The suspected Chinese spy balloon was shot Saturday morning, after the Biden Administration gave the go-ahead to take it down after it floated over the Atlantic Ocean east of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, following calls from lawmakers to act urgently on the mysterious balloon.
U.S. Air Force fighter jets shot the balloon shortly after 2:30 p.m. Saturday, President Joe Biden confirmed, saying he ordered the Pentagon to shoot it down “as soon as possible” without causing damage to people on the ground.
The shot was taken from an F-22 Raptor that departed from the Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, hitting the balloon with a missile six nautical miles off the coast of South Carolina, Reuters reported, citing a senior military official.
White House officials had been considering a plan to shoot down the spy balloon as it passed over South Carolina and into federal waters, where it could be recovered and debris could be collected, the Associated Press reported.
U.S. Navy divers and ships are expected to recover pieces of the balloon, over a debris field in the ocean spread out over seven miles, NBC News reported, citing a military official, while Navy and Coast Guard vessels have secured the area.
It comes as the Federal Aviation Administration issued a ground stop for three major airports in North Carolina and South Carolina in a “national security effort,” prohibiting pilots from operating aircraft at the airports.
In an unconfirmed sighting, a meteorologist with a Charlotte, North Carolina, NBC affiliate said he saw the massive balloon floating over Charlotte, after it was spotted on Friday over Kansas City and St. Louis.
Speaking at a press conference, Secretary of State Antony Blinken—who postponed his planned trip to Beijing this week after news broke of the balloon—said the first step is to remove it from federal airspace, calling the move by China “unacceptable and irresponsible” and a violation of international law.
Lawmakers on the right have been criticizing the Biden Administration for not taking immediate action on the balloon, with former President Donald Trump calling on Biden to shoot it down immediately—although that plan could be dangerous, according to a former Navy pilot, who told Business Insider it would be both “very difficult” and could pose a risk to people on the ground.
In a tweet on Saturday, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) argued Chinese “aggression must not stand,” saying the balloon “needed to come down,” and that the recovery of debris should provide answers as to what kind of surveillance China is believed to have conducted with it.
But officials had been considering shooting it down over federal waters once it crosses the coast of the Carolinas, according to a U.S. official familiar with the matter, who also told ABC News it would be too dangerous to shoot down over the continental U.S.
Pentagon press secretary Brigadier Gen. Pat Ryder said at a press conference on Friday the balloon—believed to be the size of three buses floating at roughly 60,000 feet—did not pose a “military or physical threat to people on the ground.”
U.S. officials were aware of the balloon when it crossed into U.S. airspace on January 28, Bloomberg reported, but did not disclose the information publicly until it was spotted again after it re-entered U.S. federal airspace over Idaho and Montana. Biden reportedly considered shooting it down then, but was advised against doing so by military advisors.
A second suspected Chinese surveillance balloon was spotted Friday night over Colombia and Venezuela, the Pentagon confirmed, without providing further details on the balloon, after outlets in Costa Rica reported seeing what appeared to be a hot air balloon over the Central American country on Thursday. Officials also confirmed similar Chinese balloons had been detected near Hawaii and the U.S. territory of Guam last February, multiple outlets reported.
China’s foreign ministry claimed the balloon was not part of a surveillance operation but rather a civilian weather balloon that was blown off course by westerly winds, though Ryder denied the claim, saying “we know that it’s a surveillance balloon” and that it had “violated U.S. airspace and international law.”
GOP lawmakers, including Reps. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) urged the White House to shoot it down, while James Comer (R-Ky.) wildly speculated in an interview with Fox News the balloon could carry “bioweapons.” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) argued the Pentagon “failed to act with urgency,” while Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) argued Biden had been “coddling and appeasing the Chinese communists” and former South Carolina Gov. and likely GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley on Saturday tweeted it should be captured to “see what they are collecting and hold Xi accountable.” When asked by Fox News for comment on China, Biden simply said, “we’re going to take care of it.”