The US Air Force (USAF) shot down what American defence officials believe to be a Chinese surveillance balloon off the Atlantic Ocean coast of South Carolina.

The 4 February downing was ordered by President Joe Biden, the Department of Defense (DoD) said later in the day. The balloon had drifted across Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and western Canada, before crossing into the continental USA in Montana on 2 February.

Senior American military officers had advised Biden against destroying the balloon over land, citing potential debris hazard to communities below. The DoD says Biden earlier in the week gave approval to destroy the balloon, which Beijing claims is an errant meteorological monitoring platform, once the risk of doing so had been sufficiently mitigated.

The US military did finally take action when the vessel drifted over the sea on 4 February, launching fighter aircraft to shoot it down approximately 5.9nm (11km) offshore.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the action was carried out by fighter aircraft assigned to US Northern Command.

“The balloon, which was being used by [China] in an attempt to surveil strategic sites in the continental United States, was brought down above US territorial waters,” Austin said on 4 February.

Austin further describes the balloon’s unauthorised transit of American airspace as a “violation of our sovereignty”.

The DoD says Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptors from the 1st Fighter Wing at Langley AFB in Virginia carried out the kill order with a single Raytheon AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missile. Eyewitness reports posted on social media claimed two F-22s were circling the balloon, before launching what appears to be a single air-to-air missile.

Video footage shows the balloon being penetrated by the missile and deflating after being torn apart. The DoD says Boeing F-15 Eagles from Barnes Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts supported the F-22s, “as did tankers from multiple states including Oregon, Montana, South Carolina and North Carolina”. 

According to a senior defence official who requested anonymity, the F-22 fired the Sidewinder at the balloon from an altitude of 58,000ft. The balloon was between 60,000ft and 65,000ft when impacted and landed in water with a depth of roughly 14m (47ft).

The official says that while the timeline for a recovery operation is currently unknown, the military had been planning on the balloon landing in “much deeper water”.

“The [depth] will make it fairly easy, actually,” the official says of the ongoing recovery effort.

Flight tracking services, including FlightRadar24 and ADS-B Exchange showed multiple military aircraft in the area before and after the shoot down, including a US Navy (USN) Boeing P-8 Poseidon, a USAF Boeing RC-135 surveillance jet and a US Coast Guard helicopter.

Marine traffic websites showed USN ships near where the balloon was destroyed and the USN confirms their presence in the area. The DoD says a recovery effort is underway, with naval and coast guard vessels establishing a security perimeter around the area where the balloon splashed down.

“They are searching for debris”, says a senior military official, who asked not to be named.

The official notes the DoD “took all necessary steps” to prevent the balloon from collecting sensitive information during its overflight of US territory. However, they did not elaborate on what measures were taken either to shield US assets from observation or to prevent the balloon from capturing and transmitting data.

“I can’t go into more detail, but we were able to study and scrutinise the balloon and its equipment, which has been valuable,” the official notes.

The official adds that the DoD does not believe the surveillance balloon provided “significant additive value” over other Chinese surveillance capabilities, such as satellites in low Earth orbit.

Much of the monitoring of the balloon had been conducted by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), a joint operation of the USA and Canada. Austin says the destruction of the balloon was taken in coordination with the Canadian government, whom he thanked for its contribution to the effort.

Canadian defence minister Anita Anand confirms her government’s involvement and declared Ottawa “unequivocally supports the actions taken”.

“The United States took definitive action to bring down China’s high-altitude surveillance balloon that has violated US and Canadian airspace and international law”, Anand said on 4 February.

“The cooperation between Canada and the United States through NORAD ensures the security and defence of North American air sovereignty,” she adds.

P8 surveillance

Source: Screenshot from ADS-B Exchange

Multiple military aircraft were logged in the area by flight tracking software, including a US Navy Boeing P-8 Poseidon, a US Air Force Boeing RC-135 surveillance jet and a US Coast Guard helicopter

The Federal Aviation Administration temporarily closed some airspace and ordered ground stops at three regional airports around the time of the shoot down on 4 February, including Wilmington International, Myrtle Beach International and Charleston International.

The agency lifted restrictions later in the day.

China continues to deny the balloon was a tool of espionage, with Beijing’s foreign minister Qin Gang describing it as an “airship used for meteorological purposes” that drifted off course.

Qin added that China “regrets the unintended entry” into American airspace.

Washington remains unconvinced. The USA’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, on 3 February cancelled a planned visit to China over the incident.

“We’re confident this is a Chinese surveillance balloon,” Blinken said.

The DoD adds the balloon’s route over “many potential sensitive sites” contradicts the Chinese government’s claims. 

“We are confident it was seeking to monitor sensitive military sites”, a senior defence official said on 4 February.

Notably, the Pentagon says this is not the first time a Chinese balloon has overflown the continental USA. A senior defence official says that four such transits occurred previously – three during the administration of former President Donald Trump and one earlier in the Biden Administration.

The Chinese government continues to deny any wrongdoing and condemned the downing of its airship.

“China strongly disapproves of and protests against the US attack on a civilian unmanned airship by force,” the Chinese foreign ministry said on 5 February. 

Beijing calls the USA’s military response a “clear overreaction and serious violation of international practise”, saying the balloon did not present a military threat or danger to civilians on the ground.

Story updated 5 February to include additional details from the Department of Defense and reaction from the Chinese government.