WASHINGTON -- The U.S. military on Saturday shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the Carolina coast on orders from President Joe Biden after it traversed sensitive military sites across North America. China insisted the flyover was an accident involving a civilian aircraft and threatened repercussions.
"I told them to shoot it down," Biden told reporters Saturday on his way to Camp David. "They said to me, let's wait until the safest place to do it."
He was advised that the best time for the operation would be when it was over water, U.S. officials said. Military officials determined that bringing it down over land from an altitude of 60,000 feet would pose an undue risk to people on the ground.
China responded that it reserved the right to "take further actions" and criticized the U.S. for "an obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice."
In its statement late Saturday, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said "China will resolutely uphold the relevant company's legitimate rights and interests, and at the same time reserving the right to take further actions in response."
The presence of the balloon in the skies above the U.S. last week prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to abruptly cancel a high-stakes Beijing trip aimed at easing tensions.
"They successfully took it down and I want to compliment our aviators who did it," Biden said after getting off Air Force One.
The giant white orb was spotted Saturday morning over the Carolinas as it approached the Atlantic coast. About 1:39 p.m., an F-22 fighter jet fired a missile at the balloon, puncturing it while it was about 6 nautical miles off the coast near Myrtle Beach, S.C., senior defense officials said.
A crowd lining the beach boardwalk cheered as the missile struck the balloon. It quickly deflated and plummeted to the ocean.
"That's my Air Force right there, buddy!" a person exclaims just after the missile's impact, in a video taken by tourist Angela Mosley.
Mosley said she came out of a store and saw four fighters circling, then saw the balloon. "One of the fighter jets gets going fast and gets closer to it, and then a boom and we knew it was gone."
Mosley said no boats appeared to be in the water beneath the balloon as the wreckage fell, but several aircraft arrived soon after. U.S. officials tried to time the operation so they could recover as much debris as possible before it sank.
The spectacle had Americans looking to the skies all week, wondering whether the mysterious balloon had floated over them.
In South Carolina's York County, the sheriff's office advised against anyone trying to take out the balloon on their own.
"Don't try to shoot it!!," the sheriff's office tweeted Saturday as the balloon passed over the region at an altitude of about 60,000 feet. "Your rifle rounds WILL NOT reach it."
The debris landed in 47 feet of water, shallower than officials had expected, and it spread out over roughly 7 miles and the recovery operation included several ships. The officials estimated the recovery efforts would be completed in a short time, not weeks. A salvage vessel was en route.
In preparation for the operation Saturday, the Federal Aviation Administration temporarily closed airspace over the Carolina coast, including the airports in Myrtle Beach and Charleston, S.C., and Wilmington, N.C.
The FAA rerouted air traffic from the area and warned of delays as a result of the flight restrictions. The FAA and Coast Guard worked to clear the airspace and water below the balloon as it reached the ocean.
Television footage showed a small explosion, followed by the giant deflated balloon descending like a ribbon toward the water.
Bill Swanson said he watched the balloon deflate instantly from his house in Myrtle Beach as fighter jets circled around.
"When it deflated it was pretty close to instantaneous," he said. "One second it's there like a tiny moon and the next second it's gone." Swanson added that a trail of smoke followed the balloon as it dropped.
U.S. defense and military officials said Saturday that the balloon entered the U.S. air defense zone Jan. 28 north of the Aleutian Islands and moved Monday largely over land across Alaska and then into Canadian airspace in the Northwest Territories. It crossed back into U.S. territory over northern Idaho on Tuesday, the day the White House said Biden was first briefed on it.
The balloon was spotted Thursday over Montana, home to Malmstrom Air Force Base, which has fields of nuclear missile silos.
The U.S. was able to collect intelligence on the balloon as it flew over the U.S., giving them a number of days to analyze it and learn how it moved and what it was capable of surveilling, according to two senior defense officials said. The officials briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
The officials said the U.S. military was constantly assessing the threat, and concluded that the technology on the balloon didn't give the Chinese significant intelligence beyond what it could already obtain from satellites, though the U.S. took steps to mitigate what information it could gather as it moved along.
