US Shoots Down Suspected Chinese Spy Balloon Over Atlantic

The balloon drifted over the US for several days, with China maintaining that it was primarily for meteorological research and had flown off course.

Edward Moyer Senior Editor
Edward Moyer is a senior editor at CNET and a many-year veteran of the writing and editing world. He enjoys taking sentences apart and putting them back together. He also likes making them from scratch. ¶ For nearly a quarter of a century, he's edited and written stories about various aspects of the technology world, from the US National Security Agency's controversial spying techniques to historic NASA space missions to 3D-printed works of fine art. Before that, he wrote about movies, musicians, artists and subcultures.
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Edward Moyer
2 min read
A large balloon in US airspace.

The big balloon was recorded over Montana earlier this week.

Chase Doak; video screenshot by Eric Mack/CNET

The United States shot down on Saturday what it says was a Chinese spy balloon after the object drifted over the US for several days and then sailed out over the Atlantic Ocean.

"This afternoon, at the direction of President Biden, U.S. fighter aircraft assigned to U.S. 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 U.S. airspace," Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said in a statement.

The US military had been tracking the balloon all week, with the Pentagon saying that Biden was first briefed about it Tuesday. The object had been seen over Montana, where several nuclear missile silos are based. While the balloon was over land, the Pentagon had advised against shooting it down over concerns about the danger from falling debris.

"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," Austin said in his statement Saturday.

China said Friday that the balloon was primarily used for meteorological research and that its entry into US airspace wasn't intentional. But US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the same day that his department was "confident" the balloon was being used for surveillance. Blinken canceled his planned weekend trip to Beijing.

The balloon's destruction is the latest development in rising tensions between the US and China. In October, the Biden administration announced limits on exporting semiconductor technology to China, in a move geared toward slowing the progress of Chinese military programs. And some US lawmakers are pushing to ban popular social media app TikTok, whose parent company is based in China, saying a ban is needed to protect Americans from Chinese spying and propaganda.

An F-22 fighter, turned on its side, screams dramatically away from the camera into an overcast gray-blue sky, its jet engines lit by a fiery orange glow.

An F-22 Raptor during an air show in 2021.

US Department of Defense

A Department of Defense news item posted late Saturday said the balloon was taken down by a AIM-9X Sidewinder missile fired by an F-22 Raptor fighter. When hit, the balloon was at an altitude of between 60,000 and 65,000 feet, and it fell about six miles offshore into roughly 50 feet of water, the Defense Department said. No one was hurt. US Navy and Coast Guard vessels are searching for debris, with no estimate of how long recovery efforts will take.

In a tweet Saturday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer referenced efforts to retrieve the downed balloon and its payload. "Now we can collect the equipment and analyze the technology used by" China, the New York Democrat tweeted.

Various videos circulated on social media Saturday purporting to show the balloon being shot down: