Everything we know about ‘Chinese spy balloon’ found hovering above northern US

The balloon was shot down on Saturday per President Joe Biden’s orders

Graeme Massie,Gustaf Kilander
Sunday 05 February 2023 12:21 GMT
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Watch: Moment Chinese ‘spy balloon’ is shot down over Carolina

The US military has shot down a Chinese high-altitude spy balloon in the Atlantic off the eastern coast United States.

The White House decided against shooting it out of the sky above land after being advised against it by defence officials, including Gen Mark Milley the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff.

Pentagon official said during a press briefing in Washington DC that the suspected balloon had been spotted over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday.

It had first flown over the Aleutian Islands, through Canada, and into Montana.

China confirmed ownership of the ballon, claiming it is a civilian airship used for research purposes that was blown off course unexpectedly by strong winds.

This is everything we know so far about the spy balloon.

What has the US said about the spy balloon?

In a statement on Saturday, Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin said that “this afternoon, at the direction of President Biden, US fighter aircraft assigned to US Northern Command successfully brought down the high altitude surveillance balloon launched by and belonging to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) over the water off the coast of South Carolina in US airspace”.

“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. On Wednesday, President Biden gave his authorization 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,” he added.

Joe Biden wanted Chinese balloon shot down ‘as soon as possible’

“After careful analysis, US military commanders had determined downing the balloon while over land posed an undue risk to people across a wide area due to the size and altitude of the balloon and its surveillance payload. In accordance with the President’s direction, the Department of Defense developed options to take down the balloon safely over our territorial waters, while closely monitoring its path and intelligence collection activities,” the secretary said.

“This action was taken in coordination, and with the full support, of the Canadian government. And we thank Canada for its contribution to tracking and analysis of the balloon through NORAD as it transited North America. 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 concluded.

Watch: Moment Chinese ‘spy balloon’ is shot down

President Joe Biden said on Saturday afternoon that he “ordered the Pentagon to shoot it down on Wednesday as soon as possible”.

He added that military leaders chose to wait until the balloon was above water as it was “the safest place to do it”.

“They successfully took it down and I want to complement our aviators who did it,” he said after getting off Air Force One on his way to Camp David, according to the Associated Press.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted after the shooting down of the balloon: “I strongly condemn President Xi’s brazen incursion into American airspace, and I commend President Biden’s leadership in taking down the Chinese balloon over water to ensure safety for all Americans. Now we can collect the equipment and analyze the technology used by the CCP.”

What has China said?

China initially reacted to reports of the balloon on Friday morning by saying it was looking into those reports and urging officials in Washington to remain calm as Beijing had “no intention of violating the territory and airspace of any sovereign country”.

“China is a responsible country and has always strictly abided by international laws, and China has no intention of violating the territory and airspace of any sovereign country,” foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said.

“Speculation and hype are not conducive until the facts are clear.”

Without denying the reports, the spokesperson added: “As for the balloon, as I’ve mentioned just now, we are looking into and verifying the situation and hope that both sides can handle this together calmly and carefully.”

The top official also said politicians and the public should withhold judgement “before we have a clear understanding of the facts” about the spy balloon sightings.

In a subsequent statement, the foreign ministry claimed the balloon is a “civilian airship” that had blown off course due to wind.

“The airship is from China. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes,” the statement read. “Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course.

“The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure. The Chinese side will continue communicating with the US side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure.”

Chinese military expert Chen Haoyang appeared on one of the largest TV channels in the country, Phoenix TV, to push back against the US reaction to the discovery of the Chinese spy balloon in US airspace.

“The US is hyping this as a national security threat posed by China to the U.S. This type of military threat, in actuality, we haven’t done this. And compared with the U.S. military threat normally aimed at us, can you say it’s just little? Their surveillance planes, their submarines, their naval ships are all coming near our borders,” the expert said, according to the Associated Press.

The top Chinese diplomat, Wang Yi, said on Saturday ahead of the balloon being shot out of the sky that China “has always strictly followed international law”.

He added that “we do not accept any groundless speculation and hype. Faced with unexpected situations, both parties need to keep calm, communicate in a timely manner, avoid misjudgments and manage differences”.

He said the balloon’s path was out of China’s control and he urged the US not to “smear” the country based on the recent events.

China has said that it “regretted” that the balloon unintentionally entered US airspace.

F-22s scrambled to intercept balloon

“You did see reports yesterday of a ground stop at Billings Airport and the mobilization of a number of assets, including F-22,” a senior defence official told reporters. “The context for that was that we put some things on station in the event that a decision was made to bring this down while it was over Montana. So we wanted to make sure we were coordinating with civil authorities to empty out the airspace around that potential area. But even with those protective measures taken, it was the judgment of our military commanders that we didn’t drive the risk down low enough. So we didn’t take the shot.”

It has been reported that the planes that took down the balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach in South Carolina were F-22 fighter jets flying from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.

Montana’s governor reacts

Governor Greg Gianforte said, before the balloon was shot out of the sky, he “received an informational briefing yesterday on the situation involving a suspected Chinese spy balloon flying over Montana.”

“From the spy balloon to the Chinese Communist Party spying on Americans through TikTok to CCP-linked companies buying American farmland, I’m deeply troubled by the constant stream of alarming developments for our national security,” he continued.

What Montana targets could China be interested in spying on?

Montana has long been the location for some of the US’s nuclear arsenal and is home to one of three known major nuclear missile silo fields. The other two are in Wyoming and North Dakota.

The Air Force at Malmstrom maintains 150 intercontinental ballistic missile silos across its 13,800-square-mile complex in central Montana, according to the Pentagon.

“Clearly the intent of this balloon is for surveillance,” the official, briefing reporters anonymously, said on Thursday.

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