US military shoots down Chinese spy balloon

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The U.S. military has shot down a Chinese spy balloon that had sent tensions between the United States and China soaring in the last several days.

Video shared on social media appeared to show the balloon being blasted out of the sky:

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin confirmed in a statement on Saturday that U.S. military aircraft had shot the balloon down off the coast of South Carolina.

“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,” Austin 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 Department of Defense developed options to take down the balloon safely over our territorial waters, while closely monitoring its path and intelligence collection activities.”

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Austin thanked the Canadian government for its support in helping to track and ultimately bring down the balloon.  

“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 PRC’s [People’s Republic of China] unacceptable violation of our sovereignty,” Austin said.

The balloon, which had traveled across the continental United States at an altitude of 60,000 feet, was sighted over the Carolinas on Saturday morning, prompting the Federal Aviation Administration to temporarily close the airspace above the Carolina coast due to “national security initiatives.”

An F-22 Raptor from the 1st Fighter Wing at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, fired a single AIM-9X SIDEWINDER missile on Saturday, which struck the spy balloon at an altitude of between 60,000 and 65,000 feet, U.S. officials told reporters on Saturday. F-15 Eagle fighters and KC-135 Stratotankers were also involved with the operation.

This marks the first air-to-air kill for the F-22. Open-source flight tracking information showed two U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptors with the call signs “Frank01” and “Frank02” joined by a KC-135 areial tanker in the vicinity of the balloon’s path off the Carolina coast.

“The military jets using the call sign “FRANK” is significant. Frank Luke Jr. was an American fighter ace in World War I better known as the ‘Arizona Balloon Buster,’” tweeted Marcus Weisgerber, global business editor for Defense One  “He is credited with shooting down 14 German surveillance balloons.” 

The last time a U.S. military fighter shot down another country’s aircraft was in June 2017, when a Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet downed a Syrian Sukhoi Su-22.

The balloon first entered the U.S. air defense identification zone north of the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, on Jan. 28 and then flew into Canadian airspace on Jan. 30 before reentering U.S. airspace over Idaho on Jan. 31, a senior defense official told reporters on Saturday.

U.S. military commanders determined that the risk of debris hurting people on the ground was too high while the balloon was over land, so they drew up plans to shoot down the balloon once it was in American airspace over water, the senior defense official said.

“It was out of an abundance of caution to U.S. citizens on the ground that we chose not to take it out over land, but to take it out over water,” the senior defense official said.

Many Republican lawmakers had publicly accused the Biden administration of weakness for not shooting the balloon down after it was sighted over Montana earlier in the week.

Then President Joe Biden indicated on Saturday that he would approve shooting the balloon down when he told reporters, “We’re going to take care of it.”

Speaking to reporters on Saturday, a senior military official noted that the debris from the downed balloon is strewn over seven miles, showing just how dangerous it would have been to people on the ground if the military had shot the balloon down while it was flying over land.

Debris from the balloon and its surveillance package is currently submerged in roughly 47 feet of water, said the senior military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels are establishing a perimeter around the debris field. Divers and a salvage vessel will help to recover what’s left of the balloon and its sensors.

The senior military official could not provide a timeline for how long recovery efforts might take.

UPDATE: 2/4/2023; this story updated on Feb. 24 with comments from a senior defense and senior military official.

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