is getting the surveillance asset out of our airspace.”

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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