US shoots down suspected Chinese spy balloon
WASHINGTON — U.S. warplanes shot down the suspected Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday, the Pentagon said.
The balloon, which was carrying a large payload of spy equipment according to US officials, had flown 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 lower the balloon on Wednesday, but commanders feared debris could kill people on the ground.
“After careful analysis, U.S. military commanders determined that shooting down the balloon while it was over land posed an undue risk to people in a wide area because of the size and altitude. of the balloon and its surveillance payload,” Austin said. “As directed by the President, the Department of Defense has developed options to safely shoot the balloon down over our territorial waters, while closely monitoring its trajectory and intelligence-gathering activities.”
Before the fall, President Joe Biden had said earlier on Saturday, “We’ll deal with it,” when asked by reporters on the ball. The Federal Aviation Administration and the Coast Guard worked to clear the airspace and the water below.
Television footage showed a small explosion, followed by the balloon descending into the water.
Later in the day, when asked if he planned to shoot down the ball drifting over the United States, Biden smiled and gave a thumbs up.
Biden was first briefed on the ball on Tuesday, the same day a White House spokesperson spoke to reporters about the importance of improving engagement with the Chinese.
Three days later, Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a trip to China because of the balloon.
Federal Aviation Administration wrote on Twitter Saturday afternoon that it was suspending several east coast departures and arrivals to “support the Department of Defense in a national security effort”.
Among the many outstanding questions are why the balloon, which the Chinese say was a “civilian airship” used primarily for weather research that was deflected, was in US airspace – and why now.
Beijing is unlikely to gather more information from the balloon than it can learn from the satellites the two countries use to spy on each other. And an airship as big as two buses was not going to go unnoticed.
“What are they reporting? And what are they hoping to achieve?” said Kari Bingen, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for intelligence and security. “Because it’s something you can’t miss. They were going to get caught. That’s what’s so cheeky about it.”
Related:Blinken postpones his trip to China amid a spy balloon dispute; US officials are scrambling to get rid of it
Sending a message ?
Bingen, who is now director of the aerospace security project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, thinks China is sending a message to the Biden administration.
The balloon arrived not only shortly before Blinken’s planned trip, but also as the United States signed an agreement with the Philippines to double the American military presence there. This is part of an effort to counter China’s threats to Taiwan and China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
If the ball was intended as a retaliatory punch in the eye, it backfired, according to a senior US official who spoke on condition of anonymity. China is now lying that it lost it and apologizing for entering US airspace.
But that not only causes national security and diplomatic problems for the Biden administration, but also a political headache.
Democrat demands answers
Republicans are not alone in 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 ball drifted over his state.
Tester, who heads the Senate subcommittee overseeing defense spending, said he would bring administration officials before his panel.
“The people of Montana value their freedom and their privacy, and I will always fight to defend both,” he tweeted.
Not the first time
Spy balloon incursions into U.S. airspace have happened before, Air Force Brig. General Pat Ryder told reporters on Friday. But he declined to list the cases.
“What I would like to tell you now is that the information is classified,” Ryder said. “I am unable to provide that except that I can confirm that there have been other incidents where balloons have approached or crossed US territory.”
The current one was traveling east over the central United States on Friday. Combined with its equipment, the balloon is as big as two buses, according to a second senior US official. It bristles with intelligence and surveillance sensors.
It is not known what the 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 injury or death on the ground was deemed too high.
Scott Murray, a retired Air Force colonel and intelligence officer, said the balloon could carry basic intelligence-gathering equipment to collect communications and other signals, snapshots or full screen videos.
“What makes me think is that anything they put on the ball has the potential to be captured and exploited if the ball is downed,” Murray said.
Thomas Karako, director of the missile defense project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the balloon would likely contain several sensors used to assess US civilian and military installations, intercept communications and possibly even more operational technologies that could help China detect the United States. missiles.
“It’s a big rig with presumably quite a large 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 electromagnetic intelligence, it could absorb emissions or electronic communications or a number of other things.
Karako, a former House Armed Services Committee aide, said the Biden administration should remove him, or find a way to capture him, to send a message back to Beijing.
Republicans want a balloon down
Many Republicans have attacked the administration for letting the ball linger.
Former President Donald Trump has said the Pentagon should take him down, as have former Vice President Mike Pence and Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, both of whom plan to join Trump in the GOP race for the 2024 presidential inauguration.
Representative Michael McCaul, the Texas Republican who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the balloon should never have been allowed to enter US airspace.
“U.S. officials have acknowledged that they have been monitoring this balloon since it flew over the Aleutian Islands – where it could easily have been shot down over water,” McCaul said in a statement in which he said. joined with those who called on the administration to remove the ball.
Response to “armchair generals”
Connecticut Rep. Jim Himes, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, encouraged “armchair generals to take off the boxing gloves” to allow time to determine whether knocking the ball down is the best course of action.
“There are instances where you would rather own something whole than spread a debris field across hundreds of square miles,” Himes told USA TODAY on Friday.
John Bolton, who served as Trump’s national security adviser, wondered if it was possible to put a small tear in the balloon so it could drift away and be captured.
“That way we can do to the Chinese what other people are doing to us, and hang the tech on the ball and see what it really is,” he said.
“The most substantial bilateral relationship”
The administration is monitoring the situation closely and “keeping all options on the table,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Friday.
She told reporters that Biden was initially briefed on Tuesday and was 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 important bilateral relationship in the world,” Kirby said.
On Friday, Blinken said he would reschedule his trip “when conditions permit.”
“The first step,” Blinken said, “is to remove the surveillance tool from our airspace.”
More:Rep. Jim Jordan subpoenas FBI and Education Department over school board memo
More:Southwest Airlines executive to testify before Senate panel after flight cancellation collapse
The Associated Press contributed to this report.