A U.S. F-22 fighter jet shot down the Chinese spy balloon with a single missile as it drifted off the coast of North Carolina at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday.
Two F-22 Raptors could be seen circling the white spy balloon, itself the size of three school buses, before lighting it up in a poof of smoke and a boom that could be heard from the ground. The deflated balloon then could be seen drifting down from as high as 60,000 feet, likely landing in the Atlantic Ocean.
The spy balloon was first spotted by the public over Montana earlier in the week having floated in from Canada, forcing a diplomatic rebuke from Washington to Beijing bringing the world’s top superpowers in direct conflict for the first time in years. US officials say they’d been tracking the balloon and its movements for days.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken canceled a scheduled trip to China with Chinese officials issuing regrets over the balloon’s course, but said it wasn’t meant to spy on its assumed American targets.
The Pentagon confirmed the mission to shoot down the balloon Saturday and said it was done at the behest of President Joe Biden.
“I told them to shoot it down,” Biden said this afternoon, explaining he’d given the order to down the balloon on Wednesday, but that the Pentagon was waiting for the safest possible way to do so, without any impact to people or property on the ground.
“They said let’s wait for the safest place to do it,” Biden said.
Following downing, Secretary of Defense Loyd Austin III issued a statement that the balloon was being used “by the [People’s Republic of China] in an attempt to surveil strategic sites in the continental United States.”
“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 unacceptable violation of our sovereignty,” he said.
The Pentagon has said it is now prepared to retrieve the debris from the balloon, which could provide U.S. intelligence with a definitive answer to what the Chinese government was surveilling.
US officials said recovering the payload of the balloon would be of “significant intelligence value.”
On Friday, Pentagon Press Secretary and Air Force Brigadier General Pat Ryder called the event completely “unacceptable,” and initially didn’t count out shooting the balloon out of the sky via missile strike and the Defense Department was “monitoring and reviewing options.”
The Biden Administration has increasingly committed to force projection in the Pacific region as a means to constrain any plans by China to militarize and intimidate allies. The Pentagon has inked deals for a growing number of new bases available to U.S. troops in Australia, Guam, Japan and the Philippines.
In January, tensions forced one U.S. Air Force four-star general to issue a memo to his troops, predicting World War III was drawing dangerously near.
“I hope I am wrong. My gut tells me we’ll fight in 2025,” said General Mike Minihan in January.