Suspected Chinese spy balloon shot down off South Carolina coast

The suspected Chinese spy balloon that has been drifting across the United States for several days has been shot down off the coast of South Carolina.

The balloon was shot down by U.S. fighter jets in U.S. airspace at 2:39 p.m. ET on Saturday, U.S. officials confirmed to CBS News. A senior defense official told CBS News that an F-22 dispatched out of Langley Air Force Base took down the balloon with one AIM-9X air-to-air missile. 

Footage shared on Twitter showed the balloon falling from the sky. The senior defense official told CBS News that the balloon was about six nautical miles off the coast of South Carolina when it was shot down. 

There are no indications that any military personnel, civilian aircraft or maritime vessels were harmed, the defense official said. 

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in a statement Saturday afternoon that Mr. Biden had given his authorization on Wednesday “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.” 

Officials had initially advised against shooting down the balloon as it crossed over the nation’s midsection because falling debris could cause risk to people on the ground. However, on Saturday morning, Mr. Biden told reporters that “we’re gonna take care of” the balloon. 

The Federal Aviation Administration closed the airspace and issued a ground stop at three airports in North and South Carolina on Saturday afternoon, ahead of the operation. Flights resumed shortly after the balloon was taken down. 

After the operation, Mr. Biden addressed the operation to take down the balloon after landing in Hagerstown, Maryland. 

“They successfully took it down, and I want to compliment our aviators who did it, and we’ll have more to report on this a little later,” he said. 

A senior military official told CBS News that multiple Navy and Coast Guard vessels, including the USS Carter Hall — which is equipped with a heavy crane for recovery — were in vicinity of where the balloon fell for debris collection.

The senior military official said that while the debris is spread out over a field of about seven miles, it is in shallow water. The official said that the recovery process will likely be relatively short. 

On Facebook, South Carolina’s North Myrtle Beach Police Department warned residents that some “pieces” of the balloon “may wash ashore.” 

“Any stray pieces are expected in the North Carolina area but could wash ashore in (North Myrtle Beach),” police wrote. “If a piece is located please contact your local law enforcement agency for collection.” 

The senior defense official also said that the U.S. was able to study the balloon’s equipment and surveillance materials and pick up valuable intelligence while the balloon was aloft.  

In this photo provided by Brian Branch, a large balloon drifts above the Kingstown, N.C. area, with an airplane and its contrail seen below it. 

Brian Branch / AP

Austin said the mission to shoot down the ballon was conducted in coordination with the Canadian government. 

“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,” Austin said, using an acronym for the People’s Republic of China.

Chinese officials have denied that the balloon was meant for surveillance, saying in a statement on Friday that it is a civilian device used for scientific research that was blown off-course by unexpected winds.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York who serves on the Intelligence Committee, praised the operation on Twitter Saturday afternoon, saying that the United States could now “collect the equipment and analyze the technology” used by the Chinese government. 

Defense officials previously told CBS News that the surveillance equipment attached to the balloon was the size of two to three school buses. 

This is a developing story and will be updated. 

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