Republican lawmakers and politicians began criticizing Biden on Thursday, after news of the balloon became widespread, for not taking harder action against the balloon and against China, and some demanded that Blinken cancel his trip.
"Allowing a spy balloon from the Communist Party of China to travel across the entire continental United States before contesting its presence is a disastrous projection of weakness by the White House," said Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., tweeted: "Now that this embarrassing episode is over, we need answers from the Biden Administration on the decision-making process. Communist China was allowed to violate American sovereignty unimpeded for days. We must be better prepared for future provocations and incursions by the CCP."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was more positive: "Thank you to the men and women of the United States military who were responsible for completing the mission to shoot down the Chinese surveillance balloon. The Biden Administration did the right thing in bringing it down."
China has continued to claim that the balloon was merely a weather research "airship" that had been blown off course. The Pentagon rejected that out of hand -- as well as China's contention that it was not being used for surveillance and had only limited navigational ability.
The Chinese government sought to play down the cancellation of Blinken's trip.
"In actuality, the U.S. and China have never announced any visit, the U.S. making any such announcement is their own business, and we respect that," China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Saturday in a statement.
The Pentagon also acknowledged reports of a second balloon flying over Latin America. China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to a question about the second balloon.
"We are seeing reports of a balloon transiting Latin America," Department of Defense spokesperson Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said in a statement to The Washington Post. "We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon."
China is Latin America's second-largest trading partner, just behind the United States, according to a 2022 report from the Council on Foreign Relations. According to the report, 20 Latin American countries have signed on to be a part of the Belt and Road Initiative, a massive infrastructure project led by Beijing.
This isn't the first time Chinese spy balloons have crossed into U.S. airspace in recent years, one of the officials said. At least three times during the Trump administration and at least one other time during Biden's time as president they've seen balloons cross, but not for this long, the official said.
Blinken, who had been due to depart Washington for Beijing late Friday, said he had told senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi in a phone call that sending the balloon over the U.S. was "an irresponsible act and that [China's] decision to take this action on the eve of my visit is detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have."
Uncensored reactions on the Chinese internet mirrored the official government stance that the U.S. was hyping the situation. Some used it as a chance to poke fun at U.S. defenses, saying it couldn't even defend against a balloon, and nationalist influencers leaped to use the news to mock the U.S.
The Chinese government claimed that the device flying over the United States was a "civilian airship" that is used to collect information about the weather with "limited self-steering capability." But Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement Friday that the balloon was being used by China "to surveil strategic sites in the continental United States."
China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasized that the balloon's journey was out of its control and urged the U.S. not to "smear" it because of the balloon.
U.S. officials believe that the balloon both drifts with air currents and has the ability to be directed. The bottom of the balloon is outfitted with propellers, an official said.
"This is a substantial program," said the official. It involves a commercial Chinese company providing the technology to the People's Liberation Army, the Chinese military. "This capacity has been used to fly over sensitive sites, and to collect information."
U.S. officials have said the payload of the balloon is the size of three large buses.
Along the East Coast, onlookers noted the unusual activity. Danielle Skipper, who lives in Aynor, S.C., a rural farming community, saw the balloon from the first time outside her house at 1:22 p.m. An hour later, she said it was still "lingering big time."
Skipper had been out in her yard, with her husband and dogs, watching the balloon and filming videos. There were a lot of jets around the balloon she said.
"They start out with large circles, and then they come in and make closer circles," she said, noting that the balloon being outside her house made her uneasy.
Information for this article was contributed by Zeke Miller, Michael Balsamo, Colleen Long, Aamer Madhani, Lolita C. Baldor, Chris Megerian, Tara Copp, Mary Clare Jalonick, Meg Kinnard, Kimberlee Kruesi, Huizhong Wu, Henry Hou, Matthew Brown and James Pollard of The Associated Press; by Ellen Nakashima, Alex Horton, Dan Lamothe, Rosalind S. Helderman and Kelsey Ables of The Washington Post; and by Helene Cooper and Edward Wong of The New York Times.