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US shoots down Chinese balloon off South Carolina

Illustration: US Defense Department file photo of an F-22 over Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, Dec. 9, 2022.

A US Air Force F-22 fighter shot down a Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon on Saturday, after it spent several days over the United States.

The Pentagon revealed that president Joe Biden actually ordered the action on Wednesday, but it was delayed until the balloon was over water off the coast of South Carolina to ensure no Americans on the ground were harmed.

An F-22 Raptor fighter from the 1st Fighter Wing at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, fired one AIM-9X Sidewinder missile at the balloon to take it down. The fighter fired the missile at the balloon from an altitude of 58,000 feet. The balloon itself was at an altitude of between 60,000 and 65,000 feet.

The two Raptors that launched from Langley AFB for the mission had callsigns FRANK01 and FRANK02. This appears to be an homage to Frank Luke Jr., an American World War I pilot ace also known as the “Arizona Balloon Buster,” as he shot down 14 German surveillance balloons.

The Chinese balloon fell approximately six miles off the coast in about 47 feet of water, the Pentagon said, adding that no one was hurt.

The mission now transitions to one of recovery. There are a number of US Navy and Coast Guard vessels, including destroyer USS Oscar Austin, cruiser USS Philippine Sea and amphibious landing ship USS Carter Hall, establishing a security perimeter around the area where the balloon came to Earth. They are searching for debris, said a senior military official also speaking on background.

There is no estimate for how long the recovery mission will take, the military official said, but the fact that it came down in such a shallow area should make recovery “fairly easy”.

“The balloon, which was being used by the PRC in an attempt to surveil strategic sites in the continental United States, was brought down above US territorial waters,” US Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said.

The action was taken in coordination and support of the Canadian government. “We thank Canada for its contribution to tracking and analysis of the balloon through [North American Aerospace Defense Command] as it transited North America,” Austin said. “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 referring to the Peoples Republic of China.

US officials first detected the balloon and its payload on January 28 when it entered US airspace near the Aleutian Islands. The balloon traversed Alaska, Canada and re-entered US airspace over Idaho.

Long before the shoot down, US officials took steps to protect against the balloon’s collection of sensitive information, mitigating its intelligence value to the Chinese. The senior defense official said the recovery of the balloon will enable US analysts to examine sensitive Chinese equipment.

“I would also note that while we took all necessary steps to protect against the PRC surveillance balloon’s collection of sensitive information, the surveillance balloon’s overflight of US territory was of intelligence value to us,” the official said. “I can’t go into more detail, but we were able to study and scrutinize the balloon and its equipment, which has been valuable.”

The balloon did not pose a military or physical threat. Still its intrusion into American airspace over several days was an unacceptable violation of US sovereignty. The official said Chinese balloons briefly transited the continental United States at least three times during the prior administration.

While Chinese officials admitted that the balloon was theirs, they said it was a runaway weather balloon. “The PRC has claimed publicly that the high-altitude balloon operating above the United States is a weather balloon that was blown off course. This is false,” the official said. “This was a PRC surveillance balloon. This surveillance balloon purposely traversed the United States and Canada, and we are confident it was seeking to monitor sensitive military sites.”