US military fighter jets shot down the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon over the Atlantic Ocean off the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin confirmed Saturday.
The operation ended a remarkable public drama that prompted a diplomatic fallout between Washington and Beijing, as the American public tracked the balloon from Montana all the way to the Carolinas.
President Joe Biden approved the downing of the balloon, Austin said in a statement, which a US official previously told CNN was a plan that was presented and supported by US military leaders.
Recovery efforts began shortly after the balloon was downed, the same official added.
Speaking to reporters in Hagerstown, Maryland, shortly after the balloon was shot down, Biden reiterated that he first approved the plan to do so earlier this week but waited to carry out the operation until the balloon was safely over water.
“On Wednesday, when I was briefed on the balloon, I ordered the Pentagon to shoot it down on Wednesday as soon as possible. They decided without doing damage to anyone on the ground,” the president said Saturday.
In his statement, Austin said American fighter aircraft “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.”
Austin said Biden gave his authorization “as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to American lives under the balloon’s path.”
The spy balloon was first spotted in the sky over Montana earlier this week and traveled across the middle of the country following weather patterns before it exited the continental United States on Saturday.
Prior to the balloon being shot down, the Federal Aviation Administration had issued a ground stop for airports in Wilmington, North Carolina, and Charleston and Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. The FAA also restricted airspace near Myrtle Beach “to support the Defense Department in a national security effort.”
The discovery of the balloon prompted US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone his highly anticipated diplomatic visit to China this week, saying the incident had “created the conditions that undermine the purpose of the trip.”
Top military officials had advised against shooting down the balloon while over the continental US because of the risk the debris could pose to civilians and property on the ground, but officials had maintained that all options remained on the table.
Earlier Saturday, Biden had told reporters in Syracuse, New York, that his administration was “gonna take care” of the suspected Chinese spy balloon when asked by CNN if the US would shoot it down. He had been discussing options with top military officials since first being briefed on the balloon on Tuesday.
On Friday, the Pentagon said the balloon did not pose a military or physical threat. A defense official told CNN that US Northern Command was coordinating with NASA to determine the debris field if the balloon was to be shot down.
China’s Foreign Ministry has said the balloon entered US airspace by accident. But the State Department has said the presence of the balloon in US airspace was “a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law, and it is unacceptable that this has occurred.”
This story and headline have been updated.